One of the reasons the Toronto Maple Leafs cleaned house among their assistant coaches this summer was special teams.
As the regular season approaches, though, there is no sign at least one of those problems is any closer to a solution. The Leafs closed out the pre-season schedule Saturday night against a rather weak Detroit Red Wings lineup by coughing up three power-play goals in a 4-2 loss at the Air Canada Centre.
The fact the Leafs sent out what will be their lineup on opening night Thursday, with only a few exceptions, against a unit made up mostly of the Red Wings’ farmhands, does not offer encouragement they will improve on last season’s success rate of 77.3 per cent in killing penalties. That ranked 28th among the NHL’s 30 teams.
In their defence, the Leafs could say many of their players were in the lineup Friday night in Detroit when they beat a Red Wings lineup that more closely resembled their regular-season team on defenceman Mike Komisarek’s overtime goal.
Head coach Ron Wilson thought that was the case, especially after centre Mikhail Grabovski was lost for the night when he took a shot off his foot. Wilson said Grabovski will be ready for the season opener along with centres Tyler Bozak and Tim Connolly, who are nursing various bumps and bruises.
“We just didn’t seem to have any legs, especially after [Grabovski]went down,” Wilson said. “The plan was to keep some lines together but we didn’t because of some little injuries. We’ll work on that in practice this week.”
The Leafs were never a threat in the finale of the home-and-home series, although they kept the score close. Justin Abdelkader opened the scoring for the Wings at 12:29 of the first period and Darren Helm scored the first of their power-play goals five minutes later. John-Michael Liles quickly responded with a power-play goal for the Leafs but their penalty killers let them down in the second period.
Patrick Eaves and Tomas Tatar scored on the power play for Detroit to sandwich a goal by Leaf forward Joey Crabb and give the Wings a 4-2 lead heading into the third period.
The Leafs now have four days off until their season-opener on Thursday night at the Air Canada Centre against the Montreal Canadiens. Wilson has to reduce his roster from 29 to 23 by the day of the game and said no cuts will be made until Monday.
The hardest decision will be with the defence. Rookie Jake Gardiner made a strong case to stick and at least nine defencemen have had their moments in training camp. “We have to give hard thought to what our defence will be,” Wilson said.
The coaches will get extra time to make a final decision on the forwards, since winger Clarke MacArthur was suspended after Friday’s game for the first two regular-season games for a hit to Abdelkader’s head. And there is a chance Connolly may not be ready by Thursday.
“Connolly is still day-to-day,” Wilson said. “He hasn’t improved as much as we hoped but we still have four days to get ready.”