TORONTO – They will often sit at the back of the bus or assemble on the ice after practice, the defined leadership core of the Maple Leafs trying to figure out where exactly the season has gone wrong and how to reverse course before it's too late.
“It's happened more and more lately because we're obviously at a bit of a turning point right now,” Jay McClement told the Leaf Report, one-third of an assigned leadership group in Toronto that includes Dion Phaneuf and Joffrey Lupul. “It's frustrating – it's hard to put a finger on obviously.”
Now beyond the midway point of the season, the Leafs remain a club that is still searching for an identity, still trying to rediscover the feisty magic that infused the group en route to a long-starved playoff appearance last May.
Though they did some good in a tilt with the Islanders on Tuesday night, victory was ultimately denied. In fact, they have just five wins in regulation since the start of November – a string of 30 games – crammed amongst a slog of teams vying for the final playoff seeds in the East.
To this point, the only identity that's stuck with the team in Toronto is that of an unpredictable, inconsistent sort.
One good night has rarely morphed into two.
“All year, we've been very inconsistent with it,” McClement said of the desired identity, which hinges on aggression and a physicality that's been lacking. “I don't even think it's game to game, it's period to period or shift to shift even. A lot of times it's period to period. We have a good period and then we can't follow it up.
“We've obviously talked it to death trying to figure it out and if we had an answer then it wouldn't happen … It's been frustrating for sure for all of us.”
Randy Carlyle has seen starts and stops with his hockey club, signs here and there – a dominant win against Chicago, a hearty defeat against Los Angeles – but nothing consistently with the schedule now rolling feverously into the Olympics.
Over the weekend he was alarmed by the insufficient compete of his team in an embarrassing 7-1 loss to the Rangers. And though the urgency improved three nights later against another New York opponent, enough went wrong for yet another defeat, including a rare off-night in goal and on special teams.
It was the 19th loss during the aforementioned 30-game stretch.
“I just think we've got to get a lot more aggressive,” said Carlyle following Tuesday's 5-3 defeat. “We're not skating and being the tenacious Toronto Maple Leafs that I expect or everybody expects, from the coaching staff, management. We don't seem to have enough tenacity in our game right now.”
No team in the league allows more shots against than the Leafs – they held the Islanders to just 25 – but because of terrific goaltending, a strong power-play, and some shootout success, the club has managed to pick up points and hang in the playoff race.
Those at the front of the ship know, however, that's it not been near good enough and can't continue if further success is to be attained this season.
“We look at the body of work and I think that we have another level we can play to,” Carlyle said. “It's very frustrating right now because we're not getting it. We're pushing, pushing, pushing and just trying to find an answer to why we have that sort of malaise about us at times.”
1. Bernier's Night
Rather than turn to James Reimer for the first time since Dec. 21, Carlyle opted to revert back to Jonathan Bernier for the sixth consecutive game after the 25-year-old allowed five goals on 32 shots against the Rangers.
“This was not an easy decision,” said Carlyle afterward, “and obviously it wasn't one that worked out in our favour.”
Bernier allowed four goals on 24 shots in one of his worst showings of the season.
“You could say that it wasn't one of his better nights – that's for sure,” said Carlyle, unwilling to point the finger entirely in his goaltender's direction.
Of the four goals, three stood as questionable; the first from Kyle Okposo was one that snuck under his right arm; the second from Michael Grabner was misplayed behind the goal, and ended in a wrap-around for the Islanders forward; the fourth and ultimately decisive goal was a weak attempt by Calvin de Haan from outside the blue-line that crept off the stick of Phaneuf and through a surprised Bernier.
“Those are three goals that I'm sure Bernie would like to have back,” Carlyle said.
“Personally I thought I did some good things,” Bernier added, “[but] it was one of those games that they got those bounces and they won the game.”
2. End of a Slump?
Nazem Kadri had his first multi-point night in more than a month, totaling two assists against the Islanders. Speaking prior to the game, the 23-year-old stressed that his recent slump was just another hurdle to overcome.
“Realistically, this has happened to me since the first year I came into this organization so it's been the same story over and over again,” said Kadri, who sits fourth in team scoring with 25 points. “It's getting easier to deal with.”
