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Toronto Maple Leafs head coach Sheldon Keefe talks to his team during third period action against the Winnipeg Jets in Winnipeg, on Oct. 22.JOHN WOODS/The Canadian Press

As western road swings go, the Toronto Maple Leafs are having a normal one.

They showed collective vim against the Winnipeg Jets, lay down and died in Las Vegas against the Golden Knights and managed to look half-decent losing in overtime to the San Jose Sharks.

Two weeks into the season, Toronto sits at 4-3-1. Could be better (à la the Boston Bruins) and could be much worse (à la the Vancouver Canucks).

The good news – your record doesn’t really matter under this points regime. A third of NHL teams could forfeit a month of games and still make the playoffs. It’s why the regular season is such a drag.

So statistically speaking, the Leafs are doing fine.

But verbally speaking, the Leafs are blowing their tanks and heading to the surface. They are quickly running out of enough oxygen to explain the urgency of their situation.

Coach Sheldon Keefe set the tone when he delivered an early hairdryer treatment to his top players after a listless home loss to Arizona.

Losing to Arizona is a kind of physics experiment gone awry, because Arizona is trying to lose every night. Two equally opposed forces should cancel each other out. Any team that ends up out-losing Arizona should feel bad. Its coach should be frustrated. He should say something.

But on this Leafs team, a tossed-off comment after one bad game is never tossed off. It all means something.

So when Keefe said “our elite players didn’t play like elite players,” that sent everyone running to the players for their take.

“I talked to him today,” Mitch Marner said. “He explained what he meant to say, how it came out and everything like that. I will leave it at that.”

It’s hard to see how Keefe’s take requires explanation, but there you go.

Now, were I Keefe, knowing that the jig may soon be up in Toronto, and realizing that a lot of what I’m doing right now may turn out to be interviewing for my next job, I would want to look resolute.

Instead, Keefe apologized: “I used some of the wrong words to describe what I was trying to describe.”

Had he done this in 2018 or in March or in Columbus, no problem. But he did it in October of 2022 in Toronto, so … problem.

Now everything that is said for the next six months becomes metatext. Nothing is just a comment. Every aside will be interpreted as a comment on some previous comment. God help the Leaf who uses the word “elite” again. There will be no hiding from his sneaky meaning, whether he meant it sneakily or not.

This new tendency toward miserabilism has become contagious. After losing to Vegas, Marner called the effort “unacceptable.”

What does that mean, exactly? Who’s he talking about? And if it’s unacceptable, why is everyone accepting it?

After losing in San Jose on Thursday night, more of the same.

“I don’t know,” goalie Erik Kallgren said. “Not our best performance. Not my best performance. Yeah. Sucks.”

It wasn’t the words so much as the way Kallgren looked – total dejection. Maybe desolation isn’t the optimal headspace for a guy who’s getting his first real run as an NHL semi-regular?

Everyone else was a version of this aspect – mournful looks, bowed heads, hushed voices. If you turned the sound off, you’d think these guys just got whipped by a high-school team in the hockey Hunger Games.

Choosing. His. Words. Very. Carefully. Sheldon Keefe said: “I thought San Jose’s best players gave us a real hard time today …”

Phew. Almost said “elite.”

On any other team, maybe one guy might’ve cracked a joke or lightened things up just a little. But not Toronto. The Leafs have only two gears – Stanley Cup Bound and Burn It All Down. Right now, no one can figure out which one they should sound like they’re in.

The challenge of 2022-23 was never going to be the hockey. The Leafs are a good, if soft, team, purpose-designed to succeed in the regular season. As long as the goalie hasn’t had his knees fused, they will win enough to make the playoffs.

Given the fact that they’ve romped through five previous campaigns and then come apart like a cardboard suitcase in a California rainstorm, no one cares where they finish or who they end up playing. The hometown pressure going into April will be the same (i.e. suffocating) regardless of any and all external factors.

The challenge was finding a way to talk about this season without making it seem like the whole team is one bad shift away from a collective freakout.

It’s not like these guys had to spend the summer in cliché boot camp – “always room for improvement”; “the guys are starting to click”; “doing a little experimenting.” Anyone who’s read this far into a column about hockey could give you a hundred bland answers impervious to gotcha headlines.

This was one of the few things the Leafs were really good at. They haven’t said anything genuinely interesting since the John Brophy era. Just keep doing that.

But oh no. They couldn’t last two weeks.

Why? Because they knew this was the one thing they couldn’t do. So they did it.

Don’t think of a pink elephant. Did you just think of a pink elephant? I told you not to do that. Why are you still doing it? This is what pressure does to you.

To feel pressure is human. Not to have a plan to deal with that human tendency is careless. What was the script when things dipped a bit? Clearly, there wasn’t one. Who’s good cop and who’s bad cop? No one has any idea. The Leafs are always banging on about how much they love each other and how great their communication is. Instead, they come off like one of those perfect Instagram couples about three weeks before they announce they’re splitting up.

After San Jose, someone asked Marner about the mood in the room.

“Great,” Marner said. “We’re always great.”

If it’s so great, how come it never sounds that way?

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