The party line from the Toronto Maple Leafs, at least so far, is that there's no cause for alarm.
No matter that first-line centre Tyler Bozak was parked on the bench for most of the third period of an ugly 2-1 loss to the New York Rangers on Thursday night.
No matter that linemate Phil Kessel had a similar experience a week earlier in Pittsburgh, a game the Leafs won despite putting a puny 14 shots on goal.
What is a problem, according to coach Ron Wilson, is his top line's lack of willingness to score via a "dirtier route."
"We need that line to compete a little bit harder on nights when it's going to be difficult," Wilson said. "Because they are going to be closely monitored by the other team.
"Get to the front of the net, get your nose dirty, score an ugly goal. We have to figure out how to do that."
If that sounds like a familiar refrain from Wilson, that's because it is. Last November, with his team struggling mightily to score and coming off one of many ugly losses, he offered these words about his team's reluctance to fight for the puck.
"We just have to compete harder," he said. "Be willing to go into dangerous areas and battle when we're there."
The Leafs lineup has been dramatically retooled since that point, with only four forwards - Kessel, Mikhail Grabovski, Nikolai Kulemin and Colton Orr - from that time still on the roster. The newcomers among Toronto's top six forwards are closer to Lady Byng candidates than hardnosed, front-of-the-net types, however, just one sign that personnel may be part of the problem when it comes to winning ugly when necessary.
The fact that Wilson has been using defenceman Dion Phaneuf in front of the net on the power play is another indication the Leafs don't quite have the type of bodies their coach is looking for.
"Me personally I've been trying to go [to the front of the net]on the power play," Bozak said. "But it's never been something I would do. I've always been a half-wall guy or something like that so it's been a little adjusting."
Barring an addition via trade, Wilson is making do with what he has, and for now, that means keeping his top line of Bozak, Kessel and Kris Versteeg intact.
With little in the way of offence among Toronto's bottom six forwards, the competition for scoring line roles isn't exactly fierce - an issue that threatens to be the most pressing one if the top line can't find ways to score.
Toronto's smallest forward at a generously listed 5 feet 10 inches and 182 pounds, Versteeg said he agreed he and his linemates have to spend more time in the corners and in front of the net - even when matched against big, physical teams like the Philadelphia Flyers, who they'll face Saturday night.
"I can get to the net," Versteeg said. "I think I've been going there quite a bit but also can go quite a bit more.
"Maybe on line rushes, we'll just stop and stand and stay there and really bang a couple garbage ones in instead of trying to get those 2-on-1 goals and breakaway goals. Do it that way. I know as a team we can do it."
With the Leafs 4-1-1 and still among the top teams in the Eastern Conference, Bozak added it's far too early to panic and write off the line.
"We're only six games into the season," he said. "It's not like everything's coming to an end here. We've got lots of hockey left - 70-some games - and our team's lost one game in regulation so I don't think we're too worried. We're a confident group in here."Report Typo/Error