Toronto Maple Leafs coach Ron Wilson sent a message on Wednesday, and it was directed mainly at two of his top players.
Phil Kessel and Joffrey Lupul, one of the highest-scoring duos in the league, were split up for the first time this season, and their coach made it clear it was due to their line’s recent struggles in their own end.
The Leafs two top scorers both declined to speak to the media following Wednesday’s practice, perhaps miffed over the switcheroo given they’re on track for career years while playing together.
“We’re looking for overall balance,” Wilson said. “Balance between offence and defence. We’ve got to keep more pucks out of our net – not make silly mistakes that result in a goal against.”
Those sorts of mistakes were on full display in the Leafs’ 3-2 loss to the Ottawa Senators on Tuesday.
The line of Kessel, Lupul and centre Tyler Bozak was at least partly to blame for the Sens’ first two goals, which nullified the pretty 2-on-1 goal they created to give Toronto a 2-0 lead early on.
Similar defensive lapses have been more frequent from the top line over the past few weeks, with Kessel and Lupul both posting a minus-5 rating in three consecutive Toronto losses.
That drops Kessel to minus-9 since he started the season’s first 15 games as an impressive plus-10.
“Some lines have been getting scored on way too much in the last 10 or 15 games,” Wilson said, without directly naming names. “At least for a period, we’ll see if something like [shuffling the lineup]helps us.”
Breaking the duo up has been a last resort for the Leafs. The two have played nearly 90 per cent of their even-strength ice time together, and Lupul has been on the ice for all but four of Kessel’s 49 points – a total tied for sixth in the NHL – on the year.
Wilson, however, has attempted to shelter the pair in some ways, putting them out for a higher percentage of offensive zone faceoffs than any other forwards.
Despite that advantage, Bozak, Lupul and Kessel have been on the ice for more shots against per minute than any other line, one sign of how much time they’re spending in their own zone.
They have also begun to receive special attention from the opposition, with teams like the New York Rangers recently employing checking lines specifically aimed at limiting their time with the puck.
To counteract some of that, Wilson is expected to start Thursday’s game against the Minnesota Wild with Matt Lombardi on a top line with Bozak and Kessel. Lupul will be bumped down to a second unit with Tim Connolly and Nazem Kadri.
The thinking is Kessel and Lupul will be harder to target – and have more defensive support – if the two offence-first forwards are on different lines.
“Hopefully this evens us out defensively a little bit,” Bozak said. “Balance it a bit more… We’ve been getting scored on a lot before so he wanted to change that up.”
“We have to work harder to get pucks in our zone,” Wilson added. “Come back harder to help the defence. It’s [supposed to be]six guys on the ice trying to keep the puck out of the net. It’s not one guy and maybe throw in two defencemen.
“We need all of our forwards… We need more commitment from everybody defending.”
The Leafs have muddled along with an 8-10-3 record going back to consecutive losses against the Boston Bruins roughly six weeks ago, falling from third in the NHL to 19th and out of a playoff position in that span.
They’re currently on a three-game losing skid and on pace for only 89 points, which isn’t likely to be enough to make the postseason for the first time since 2004.
The good news for Toronto, however, is they’ll face a team Thursday that’s on an even worse slide. Minnesota has only two wins in their last 16 games and sits two points ahead of the Leafs.