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Mirtle: Listless Leafs appear to be adrift already

Here come the Buffalo Sabres.

Those are not five words that strike fear into anyone around the NHL these days, and certainly not anyone who has watched them play since the start of last season.

These Sabres aren't merely bad; they're historically bad, scoring only 1.1 goals per game, being outshot by 13.6 a night and on pace for a season that's somehow worse than a year ago, when they finished last in the league by 14 points.

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But you can't say they don't have a plan.

The plan, essentially, is Connor McDavid. To assemble some young talent, lose before they win, and grow out of the hole in the ground that's going to be left after a few horrible seasons.

At the moment, their plan looks better than what the Toronto Maple Leafs have going.

Aside from the ugly losses, of which there have been three so far for Toronto, the biggest problem for the Leafs going into Tuesday's meeting with the Sabres is they appear to be rather plan-less, on the ice and off.

Now, there aren't only two routes to success in the NHL – one that involves bottoming out and one that focuses on trying to win the Stanley Cup in the near term – but that's not a bad dichotomy to start with.

The Leafs don't fit into either box. And they are also sending mixed messages galore over what exactly they're trying to accomplish this season.

In preseason, the talk from management – from new president Brendan Shanahan on down – was that they wanted to a) be a four-line team, b) focus on development and c) continue to grow talent from within.

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Eight games in, the fourth line has played less than seven minutes a game. Those on it have all been young players, who presumably need developing.

Those watching from the press box – including 23-year-old Carter Ashton, who has been sitting for most of preseason and all of the regular season to date – do, too.

If that reads like a continuation of a year ago, that's because it is. And it's far from the only thing that remains unchanged.

There has been a lot of attention paid to what has come out of Leafs players' mouths in the days since their 4-1 loss to the Boston Bruins, as if they have the answer to what ails them. The players keep saying they need to work harder or care more or whatever other similar nonsense, in part because they aren't really allowed to point a finger anywhere else.

What's actually missing? Two key things.

One is talent, which should almost go without saying at this point and which wasn't rectified in any significant way in the off-season (with all apologies to Leo Komarov and his solid play).

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And two is structure to their game, the kind of structure that allowed the Bruins to look like world-beaters on Saturday even while missing their captain, Zdeno Chara, and even with a rookie named Seth Griffith on the first line and a rookie named Zach Trotman paired with Matt Bartkowski on defence.

It wasn't just talent that won the day on Saturday.

It was something the Leafs seem to lack too often.

"It looks like we didn't have a game plan in place when you've got people going all over the place," coach Randy Carlyle said.

Yes, it does. And the logical explanation for that is it's on brain-dead players or brain-dead coaches or some combination of the two – not a failure to work hard, which has been the convenient non-explanation explanation for so long for this team.

Monday's practice seemed to acknowledge that. Assistant coach Peter Horachek was at the white board talking strategy for the breakout and generating a cycle in the offensive zone. Carlyle, meanwhile, put his lines in the blender and went with Phil Kessel alongside Nazem Kadri and Joffrey Lupul and a defined checking unit (Komarov, Mike Santorelli and Dan Winnik) as his third trio.

That may work against Buffalo. And the structure part should, in theory, be fixable.

But there's been an underlying unease to the Leafs season so far, and it's hard to blame the fan base for how quiet the Air Canada Centre has been.

The home team hasn't looked very good. The kids either aren't playing well (Jake Gardiner et al) or aren't playing at all. And the game plan, for Carlyle and Shanahan, isn't entirely clear.

It's almost as if everyone's waiting – waiting and hoping.

Although, unlike in Buffalo, no one's quite sure for what.

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