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Siegel: Leafs out of answers after another blowout loss

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Jonas Siegel
1/10/2014 12:44:17 AM
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RALEIGH, N.C. – You could hear a pin drop in the visitors' dressing room at PNC Arena after yet another blowout defeat.

"I think the talking has to stop," said Jay McClement with evident frustration. "We've talked all year all about all these things and we're just not getting the job done. Nothing seems to be changing. We're just still very inconsistent with our efforts. Something's got to change. I think we've done so much talking, we just need a little more action."

The Maple Leafs lost their third straight and 20th in the past 31 games on Thursday night, blown out 6-1 by the surging Hurricanes. Months of brewing trouble saw the club finally knocked out of a playoff position for the first time all season, now 10th in the Eastern Conference.

"I think we're searching for answers and that's the hard part," Mason Raymond said. "It's a cliché, but we're the only ones that are going to get ourselves out of this mess."

It was more of the same from a wildly inconsistent, unpredictable group that has just five wins in regulation since the start of November and not one during that span on the road.

The Leafs have been outscored 18-5 during this most recent three-game slide, an "exclamation point" in the words of Randy Carlyle, for the ills of a troubled hockey club. Just when it appears, however, that a low point has been reached does another disastrous performance occur, this one to a Carolina squad that has now won five straight.

"We stood around for most of the hockey game tonight," said a noticeably deflated and dejected Carlyle afterward. "For whatever reason that nobody seems to have an answer to right now is we're doing things standing still. We're watching teams skate and we're not engaged in the hockey game to a level that is required to give yourself a chance for success."

Carlyle urged his group to play with more tenacity and bite in recent days, something more in wake of a season veering dangerously off course. But aside from a late and rather meaningless push, he didn't get it. The urgency and intensity remained mysteriously absent as domino after domino toppled over on the ice in Raleigh.

"There's no excuse why we don't compete every night," said McClement. "That's something that has to be there every night. You're not going to win every night, but the effort and the compete has to be there every night. There's no excuse for that."

It was yet another mess in a season that's had too many to count already.

An identity-less team to this point, the Leafs are searching for answers on how to right the wrongs of a season that's teetering closer and closer to the edge of something perilous. The problem is, these troubles have been brewing for the better part of the season with little to no change in performance.

These are tough times in Toronto with no readily apparent end in sight.

"It doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure out that things aren't going anywhere near what our expectations are, that's for sure," said Carlyle.

Five Points

1. Pushing the Message

Preaching for improvement all year, but especially in recent days, Carlyle wouldn't cast the full weight of what's taken place onto the shoulders of his players alone, but what has to be distressing for the head coach and his staff is how few results the message has yielded.

Nothing, it seems, has been able to lift the Leafs from a year-long funk.

"They're not an island out there," he said before Thursday's game. "We don't put our players on an island. We think it's very improper to put our players in a situation to say that we don't support them. We support our players to the utmost. And we look back to the players because they're the ones that are out there doing it. They're the ones that are out there sacrificing. They're the ones that are out there putting on the performance."

Carlyle said that his staff's role is one of guidance.

"We're just in a position to try and guide them as a coaching staff. There's different ways to guide. We've tried numerous ways to stimulate our group to play a much more competitive brand of hockey. We'll continually push for more of that."

2. Reimer's First Start in 19 Days

Questioned before the game on how he managed to stay sharp with a long layoff – 19 days – between starts, James Reimer, as is the norm, found the bright side.

"It's just good preparation for the Olympic break, I guess," he said with a grin.

Reimer had no chance yet again in his first start since Dec. 21, on the hook for all six goals in the 6-1 defeat.

"Our goaltenders are strung out and left hanging high and dry if you look where the quality of the scoring chances are coming from, they're coming from that critical area," said Carlyle. "You can't continually give those chances up."

Leaf goaltenders were frequently heroic in the opening half of the season, despite inflated shot totals, but have understandably buckled under helpless conditions recently. Reimer and Jonathan Bernier own a .846 save percentage during this most recent three-game slide.

"You just want to hang in there and keep it as close as you can so that you can give the boys a chance," said Reimer, who dropped to 4-2-1 lifetime against Carolina.

3. Gardiner Scratched

For the second time this season, Jake Gardiner landed as a healthy scratch. Carl Gunnarsson returned from an elbow injury, while Mark Fraser was inserted into the lineup for just the second time in 12 games as Carlyle shook up the defence.

"We felt that Jake has struggled in the last couple games," said Carlyle, "his puck movement and decisions with the puck and we felt had a better option in the other two guys at this point with the way our mix was put together."

4. Phaneuf's Production

Recently signed to a seven-year extension, Dion Phaneuf's offensive production has dipped this season, his fifth with the Leafs. Phaneuf totaled a hearty nine goals and 28 points in 48 games in 2013 – a pro-rated 15 goals and 47 points – adding 12 goals and 44 points in 2011-12.

But just beyond the midway point this year and the 28-year-old has just four goals and 17 points, an eight-goal and 33-point pace.

"I feel good about my game and the way that I've played," he told the Leaf Report generally on Thursday morning, "But the bottom line is individual seasons don't matter. It matters about team success and we've got to be better as a team and we know that."

One area of admitted focus and needed improvement for Phaneuf is the number of pucks directed to the net. He leads the team with 75 shots, but is on pace for a career-low in shots per game, way down from the numbers he accumulated previously.

Season

Shots Per Game

13-14

1.76

13

1.83

11-12

2.46

10-11

2.88

09-10

2.78

08-09

3.46

07-08

3.21

06-07

2.91

05-06

2.95

5. Ashton, Holland Trade Places

The Leafs deemed Wednesday that Peter Holland's progression wasn't being served by remaining on the fourth line, where he's been slotted since the return of Tyler Bozak. They opted to send the 22-year-old to the Marlies, recalling Carter Ashton, who has strung together 15 points in 14 AHL games this season.

"He wasn't going to play on the top two lines," Carlyle said of Holland, who had eight points during a 10-game stretch with Bozak out. "We felt it was probably hurting his development curve to leave him as a fourth-line centre."

The challenge for the 22-year-old Ashton meanwhile is translating the success he's attained in the minors into something substantial in the NHL. Ashton has just one assist in 33 games with the Leafs, offering only fleeting glimpses of readiness in a bottom-six role.

"A young player that has got size and skill and the ability to skate and protect the puck at the American League level doesn't always translate to that in the NHL," said Carlyle. "It's much more difficult, obviously. You've got a lot less time and space and [you're] playing against bigger and stronger men. We think that he's continually showed some progress."

A natural winger, Ashton slotted into the fourth line centre spot against the Hurricanes and barely played, totaling just under four minutes.

Stats-Pack

0 – Regulation road victories since Oct. 30.

19 – Days between starts for James Reimer.

3 – Consecutive games with a goal for Joffrey Lupul, who scored his 14th this season in defeat.

18 – Goals allowed by the Leafs in the past three games.

Special Teams Capsule

PP: 0-2
Season: 21.4% (5th)

PK: 3-5
Season: 76.9% (27th)

Quote of the Night

Up Next

The Leafs visit the Capitals in Washington D.C. Friday for the second end of a back-to-back set.

Manny Malholtra and Carl Gunnarsson (Photo: Canadian Press)

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(Photo: Canadian Press)
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