The Maple Leafs practised longer and harder than usual on Tuesday. Their exercises attracted a larger assembly of journalists than usual – and they usually attract a lot.
This is what happens in Toronto when the city’s beloved hockey team has gone stone-cold. That it has happened after only 10 games, however, has emergency sirens wailing.
A lot of ice time was spent on rudimentary fundamental drills that one might see in minor hockey. That is how badly things went on a road trip that ended on Sunday night with a fourth straight defeat.
It would be fair to say that some Maple Leafs are more tense than others. As reporters made their way to the back of the dressing room at the Ford Performance Centre where scrums are held, one player said, perhaps a little more loudly than intentioned, “The piranhas are here.”
It is fair to point out that it is way too early in the calendar for a team to go into a death spiral. Toronto is 4-4-2 as it heads into a tussle with the Philadelphia Flyers at Scotiabank Arena on Wednesday. The club was 5-4-1 last year as it headed into Game 11 of 82 – in what turned out to be the best regular season in franchise history.
For some reason, though, this feels different.
It feels like something more than a temporary funk. There has been a lot misfiring and ragged play in a lot of different areas for the flagship of a $2-billion sports and entertainment organization.
There has been bad luck with injuries, too, but that is no excuse.
Matt Murray, who is recovering from an adductor strain, skated for the first time on Tuesday. That is possibly a sign that he is ahead of schedule on his expected return in mid-November.
But goaltending, at least when it comes to starter Ilya Samsonov, is one of the few areas in which the team has looked good.
One of the most powerful teams in the NHL has been anemic on offence. Its defence has not been very good. You need more than the five fingers on one hand to point out all the culprits.
“The road trip was not fun,” Rasmus Sandin, a defenceman, said after practice. “We haven’t clicked as we should. It is early but you can’t just blame what has happened on that.”
Players look forward to an early road trip every season to bond with their teammates and help build camaraderie. Other than a nice win in Winnipeg, this past one went sideways. They are happy to be back home again, even though they were booed off the ice in their next-to-last game in Toronto during an ugly loss to the Coyotes.
“I think there is another level for myself and everybody in this dressing room,” Auston Matthews said. “You always hope for a good start but that’s not always how it works out. You have to go through that adversity and figure it out and pick each other up.
“We expect better from each other.”
It is easy to jump from there to the failures in postseason for the past six years. Each summer, a lot of the same words are said.
Do the Maple Leafs have the talent necessary to win? Of course they do. Will they? That’s a whole other thing.
“You have to look at yourself in the mirror first, come to work every day, be a good teammate, leader and perform,” Morgan Rielly, an alternate captain, said. “We are out there trying to win games. That is all we are thinking about.”
Yes, there is tons of pressure, but we have not seen much joy or excitement from this group thus far. One would have expected at least one blowout victory against a few very soft opponents.
Sheldon Keefe, the head coach, has done everything but choose his lines with a lottery-ball machine so far without a lot of success. He is on the hot seat – and said Tuesday that he feels fortunate that the club has come away with 10 of a possible 20 points.
“It is surprising,” Keefe said. “The expectations I have for this team is higher than we have performed like to date. It is 10 games. We have a lot of hockey left.”
Asked bluntly if he feared he would get fired, Keefe said he has a job to do, and it is to prepare the team for its game with the Flyers.
There is not much more he could have said.
“We haven’t been able to play up to our standards,” Mitch Marner, the winger and Matthews’s wing man, said. “We have to make sure we turn that around [Wednesday].”