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Mirtle: The Maple Leafs need finesse over brawn

In this file photo, Toronto Maple Leafs' John-Michael Liles, right, battles for the puck with Ottawa Senators' Zack Smith during third period NHL hockey action in Toronto on Saturday October 8, 2011. The Leafs recalled Liles from the Toronto Marlies on Friday and he is expected to suit up for Saturday's clash in Ottawa against the Senators.


Thursday's call-up was a speedy, 5-foot-11 forward.

Friday's was a 5-foot-10 puck-moving defenceman.

The Toronto Maple Leafs are slowly, grudgingly getting a little smaller but also more skilled, trading underperforming big bodies like Colton Orr, Jerred Smithson, Mark Fraser and Paul Ranger for the likes of Jerry D'Amigo and John-Michael Liles.

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Now it falls to their head coach to deploy his newfound finesse and coax more out of an NHL team that's won only five of its last 15 games, in large part because of its personnel.

"He has the ability to move the puck, and we've had our fair share of concerns in doing that," Carlyle said of Liles joining the team, presumably to take the spot of either Fraser or Ranger in back-to-back games against Ottawa and Boston this weekend. "So he's a guy that fits the mould."

What Liles has never fit is Carlyle's preferred notion of a big, physical blueliner.

But with the defence struggling mightily to move the puck and spotting the opposition 50 shots in an ugly 3-2 overtime win over Dallas last Thursday, it's become imperative the Leafs (15-11-3) simply find players who can play well rather than those that fit a particular style of play.

By all accounts, Liles was dominant during his time in the AHL. He had 13 points in 16 games and was playing big minutes in all situations, killing penalties and playing a leadership role while refusing to sulk over the fact, at 33, he was getting his first prolonged taste of the minors.

That attitude finally paid off when the Toronto Marlies bus pulled in from Cleveland at 3:30 a.m. local time Friday, as there was a message waiting for Liles telling him to be at the Leafs practice facility in six hours.

He arrived sleep deprived but ready to try and regain his spot in the NHL.

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"It's a challenge sometimes," Liles said of being in the AHL. "It's definitely a grind. Sometimes, there's an opportunity to dwell on it and maybe kind of give a 'woe is me,' but that's not really who I am. That's something I tried to not let myself get caught up in."

Liles played 32 games under Carlyle last season, but was never a favourite son. He struggled to produce offence and had his minutes wither from nearly 20 a game early in the year to those of a sixth defenceman by the playoffs.

Come the 2013-14 training camp, he wasn't really even given a legitimate chance to even make the team, as he suited up for just two of eight exhibition games despite his $3.875-million (U.S.) salary for three more years.

"They didn't really say much, and they don't have to," Liles said. "That's the nature of the business we're in. They just said, 'We've got to send you to the Marlies,' and [you] don't argue. [You] go to the Marlies."

How Liles can help is pretty obvious. He makes a good first pass out of the zone, can skate his way out of trouble and actually draws more penalties than he takes (unlike Ranger and Fraser).

He won't be able to correct all of Toronto's defensive issues – no one player could at this point – but he can play better than some of its current options, and he'll certainly have more confidence after being part of a winning Marlies team.

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The only question is if Carlyle can trust him the way he has his bigger, slower blueliners – something that has been an issue at times elsewhere on the roster. Other skilled players such as Nazem Kadri, Jake Gardiner, Morgan Rielly and Peter Holland have had to fight for their minutes and spots in the lineup, even as injuries have thinned the roster.

Overall, the Leafs are still not exactly a Carlyle-built team – 95 games after he was hired – but trying to win with brawn over skill when he doesn't have the horses to do so has been backfiring all season.

Unable to score and struggling to defend, they need a rethink before this current tailspin grows. And working in more talented options is one place to start.

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About the Author
Hockey Reporter

James joined The Globe as an editor and reporter in the sports department in 2005 and now covers the NHL and the Toronto Maple Leafs. More


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