Quiet since an explosive opening month – 13 points in 14 games – Kadri had just one point in nine games before Tuesday's mild breakout. He had just two assists total in the previous 19 games.
“Nazzie's full of confidence and that's a great thing,” said Carlyle on Monday afternoon. “[But] when your confidence leaves you, you have to find a way with our help to re-energize and that's what we're trying to do with Nazzie.
“My message to him was find a way to do something a little different. Go out there, look at it a little differently. Be a little bit stronger on the defensive side; focus on the defensive side because if you play good defence usually there's going to be offence that you're to be provided with. Do a little extra in the weight room. Do a little bit extra on the bike. Push yourself through the lull that's happening and sharpen yourself up.”
Kadri also won 11 of 14 draws in 18-plus minutes on Tuesday.
“I thought Nazzie was a lot more noticeable around the puck,” said Carlyle after the game.
3. Underlying Issues
Shootout victories have often masked the deeper inconsistencies that remain with the Leafs – even to those in the room. A recent stretch saw the club pick up points in six consecutive games (4-1-2) – five of those outings concluding in the shootout – while not performing exceedingly well in consistent doses.
“Everyone says we're doing terrible,” said Tyler Bozak, who extended an eight-game point streak, “but our last seven games we were 4-1-2 before tonight. If we did that all year I think we'd have a pretty good record. We've just got to stay as confident as we can and build off the wins we do get.”
4. Olympic Downside
The Maple Leafs will have three representatives at the upcoming Olympics in Sochi – Phil Kessel and James van Riemsdyk with the Americans and Nik Kulemin with the home-side Russians. And while there is an obvious degree of pride for the organization there is an admitted challenge and potential downside for head coach Randy Carlyle.
“We think it's a positive obviously,” said Carlyle late last week. “But on the other hand if we wanted to be selfish about the Toronto Maple Leafs, sometimes those things don't work out the way you'd like them to work out … There's going to be three weeks or the better part of two weeks anyways for them to commit to that team and then coming back to here after sometimes the emotions are flat. Some people don't have anything left.”
Carlyle observed such a thing with Anaheim following the 2010 Olympics. The Ducks had seven Olympians in Vancouver, including three from the gold-medal winning Canadian squad.
“They didn't have any emotion left when they got back,” he said of a group which included Scott Niedermayer, Corey Perry and Ryan Getzlaf. “It's two or three weeks of high emotion and the last thing on their mind is where they came from. They're playing for their country and you can understand that.”
5. Gleason's Debut/Gunnarsson's Injury
Playing nearly 16 minutes on the top pair with Phaneuf, Tim Gleason made his Leaf debut against the Islanders. “I thought he played the way we expected him to play,” Carlyle said, noting the adjustment for Gleason to playing top minutes once more after seeing his role dwindle in Carolina.
Gleason stepped into the lineup for Carl Gunnarsson, who missed his first game of the season with a hyper-extended left elbow. Gunnarsson had his arm bend awkwardly from a hit by the Rangers Carl Hagelin on Saturday.
“I can tolerate the pain,” said the 27-year-old before the game, “but sometimes you've just got to try to be a little bit smart here. You can only do so much and tape it up so much and sometimes it's not enough.”
Gunnarsson actually suffered the same injury in 2010, but with increased severity – he missed 22 games.
8 – Consecutive games with a point for Tyler Bozak, who has three goals and eight assists in that span.
6 – Consecutive starts for Jonathan Bernier.
5 – Regulation victories for the Leafs since the start of November.
15:55 – Ice-time for Tim Gleason in his Toronto debut.
6 – Points in the last 15 games for Nazem Kadri.
2 – Goals in the past 16 games for Mason Raymond, who scored his 12th of the year against the Islanders.
13 – Goals this season for Joffrey Lupul, who scored for the second straight game on Tuesday.
2 – Penalties drawn by Jerry D'Amigo against the Islanders.
Special Teams Capsule
Season: 21.7% (5th)
Season: 77.3% (27th)
Quote of the Night
“We've obviously talked it to death trying to figure it out and if we had an answer then it wouldn't happen.”
-Jay McClement, on the Leafs ongoing struggles.
The Leafs head to Raleigh for a Thursday date with the Hurricanes.