Randy Carlyle has stated repeatedly how challenging it is to coach the Maple Leafs in Toronto.
Due to the pressure in the market, the coach has tried to keep from piling on any of the negativity surrounding his team. On Tuesday night he may have reached a breaking point.
"It's hard to be positive because there's a frustration level that goes with when you don't have success and when your team plays the way it played tonight," Carlyle said after a 3-1 loss to the Florida Panthers, the Leafs' 15th in 22 games. "The coaching staff is frustrated, the players are frustrated. I'm sure management is frustrated. I'm sure our fans are frustrated."
Fans don't need to watch HBO's "24/7" to know there've been more than a few "F" words being thrown around recently, given the Leafs' struggles. The clean one is getting used a lot, too.
"It's frustrating," forward Jay McClement said. "Everyone is trying to turn it around. It's just ... I wish I had an answer."
There have been far more defeats, questions and criticisms than answers. Injuries to centres Dave Bolland and Tyler Bozak and enforcer Colton Orr and recent ones to winger Joffrey Lupul and defenceman Cody Franson have made continuity a challenge but players have been quick to say they can't make excuses like that.
So, then, what is the excuse for such a lacklustre performance against Florida?
"That's a good question," winger Mason Raymond said. "I wish I had the answer for that so it would be an easier fix. At the end of that day, we're professional athletes. That has to come from within and within this dressing room."
It's not an easy fix, and that has led to plenty of shouldering of responsibility for turning things around.
"When you're in these situations, I look at ourselves as a coaching staff to provide leadership, to stand up and take the brunt of what goes directly towards (players)," Carlyle said. "But then, in their situation, I look at them to look themselves in the mirror and be accountable to one another."
Within the locker room, the accountability starts with defenceman Dion Phaneuf, who's not only the captain but leads the Leafs in ice time at over 24 minutes a game. Phaneuf has played three contests since returning from a two-game suspension for boarding Boston Bruins defenceman Kevan Miller.
Phaneuf isn't worried about where the leadership comes from if he's having an off-night or two.
"Leadership is more than just one guy. We've got a lot of leaders in our room here," he said. "Obviously, we've got to find a way to come together and come out of this."
When Toronto dug itself deeper into this hole by losing to the Panthers, Carlyle pointed to his team playing its fifth game in seven nights. He saw fatigue as a factor and gave his players the day off Wednesday before resuming with three games in five nights beginning Thursday against the Phoenix Coyotes.
Now 36 games into the season, Toronto is in playoff position with 37 points. Several teams are within striking distance of that second Eastern Conference wild-card spot and Phaneuf said he and his teammates need to be aware of the standings.
But given the way things have been going lately, they can't put undue pressure on themselves.
"There's pressure from game 1 to game 82," Raymond said. "At the end of the day, we're professionals, we need to find a way inside this room. It comes upon us players to put the product on the ice."
There's no one thing that must be improved to make that on-ice product better. At times the Leafs have been undisciplined and careless while on other occasions the offence simply hasn't been able to keep up with what the defence allows.
Inconsistency is the common theme.
"I don't know if there's one sole reason," goaltender James Reimer said. "Right now, we're not putting together 60 minutes. We either have guys, or half a team, or a full team that don't show up in parts.
"Then things go wrong, pucks go in your net and you feel bad about yourself. I don't know if there's one specific reason, except for the fact that we need to find a way to come bring it every night, for 60 minutes a night consecutively."
Franson wondered if the results might be different if the Leafs were mentally sharp for an entire game. That, in turn, breeds a lack of confidence when mistakes creep up.
"We're trying to figure things out," Franson said. "When you're going through times like this, you don't necessarily always play as confident as you could. Maybe that's some of what's going on. We don't want to make excuses. There's no reason for us not to have a little bit of swagger."
Even when the Leafs were winning early this season, they didn't have much swagger. Carlyle cautioned his team's play wasn't going to continue to lead to good things for long, and he was right.
Now the wins and losses are matching up with the Leafs' level of performance, and that's not a good thing.
"The bottom line is we've got to play better," Phaneuf said. "You can use whatever words you want to use. Under-perform. Just not playing well enough."
—Follow Stephen Whyno on Twitter at @SWhyno.
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