TORONTO – It was nearing the end of a Monday practice and Randy Carlyle was flashing a menacing grin. All those under the age of 24, he said, were due an extra round of skating from sideboard to sideboard.
Amid the Leafs longest losing streak of the season and a dismal November, which included two regulation wins in 13 games (4-6-3,) Carlyle is doing his best to remain calm.
"Stress varies in coaching," said Carlyle, ahead of a Tuesday tilt with the scorching San Jose Sharks, who have won eight of their past 10 games. "I'd say it's always high, but [not getting] to the boiling point, it's real difficult at times."
"Our job is to be the calming influence," he continued, "and our job is to show leadership. Leaders, you can't be going off on your players on a continual basis because they become numb. I think that the screaming and hollering, we've done enough of that at times. Now is the time to accentuate the positives that they bring, correct and instruct and coach the negatives out of our group."
Not much went right for his team in the second month of the season, one that ended with four straight losses, nine defeats in 13 games and a seven-game road losing skid.
Their defensive troubles remained constant, their offence struggled to produce at even-strength, and one-half of their previously dominant special teams took a hit, their penalty kill dipping to 24th overall. Even the goaltending, superb under considerable strain for the opening six weeks, finally buckled somewhat under a heavy load in recent days.
Though their record said otherwise (10-4-0,) October offered many of the same concerning traits to Carlyle and his coaching staff (save for goaltending and special teams.) But, because the wins kept coming, urgency amongst his players remained relatively low.
"When you're winning you're winning," said Phil Kessel, who cooled in November with just six points in 14 games. "It's a result-based business. You want to win, so you're always positive when you're winning games. Obviously [the] last month has been a little tougher. We didn't win as many games as we'd like and we didn't play as well as we'd like. But it's a long season. There's ups and downs. We'll get out of that and stay positive."
With much of their October luck disappearing in recent weeks – their save percentage and shooting percentage both trending downward – Carlyle's message, which urged the need for improvement throughout, is now carrying more weight with it.
His early concerns have finally bubbled into real trouble, the Leafs now fifth in the Atlantic Division.
"The one thing about what happens is when you continue to have success and you're doing it that way it's not as drastic," said Carlyle. "But we've been hit right with a hammer right now so we know where we're at and we know what we need to do to correct ourselves. All we've asked of our players is we want 10 per cent more from every individual in there and, in some cases, I believe there's 20 per cent more for people to give."
"When a coach tells you that, obviously, you look yourself in the mirror, you think over your practice habits, your game habits, your routine and you just make sure that there's nothing slipping in that you need to change," said James Reimer, who has allowed nine goals in his past two starts. "Once you realize that, you put your nose to the grindstone and work your butt off."
The Leafs have yet to consistently brand themselves in the fashion that Carlyle would like, that of an aggressive blue-collar hockey club.
Of late, he's been troubled by the quality of opportunities for the opposition in the "critical areas" of the ice, the increasing amount of odd-man rushes against and ongoing problems with discipline, the Leafs guilty of the third-most minor penalties this season.
"Thus our penalty killing has been taxed," said Carlyle.
That penalty kill, ranked second overall last season, allowed 15 goals in November and was successful to the tune of just 70 per cent. Troubles in that regard only accentuated the hefty strain on the two goaltenders, Reimer and Jonathan Bernier victim to the most shots against nightly this season (36 per game.)
Improbably saving the day early and often, the tandem has predictably cooled in recent weeks. Reimer and Bernier have combined for an .894 save percentage in the past six games.
"We're giving up a lot of chances," said Kessel. “"You can't give as many chances as we've been giving up."
While their power-play has remained effective, still ranked as the 5th best this season, the Leafs productivity at even-strength has fallen on hard times. They scored just 18 such goals in 13 November games, managing two goals (overall) or fewer in nine of 13 games.
Hoping to spark some change in that respect, Carlyle decided he'd enough, for the moment, with the combination of Nazem Kadri and David Clarkson. Clarkson was replaced by Nik Kulemin on a line that also features Mason Raymond.
"We're not creating enough," said Carlyle. "We're not creating enough chances and we're not creating enough from an offensive standpoint. For me and for us we waited to do an analysis over the three games and we just felt there wasn't enough there."
Depth offensively continues to be an issue. Of the 72 goals the Leafs have scored this season, 59 or 82 per cent have come for a group of just seven players, one of them being the injured Dave Bolland.
Led by Dion Phaneuf, the defence has just three goals all season.
"We're always looking and reviewing the things that you do wrong and there are some things that need addressing – we're not going to hide from the fact of that – but we believe that the corrections are very easily adaptable," Carlyle said after a practice which included work on defensive zone coverage, breakouts, and special teams.
"Now, does it happen overnight?" he finished with a laugh. "I hope so."