The Maple Leafs did not practise on Thursday. Instead, a team meeting was held to assess where they stand after 20 games. It is considered the first measuring stick of the season for NHL teams.
Until then, it is too early to panic for anyone that is struggling. After 20 games, however, trends begin to become more apparent.
The loss on Wednesday in Long Island was the third in a row for Toronto (9-7-4). The Maple Leafs will need a victory over the Bruins at Scotiabank Arena on Friday, no easy task, to prevent a further slide.
It’s not what the Leafs – or anybody else for that matter – expected. Last year, they never lost more than three in a row. From early on, this was being proclaimed as their year.
If the playoffs had started on Thursday, they would have held down the final wildcard in the Eastern Conference. But that doesn’t quite paint an accurate picture. A handful of teams that have played fewer games were breathing down their neck. Those in arrears are well positioned to gain ground in the standings if Toronto continues to sputter.
At this point, players seem a little bewildered and confused. They have spoken ad nauseam about paying better attention to details, starting better, improving the power play and penalty kill, and it is yet to happen.
Mike Babcock addressed them in the dressing room at their practice facility.
To perhaps give the message a little more significance, Kyle Dubas, the general manager, was also in the building. For certain, it was not an impassioned plea as much as it was a reminder of what needs to occur to turn things around. Again.
“We had to spend time on our first 20 games and what we liked and what we didn’t like and identify areas to improve and how to improve them,” said Babcock, the head coach. “There are a lot of areas where we need to take a step.”
The night before, after the loss to the Islanders, he acknowledged being unhappy with the results through 20 games.
“When you evaluate what we’ve done, we don’t like it as a group,“ Babcock said. “We got ourselves in the spot we’re in, we’ve got to grind our way out of it.”
It is never so easy.
Toronto fell behind 2-0 on Wednesday. It is the 15th time it has given up the first goal. It failed to score – actually, even get a shot off – on two power plays. It allowed two goals while trying to kill off penalties. None of this is new.
“We seem to clean up one thing, and then we kind of lack in another department,” Auston Matthews said. “We are going through adversity. We just have to lean on each other."
There was talk among the players about regaining their swagger.
“There is still time [for that],” Morgan Rielly said. “It is still early.”
So far, other than on a few scattered moments, there hasn’t been reason for them to preen like a bunch of peacocks. They have played well only in fits and starts. If they lose to the Bruins, who are experiencing a little turbulence of their own, it will be a low point in a season in which a lot of high points were anticipated.
Like every other team that is underachieving, the Maple Leafs are using St. Louis as a reason for optimism. The Blues won the Stanley Cup last spring despite having the worst record in the NHL on Jan. 3. When they did it, they were the first team to go from worst to first at such a late date.
Toronto is not the worst by far, but certainly not the best. Its schedule has not been easy, but 12 of the first 20 games were at home. A six-game trip commences on Saturday, with the first stop in Pittsburgh. Injuries are no excuse – Mitch Marner is out for a long stretch for the Maple Leafs, but so is Sidney Crosby for the Penguins.
The Maple Leafs still have not won behind a backup goalie. Michael Hutchison was waived this week and has been replaced by a rookie. Kasimir Kaskisuo is expected to make his first NHL start in place of Frederik Andersen on Saturday.
There have been a few pleasant surprises – such as the Russian rookie, Ilya Mikheyev, and Alexander Kerfoot. Tyson Barrie, the player Toronto acquired from Colorado along with Kerfoot, has been a disappointment. An offensive defenceman, Barrie has yet to score a goal.
“We have learned that we are still learning,” Barrie said Thursday. "We had a lot of expectations and I don’t think anybody would have been surprised if we got out on an unbelievable start. But that hasn’t been the case. We are trying to find our way a little bit.
“We have all the talent in the world here. We just have to use it.”
The next milestone for NHL teams is U.S. Thanksgiving (Nov. 28 this year). Standard thinking is that teams in a playoff position at that juncture will usually make it. For those that aren’t, it is more likely a frustrating four months.