Phil Kessel . (Rick Madonik/Toronto Star via Getty Images)
With two goals in their past five games, the Toronto Maple Leafs insist they're playing the game the right way and they're improving. That might have been the case, as expected, for the first couple of games under a new coach, but even that faint hope has evaporated.
So let’s take inventory from the Toronto Maple Leafs 4-1 loss to the Carolina Hurricanes Monday night. Four – four! – Leaf sweaters tossed to the ice, plus a waffle. Two fights, one win for each team. And, we’re told by Leafs coach Peter Horachek, that the Leafs outchanced the Hurricanes 29-19. One goal, for only the second time in five games and a fifth straight loss.
When asked about seeing sweaters tossed to the ice, Phil Kessel was as eloquent as he’s been since he joined the Maple Leafs. By Kessel’s standards, it was right there with Phil Esposito admonishing the fans of Canada during the 1972 Summit Series.
“You’re disrespecting the Leafs and the people who played before us,” Kessel said. “I mean, they had some great teams here. You know, we’re trying. I mean, we’re trying. I don’t know if people can see that, but we’re trying. We just can’t find it right now.”
Leafs captain Dion Phaneuf was just as emphatic as his teammate. “We want to win hockey games for our fans,” Phaneuf said. “We don’t come here to not play the way we’re capable of and we don’t come here to lose hockey games.”
So let’s take Kessel and Phaneuf, the two leaders on the team, at their word on this one. Let’s assume the Leafs are playing with pride, that they’re leaving no stone unturned in their quest to be the best players and the best team they can be and that their effort level is right there with the top teams in the NHL.
OK, then, they’re just not good enough. If this is the result of the Leafs trying, then one thing is crystal clear. And that is that Randy Carlyle was a convenient scapegoat for this organization and, in retrospect, did a pretty good job with the personnel he was given. If this is the Leafs when they’re trying, that’s all the evidence management should need that nothing short of a complete teardown is in order here.
Ever since the Maple Leafs soul-crushing loss to the Boston Bruins in Game 7 of the first round of the playoffs in 2013, they have displayed a complete inability to handle any kind of adversity. When this group of players – 10 of whom were in the lineup that fateful night in Boston – experiences things going sideways, there doesn’t seem to be a single player in the lineup who can lead by example, rally his teammates and inspire them to be better. The shoulders slump in this group as fast as any team in the league.
We’re supposed to believe that the Leafs are playing the game the right way these days under Horachek. But even that’s becoming a mirage. Horachek saw an improvement in the Leafs play on the defensive side of the puck for exactly four games. In his first four games, the Leafs limited their opponents to an average of 22.8 shots per game. In the three games since, the Leafs have gone back to their old ways, giving up an average of 35.7 shots per game, which is even worse than they were during the Carlyle tenure.
Apparently, this is a group that can only play one side of the puck. Ask them to concentrate on defense and they seem utterly unable to do much creative with the puck. Give them offensive freedom and their disregard for playing responsibly is the first casualty. As Horachek mentioned, it needn’t be that way. And it isn’t with a lot of players on a lot of teams in this league. But not with this group. Any team that allows Eric and Jordan Staal to control the offensive zone the way they did at times is doing anything but playing the game the right way.
Meanwhile, the eighth-place Boston Bruins are on pace to earn 96 points this season. That means the Leafs will likely need 50 points in their final 35 games to have a chance to make the playoffs. But the Hurricanes, who are in third-last place, are on pace for 66 points, meaning the Leafs need 19 or fewer points in their final 35 games to have a chance at the third seed in the draft lottery. Neither is likely to happen, meaning the Leafs will once again be trapped in the netherworld of mediocrity.
Horachek is intent on not allowing his team to wallow in its own morass, saying he’ll make the players stand up and be accountable. There is no easy way out of this streak.
“Nobody’s heads are going to be down and nobody’s lips are going to be dragging on the ground,” Horachek said. “There’s no way that’s going to happen. That’s no way to move forward.”