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Siegel: Maple Leafs struggling to find an identity

Jonas Siegel
10/26/2013 12:37:22 AM
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COLUMBUS – The Maple Leafs continue to search for an identity.

On a chilly Friday evening in Columbus, that reality was hammered home once more. The Leafs fell for the third time in the past four games, outworked by the Blue Jackets in a 5-2 loss at Nationwide Arena.

A fast, physical, determined bunch in 2013 en route to the first playoff berth in nine years, the group this fall has bared only a passing resemblance to that identity so far.

“We know what it was – I think everybody knows what it was,” Jay McClement said of the team's identity in conversation with the Leaf Report following the latest loss. “We're struggling to live up to that every night I think right now.”

There were signs of that identity emerging in a hearty 4-2 win against Anaheim on Tuesday night. Though they started slowly with the Ducks in town – just two shots in the first frame – the Leafs got to playing a harder, more refined game as they took control of the final two periods en route to their seventh victory this season.

It appeared to be a potential starting point.

“For the most part, the last game we played was probably back to our identity and then we come out tonight and you don't really see any resemblance of it,” said McClement, second among Toronto forwards with upwards of 21 minutes against the Blue Jackets.

“It's just a consistency in getting that game back. It's all the things we talked about all year last year; just being a physical team, a forechecking team, and playing fast.”

Stumbling starts have become an increasingly concerning part of the equation. Friday was the fourth time in five games that the Leafs (sans Joffrey Lupul, who was nursing a bruised right foot) have managed five shots or fewer in the first frame, a mere five against Sergei Bobrosky within a sloppy, uninspired opening 20 minutes which saw Columbus draw 16 shots and a 1-0 lead.

“Just seems to be one of those things,” said James van Riemsdyk. “Every game we come out and get outshot 16-3 in the first period and then start to play a little bit better. Usually when you do that you don't leave yourself much breathing room to find ways to win games. We definitely didn't play anywhere close to our abilities tonight.”

“If I had the answer to that,” Randy Carlyle said with a sigh of his team's sluggish starts. “I wish I did have the answer to that.”

Concerned with his team's performance throughout an uneven and yet successful start, Carlyle called for an improved work ethic prior to the win over Anaheim. “Our work ethic has to be elevated to a point where we can create more of an identity for ourselves,” he said on Tuesday morning. “I don't know if we can say what type of hockey club we are yet.”

Recovering from their off-kilter start – Jonathan Bernier stopped 22 of the first 23 shots – the Leafs entered the third frame on Friday even at one. But after a quick goal from Marian Gaborik and a shorthanded back-breaker from Brandon Dubinsky, any hope of success was all but extinguished.

“We're 11 games in and we're nowhere near the peak of playing our best hockey,” said van Riemsdyk of his group, now 7-4-0 on the year. “Obviously we know we have a lot of work to do.”

The Leafs established a physical presence last year by being a quick and often relentless group on the forecheck, wearing opponents down by mucking it up in the corners. They would chip pucks, chase, and grind. And in conjunction with solid special teams, sturdy goaltending and a lot of offence – the Leafs were a poor defensive team at even-strength – they'd win a fair number of games.

“We think as a forechecking hockey club that you don't go in and swing by people, you go in and take the body,” said Carlyle before the Friday loss. “That's probably the mandate that we're going to try and play to. I would say that we haven't done a very good job of that … We're a team still trying to find its identity.”

The wins were there early this year – six in the first seven games – despite underlying concerns, but of late those results have turned; three losses now in the past four games with the daunting Penguins in town on Saturday.

The search continues for who and what the Leafs are.

“We've got to start with being prepared mentally to play that game,” McClement said. “I just think we can't rest on that identity, we have to earn that identity every night.

“You have to live up to it. That's how teams expect us to play. It's disappointing when we don't play like that because that's how we can win games.”

Five Points

1. Long-awaited debut

David Clarkson played just under 16 minutes in his Maple Leafs debut. The 29-year-old began the night alongside Dave Bolland and Jay McClement, eventually finishing the proceedings with Nazem Kadri and Mason Raymond.

Clarkson finished with four shots, whistled for hooking on his third shift of the game.

