Mike Babcock is so concerned about his team's play of late that he changed the slogan on the wall of the dressing room.
The old one at the MasterCard Centre for Hockey Excellence, the Toronto Maple Leafs' official practice facility, read, "Heart and drive live here." Nice enough, but the head coach obviously doesn't think the drive part was happening fast enough – not with two wins in the Leafs' past eight games.
So for Monday's practice to get ready for Tuesday's game against the New York Islanders, the old slogan was painted over in favour of "Play fast. Play right."
Well, Babcock could have waxed a little more lyrical and delivered the same message by borrowing from the late, great Nat King Cole: Straighten up and fly right. Then again, given the average age of Babcock's youthful charges, it would be a miracle if any of them have even heard of Cole, let alone have him on a playlist.
"I'm always waiting each year for us to come up with a way of playing you can hang your hat on," Babcock said of his inspiration for the new slogan. "I think when we play right, we can play real fast. When we don't play right, we look like snails out there."
The coach emphasized his new message in Monday's practice with a lot of drills that involved getting the puck out of the Leafs' end and moving through the neutral zone at top speed.
Babcock's other concern is the number of slow starts the Leafs have made recently. In two of their past three games – a win over the Dallas Stars and Saturday's awful 3-1 loss to the Buffalo Sabres – the Leafs dawdled out of the gate.
Babcock delivered his message forcefully enough that the players were all singing from the same hymn book, even if it wasn't Cole's.
"We know we have to play quick to get out of our zone. That way we start faster and get to their zone. Better to get up ahead and put the pressure on them first," goaltender Frederik Andersen said.
"We have to focus on our starts, make sure we're giving ourselves a chance," defenceman Morgan Rielly said. "You kind of pick a few topics you have to work on and we work on them, whether that's breakouts, five-on-five neutral zone [play] or defensive play. You want to keep the legs moving, keep the brain turned on and work on what's needed."
Funny thing, though. It's the same message another Leafs head coach used to deliver all the time. Back in hockey's Paleozoic era of the late 1990s and early 2000s, when Pat Quinn was a lonely holdout against the rule of the neutral-zone trap, he used to say it wasn't sheer foot speed that made teams fast, it was puck movement: Move the puck efficiently and quickly and you become a fast team.
That movement starts with the defencemen in their own end. The problem for Babcock and the Leafs right now is that two of his three best defencemen at getting the puck moving are having problems.
Rielly is trying to play through a high ankle sprain – a lingering injury that turns high-fliers into plough horses. And Jake Gardiner is playing his worst hockey of the season. The trouble with Gardiner is that when he is bad, he can be spectacularly bad, as in what-was-he-thinking bad, when it comes to gifts for opposing forwards.
Fixing Rielly is mostly a matter of time. The Gardiner fix is trickier because his mistakes are mostly mental ones. But this is the same coaching staff that stopped Gardiner's slide from prospect to suspect, so there is hope there as well.
But the fixes have to come quick. The Leafs wrap up a four-game homestand Tuesday against the Islanders, and that game is the start of a string of six games in eight nights that includes two sets of back-to-back, home-and-away games.
So far in February, with a 2-2-2 record, the Leafs only took six of a possible 12 points. That saw them slide from third place in the Atlantic Division to the second and last wild-card spot in the Eastern Conference, with a long list of teams within striking distance. The games in hand that the Leafs enjoyed on a few others in the playoff race have dwindled to four on the Boston Bruins, who hold third place in the Atlantic.
"We're not hitting the panic button by any means," Rielly said.
But Leafs historians can trace that favourite quote back from Rielly through Dion Phaneuf to Mats Sundin and beyond with varying degrees of success.
So we'll see.