TORONTO – The Maple Leafs have fallen short of their own expectations far too often already this season, and Auston Matthews believes honest communication will be key to getting the team on track.
“You don’t want to lose; I hate losing,” said Matthews after the Leafs’ practice on Thursday. “So you’re frustrated, but it's still early. We’ve still got new guys and we're still trying to mesh as a team and come together. But when we look around at the guys that we have, I think we expect more out of each other. So that’s just holding one another accountable, putting the past in the past, and putting our best foot forward.”
The Leafs are 5-4-2 through 11 games this season, perched at third place in the Atlantic Division, but tension has been building this week as Toronto came off another set of back-to-back games with only one of a possible four points. The team is now tied for the most goals against in the NHL (38) and has taken the fifth-most penalties (41).
In their last two games alone, the Leafs were called for 10 penalties – including eight stick infractions. A season ago, Toronto was the least penalized team in the NHL.
That all paints a disappointing picture for these Leafs out of the gate, something Matthews believes can be helped by honest conversations about what needs to improve.
“We’re a family here, but sometimes you gotta yell at your family,” Matthews said. “[Communication] is something that we can do a better job of and I think it's something that we are doing a better job of.”
While the Leafs have been giving up a lot of goals, they’ve also scored consistently, notching the second-most goals to this point (40). That offensive success is part of what makes the team’s defensive lapses so frustrating, particularly amongst their top players.
Matthews spoke out strongly about the Leafs’ play so far after Tuesday’s 4-2 loss to Boston, saying, “It's just not good enough. We need to be better. I need to be better. All of us need to be better.”
The 22-year-old is the team’s second leading scorer with 11 points on the season (eight goals, three assists) and has collected one goal and three assists in his last four games, but that same stretch has been mired by other inconsistencies.
“Just defensively [I can be better] and all areas,” he said Thursday. “I have to put the puck in the back of the net, create on offence, but it starts in the D-zone and I think that's an area that we've been trying to work on lately, especially today [at practice], so I've got to be better in that area moving forward.”
He’s not the only one. Mitch Marner leads all Leafs in points this season with 12 (three goals, nine assists) but has also been struggling away from the puck. On Thursday, he echoed a similar statement to Matthews on how much better he needs to be.
“Right now it’s definitely defensively,” Marner said of the biggest area of concern in his game. “I think we just have to get back to our game plan, playing a full 60 [minutes]. We’ve done a bad job of that, and starting on time is something we always mention but we haven't done it. As leaders we have to step up, start leading more on the ice and get people to follow along.”
That's part of both Marner and Matthews’ responsibility as first-time alternate captains this season, a role that's been magnified in the wake of losing captain John Tavares to a broken finger. The injury has also necessitated some lineup changes for the Leafs, including Matthews and Marner rotating as linemates in tough matchup roles that have tested the young stars.
It’s all looked a little overwhelming for Matthews and Marner lately. Head coach Mike Babcock says how the pair weathers this difficult stretch will depend equally on what they do on and off the ice.
“The biggest thing you want from your leadership group is to model doing it right every day,” Babcock said Thursday. “I want them to go out and be the best player in their position they're capable of being. When you set the tone with your work ethic, with your detail, with your focus, with your preparation, that’s leadership. So that’s the challenge for all of us.”
With one more set of back-to-back games on tap Friday against San Jose and Saturday at Montreal, marking the fourth time in three weeks Toronto will play two games in two nights, the Leafs have plenty of opportunity to start putting their plans into action.
Tavares won’t be out there as the Leafs try to get back on track, but he does have some advice for his teammates.
“It becomes a little bit more of the mental side of really staying with the details and understanding being patient,” Tavares said. “When you have some fatigue or you're on the second half of a back-to-back, just dig in and do our job the best we can. Things just don't change overnight. We’re trying to just continue to get better every day and we know we got a lot better hockey ahead of us.”