“I think he looked rusty,” said Carlyle of Clarkson, who hadn't played since Sept. 27 in the preseason. [But] the one thing you know [is] he's going to try.”

“No I didn't feel that,” said Clarkson of any rust in spite of a month-long layoff. “That's maybe what Randy feels. Getting used to playing with guys, minutes, I guess you'd have to ask him those questions.”

Clarkson did present some of the promised elements in his first action with the club. He was a force in some instances on the forecheck and proved an irritant at times.

2. Alarming starts

“The first period wasn't us at all,” McClement said of the team's start against the Blue Jackets.

Sluggish first periods have become all too familiar for the Leafs in the past 10 days or so. A mere three shots were on the clock in the opening frame against the Wild, three shots during a clash with the Blackhawks, two shots against the Ducks and five shots against Columbus most recently.

Overall this season the Leafs have been outshot 125-92 in first periods, outscored 10-7.

3. Clarkson's evolution

Though he remains a pesky presence, Clarkson has evolved from the player who first entered the league with New Jersey in 2007. “I fought my way into the league,” he said before his debut with the Leafs on Friday. “That's still part of my game, but I think the more I got used to the level and everything I think the game started coming together for me.”

A look at Clarkson's fighting history reveals such a shift. “Definitely when I was younger there was more fighting or agitating, but I still don't shy away from that now,” he said.

Year Fighting Majors*
2007-08 21
2008-09 20
2009-10 9
2011-12 7
2013 6

*HockeyFights.com

4. Subtle adjustments with a new team

Just weeks into his Leafs career, Bernier continues to adjust to the style of his new team and more specifically, the defence core.

As the backup to Jonathan Quick for years in Los Angeles, Bernier “had to step in on what [Jonathan] Quick liked” as far as working with the team's defenders. “Obviously when you're a backup it's different,” he told the Leaf Report earlier this week. “When the guy plays a lot you have to read what he's doing so when you step in it's going to be the same thing.”

Now in Toronto and a competitor for the No. 1 job, Bernier is trying to assert his own preferences. Because he intends to square up every shooter, the 25-year-old wants to ensure that back-door assignments are handled by his defenders. Adjustments typically come through game experience. “It has to happen on the play,” he said of hashing out any changes. “Let's say I get beat in the game and I'll be like ‘Look I think that's going to work for us if we do this'. It takes time to adjust.”

“I don't know about the other D, but I'm talking to Bernier every day about positioning when there's a point shot, when he's out playing the puck, all that,” Carl Gunnarsson told the Leaf Report. “If we let the back-door pass through it's going to be a tough one for him right … Weak-side, we've got to make sure we've got the guy, at least tie up his stick and try to box out so he sees it.

“Just trying to figure out what he wants because in the end he's the guy who's doing all the work back there.”

5. Rielly

Morgan Rielly played his ninth game with the Leafs on Friday. When he suits up against the Penguins on Saturday night he will have exercised the first year of his entry-level contract. The 19-year-old will have additionally secured one year towards eventual arbitration rights (four are required).

The next big hurdle for Rielly is the 40-game plateau. After 40 games on the active roster (even those he doesn't play), Rielly will have garnered one “accrued” season in the NHL, thus initiating the clock on his path toward unrestricted free agency. With seven accrued seasons in the league (or the age of 27), players qualify for UFA status.

Stat-Pack

23:05 – Ice-time for Cody Franson versus Columbus, leading the team.

12-41 – Combined mark on the draw for Tyler Bozak and Dave Bolland against the Blue Jackets. Bozak finished 9-26, continuing his year-long struggles, Bolland far off the mark with a 3-15 showing.

43.7 per cent – Leafs overall mark on faceoffs this season, second-worst in the NHL.

15:41 – Ice-time for David Clarkson in his Leafs debut.

36 – Shots for Columbus.

10 – Number of games the Leafs have yielded 30-plus shots this season.

21:33 – Minutes for Jay McClement against Columbus, a season-high.

31 – Saves for Jonathan Bernier.

Special Teams Capsule

PP: 0-3

PK: 5-6

Quote of the Night

“You have to live up to it. That's how teams expect us to play. It's disappointing when we don't play like that because that's how we can win games.”

-Jay McClement on the Leafs identity.

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