The Toronto Maple Leafs are far from the first NHL team to go winless in the early going of a season and history suggests there is likely to be more ugliness ahead.
The Leafs, 0-6-1, are the 29th team since the Original Six era ended to start a season without a win after seven games. Of the 28 who went before, 11 teams fired their head coaches before the season was up and 20 went on to miss the playoffs.
Getting the first win of the year proved a longer battle for the majority of this group, too, as 18 teams lost their eighth game of the season, 14 failed to win by their ninth and five teams went 10 games or more without a victory.
The worst start to an NHL season was a 15-game winless skid posted by the 1943-44 New York Rangers, but no other team has had a season-opening doughnut longer than 11 games. With a gruelling trip of five games in eight nights looming, the Leafs need at least one win in Vancouver, Anaheim, Dallas, Buffalo or Montreal to avoid setting a modern futility record.
Toronto forward Jamal Mayers, at 34 the second-oldest member of the team, said that he couldn't recall playing through a skid like this in his 12-year NHL career.
"To start like this is beyond frustrating," Mayers said after practice yesterday. "It gets guys questioning their confidence. But it's a test for our mental strength to come together as a team. I guess the positive is that we do have about 75 games remaining, so there's time."
That there is, but there's also the matter of just how difficult holes - even seven-game ones - are to climb out of in the NHL. The eighth and final playoff team in the Eastern Conference since the lockout has averaged between 92 and 94 points, and with the Leafs already seven or so points off the pace, they will need roughly 92 points in those 75 games.
Mediocrity won't be nearly good enough. If Toronto goes .500 the rest of the way by posting 75 points in the final 75 games, the Leafs will almost certainly finish among the NHL's lottery teams and with their lowest point total in 12 years.
Leafs defenceman Garnet Exelby sounded more realistic than many of his teammates yesterday when talking about his team's slide, perhaps because, as one of the first draft picks of the Atlanta Thrashers franchise's history, he has seen his fair share of slow starts - including a 0-6 opening in 2007-08. "It's not going to be a 7-0 win that's going to get us out of this," Exelby said. "It may even be a game we don't deserve to win. We need to just kind of keep pushing along and get a lucky one here, maybe we take it in overtime. It's going to take stuff like that to push through this cold streak."
If there's reason for optimism on this trip, it's that netminder Jonas Gustavsson was warming up in full equipment before practice yesterday for the first time since injuring his groin. The Swedish rookie has played all of 97 minutes in his NHL career, but has been the Leafs' top goaltender this season and could wrest away the starting role with even capable performances upon his return.
"Of course you don't want to miss two weeks, you want to be out there," said Gustavsson, who is doubtful for Saturday's game against the Canucks but could play next Monday against the Anaheim Ducks. "But you have to see it as a long season and you don't want to take any chances now. I have to wait until I'm 100 per cent."
With six days between gamesRon Wilson and his staff will have time to tinker.
Mayers, however, wasn't specific when asked just how his coaches are attempting to pull this team out of its last-place funk.
"I'm sure they're trying everything," he said.
ROLLING A SEVEN THE HARD WAY
Including this year's Maple Leafs, 29 teams in the NHL's modern era have started a season without a win in their first seven games. Here's a look at the two teams that turned out the worst and the best and also a look at the only other Toronto team to have gone down this road before:
1975-76 Washington Capitals Finished the season: 11-59-10, last overall A coach killer: With a brutal 3-28-5 record after 36 games, Hall of Famer Milt Schmidt was fired in favour of Tom McVie.
Ugly detail: The team's leading scorer, Nelson Pyatt, had only 49 points and was a minus-56.
1983-84 Washington Capitals Finished the season: 48-27-5, fifth overall A coach killer: Far from it. Third-year bench boss Bryan Murray, now the Ottawa Senators GM, won the Jack Adams Award as coach of the year despite the fact his team went 0-7 to open the year.
Ugly detail: A veteran New York Islanders team easily dumped the Caps in five games in the second round of the playoffs.
1990-91 Toronto Maple Leafs
Finished the season: 23-46-11, second last A coach killer: You bet. Doug Carpenter got the heave-ho after only 11 games in favour of Tom Watt.
Ugly detail: Toronto had traded away its first-round pick that season, too, and with it the New Jersey Devils selected Scott Niedermayer third overall.
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