TORONTO - At the tail end of Monday's Leaf practice, all seven defencemen, both goaltenders and the entire coaching staff gathered for an extensive conversation lasting at least 20 minutes on end.
The disintegrating penalty kill - 64 per cent in December and worst in the NHL this season - was a focal point of discussion.
"Right now we've been through a stretch of games where we've not been playing very well on the PK and there comes a time where you've really got to talk about it," defenceman Carl Gunnarsson told the Leaf Report. "Coaches [watched] those videos and see there's some confusion; guys don't know what they're doing in certain situations…you've got to talk about it and make it clear for the guys so that everyone knows what they're doing out there."
"Sometimes I think we spend too much time talking about it," head coach Ron Wilson said following the lengthy workout at Mastercard Centre, "but today was good in talking with our D along with our goalies after practice about what the goalies want to see, about what we want to see from the goalies and have a sure game-plan for our D and eliminate any confusion they may have in certain situations."
Proper shot-blocking technique was a particular point of emphasis.
On Saturday at the MTS Centre in Winnipeg, defencemen screened goalie James Reimer on both Jets powerplay goals, one of the many repeated mistakes the team is desperately seeking to eliminate.
"That's what we talked about too," Gunnarsson said. "What we do in different situations; if we box out the opponents and let the goalie see the shot or if we're going to get out there and block it – that just depends on the situation – but we've got to get better at it."
The Leafs allowed 19 power play goals in December, the main culprit (inconsistent goaltending was another) of a grueling month which saw them win just four times in 13 games (4-6-3), dropping out of the playoff picture for the first time this season. "The most important thing right now is to try and find a way to be confident and not go out there with a sense of dread," Wilson said, "because when you go out there with that sense of dread you're not as aggressive as you should be, you're hesitating in key situations…and that's where we're failing. We were good in November because we had some continuity there - we were very aggressive. In December, it's kind of slid back because we had a bad game and 'here we go again' [mentality] starts."
Steady at 82 per cent in November, the Leafs thrived on an aggressive and cohesive penalty kill, but with some early struggles in December that sense of ferocity and unity evaporated to the empty point it's at presently. Suddenly those on the ailing unit find themselves thinking - where to be, what to do - rather than simply letting hockey instincts take over.
"That's exactly when we're at our best," Gunnarsson agreed. "Not thinking too much, just reacting and doing it quick and being aggressive down there, just play with your instincts.
"We had some good moments in Carolina (three for three in regulation) where we were more aggressive on their breakout and that worked out really good. If we can do that I think our PK will get lots better and we'll create some chances too – we'll get some shorthanded goals. Start from there I think it's going to be way better and we'll get that confidence back."
October - 72 per cent
November - 82 per cent
December - 64 per cent
The Leafs also need a more consistent presence between the pipes.
Reimer holds a save percentage of just .768 per cent (22 goals on 73 shots) with his club killing penalties, second worst in the NHL (ahead of only Rick DiPietro) and notably behind that of Jonas Gustavsson at .828 per cent (15 goals, 72 shots).
1. A look at the numbers of the Leaf penalty-killers and their effectiveness thus far:
Player - PPGA - Time on ice Shorthanded:
Gunnarsson - 18 - 121:17
Schenn - 18 - 73:46
Phaneuf - 17 - 118:33
Steckel - 17 - 103:10
Connolly - 12 - 58:34
Gardiner - 9 - 66:31
Dupuis - 9 - 73:24
Liles - 8 - 31:36
Komisarek - 8 - 39:31
Kulemin - 7 - 50:44
Crabb - 6 - 45:48
Lombardi - 6 - 33:22
Brown - 6 - 25:35
Grabovski - 3 - 17:46
Bozak - 3 - 27:43
Aulie - 1 - 14:36
2. While they sit 20th overall (entering Monday's action) in the amount of times shorthanded this season (148), the Leafs have been hurt by taking far too many penalties all at once. Saturday marked the 15th time in 38 games (40 per cent) that they've been shorthanded at least five times, a quiet factor that's added strain to a beleaguered group. "We had a rule where I've played on previous teams where you don't take more than three or four penalties and I don't know how many we had tonight," Steckel said, following the loss to Winnipeg.
3. Expect the Leafs' crease to open up in the immediate future with Gustavsson likely to see a few more opportunities. "We'll be spreading out the goaltending here in the next little while," Wilson said. Reimer has been given considerable opportunity to rediscover his game after a six-week absence, but has been inconsistent, yielding three or more goals in eight of his 11 starts. Gustavsson meanwhile, had a strong November (5-2-0, .907 save percentage), but played only sparingly in December upon Reimer's return (1-2-0, 895 save percentage).
4. The Leafs play nine of their next 12 games at the Air Canada Centre - 10 against conference opponents- looking to make full use of home-ice advantage (8-5-4). "Look at how Winnipeg's clawed their way back in this," Wilson said. "They had 13 of 15 at home and they went 9-3-1 so we've got to have the same approach. We should be happy to be home. Taking care of business at home is going to be huge for us."
5. One player looking to change the tide at home is Mikhail Grabovski. Grabovski has 13 points in 16 games (plus-8) on the road this season, but just six points (minus-8) in 16 at home. Phil Kessel leads the team with 14 goals and 24 points at the ACC. Reimer meanwhile, remains unbeaten in regulation on home-ice; 6-0-3 with a 2.27 goals against average and .924 save percentage.
Mike Komisarek and Mike Brown returned to full practice on Monday and could be in line for a return this weekend. Both players have been out since November 17, Komisarek with a broken right arm and Brown with a back injury.