Nov 14, 2019
Dubas: Maple Leafs ‘not a finished product by any stretch’
Twenty games into the 2019-20 season, the struggling Toronto Maple Leafs have failed to live up to expectations and while their D-zone coverage, puck possession and special teams need work, their biggest problem appears to be between the ears, Mark Masters writes.
By Mark Masters
TSN Toronto reporter Mark Masters checks in daily with news and notes on the Maple Leafs. who held a team meeting at the Ford Performance Centre on Thursday.
Toronto Maple Leafs general manager Kyle Dubas held his first media scrum since training camp on Thursday and was asked where he'd like to see his struggling team improve the most.
"When something doesn't go our way, we don't get a bounce or a puck bounces and it ends up in our net, just not getting back on our heels and continue to stay on our toes and stay in attack mode and being able to deal with that stuff better," Dubas said. “That, to me, is what I look for. I think a lot of the other stuff, special teams or otherwise, is largely percentage driven and as long as we're continuing to work at it as a collective that will improve."
Twenty games in, the 9-7-4 Leafs have failed to live up to expectations. Toronto’s point percentage (.550) ranks 19th in the NHL and the team’s identity has yet to be established.
"It's not a finished product by any stretch," Dubas admitted, "and we're still trying to get there. What we're aiming to get toward is a team built on speed, built on talent, creativity, but also tenacious when we don't have the puck like we saw for stretches last night … We want to shift it away from questions to the established Stanley Cup-winning players of, 'What do the Leafs need to do?' to here’s what they are and here’s what we can expect. And we're right there. I think it's on us to get there."
Asked if there was one game when the team most resembled his vision, Dubas had to go back to the first few days of the season when the Leafs lost 3-2 to the St. Louis Blues at home.
"It is obviously a championship team that was at full strength at that time," Dubas said. "They had all of their players, I believe, in the lineup and were healthy. I know we didn’t win the game, but I think in terms of the way that we played and stuck with the way we want to play, stuck with the system, that was probably the best one where I felt you get affirmation, ‘This is the way we're built. We know that there will be times where it doesn’t look great because we are still evolving and growing. But we can play against a team that's built that way and play that way for 60 minutes and have a night like that.’ So, that would be the one game where it all came together best. There have been a few other games where we have played relatively well or very good, but that would be the one I would point to."
TSN's Kristen Shilton offers a rundown of Dubas' media session here.
Dubas remade the team's blueline over the summer, bringing in Cody Ceci from the Ottawa Senators and Tyson Barrie from the Colorado Avalanche, but defence remains a question mark with the Leafs ranking 21st in goals against per game (3.15).
Ceci is averaging 22:19 of ice time, second most on the team, while playing alongside Morgan Rielly and facing top lines each night.
"Seems like every tiny thing he does becomes a referendum about whether he's good or not, which is mind-boggling to me," Dubas said, "because if that would have been done by subjective-oriented hockey people in the past, the objective people would have jumped all over it and now the inverse seems to be happening ... Frankly speaking, I think it goes back to the war between data and subjective scouting. He seems to be a really polarizing player ... even when everything underlying about him has been relatively solid, especially when you consider his usage."
Despite the tough match-ups, Ceci is a positive possession player (52.3 per cent CorsiFor per the NaturalStatTrick website) and has been on the ice for more five-on-five goals for than against (15-13). Ceci also has positive underlying numbers when it comes to scoring chance share and high-danger chance share.
"You play against the best players every night, from time to time you’re not going to look your best," Dubas argued, "but I think he's been a good addition for us and has played above expectations from when we acquired him and we're very happy with him."
Dubas believes Barrie, who spent the first eight years of his NHL career with the Avalanche, is about to turn a corner.
"I have a lot of belief in him. He continues to show signs of what his form can be and what we knew when we were acquiring. We just want him to continue to work and get comfortable here and find that and I think in the last number of games he's shown more and more of that and I'm excited about the rest of the season."
Still looking for his first goal as a Leaf, Barrie has fired 14 shots on net in the last three games.
"These's an adjustment period," Dubas continued, "and for some it’s easier than others. I think especially with someone who's been some place and had success for so long, I don't really read too much into the early part of it. I look for the positives and there have been a lot of them lately so I think good things are about to happen."
But the fact remains that the offensive-minded defenceman has only generated one assist in the last 17 games and that has impacted his psyche.
"I'm trying," Barrie said. "It's obviously weighing on me a little bit. I've never really gone through a stretch like this in my career. Switching teams for the first time, you don't want to feel like you're letting your teammates down and the fans down so I'm going to try and do a little bit extra, keep working and hopefully it will come."
"His game is about instincts," noted Leafs coach Mike Babcock, "his hockey sense is elite so he has to play loose and driving and jumping ... I'm betting on him just because of his past and how competitive he is."
Barrie, who racked up 59 points last season with the Avalanche, is leaning on his new teammates and his support system to try and help him get over the hump.
"It's easy in this game to overthink things," he admitted, "and you leave the rink and you try to leave it at the rink, but I don't think all of us are built like that. You kind of carry the weight that this is our job and there's a lot of pressure on you and it's part of your identity so you want to be playing as well as you can ... There's definitely times where you feel kind of invincible and everything’s going the right way and there’s been stretches in my career where I've had the complete opposite where it feels hopeless a little bit and you just work your way out of it and I definitely feel like I'm a bit in one of those right now so hopefully it turns."
The confidence issue isn't confined solely to Barrie. The Leafs, as a team, appear to be missing their mojo.
"It's still early," said Rielly. "There’s time for us to get our swagger back a little bit and start playing a bit better ... You have to earn it. You have to earn confidence by working hard and winning games. It doesn’t happen overnight … that takes time to come back."
"We're barely scratching the surface," said Barrie. "We've shown some flashes, but we got a long way to go to be the club that we think we can be and know we can be."
The Leafs cancelled Thursday's practice, opting for a team meeting and rest ahead of a back-to-back set against the Boston Bruins at home Friday and then against the Penguins in Pittsburgh Saturday.
"We just had a chat about where we’re at," Barrie revealed, "what’s missing in our group and in our game that’s kind of got us playing this mediocre hockey so we nailed down some key points and we'll look to start righting the ship tomorrow."
What are they focused on improving?
"There's lots of things," said Rielly. "The first thing that comes to mind is power play and penalty kill being an area we can improve on, for sure. Turnovers, D-zone coverage, you can go down the list and there’s lots of areas we can improve on."
But the biggest problem is between the ears it seems.
"To say we weren’t prepared or that we didn’t play well, that's not true," Babcock said of Wednesday night's setback, "but when it went bad, what did we do? And the whole game is mistakes, it goes bad regularly, but how you pick each other up? How do you handle it? How do you get back on track quickly and handle that? And we spoke about that."
"We seem to clean up one thing and then we kind of lack in another department," said leading scorer Auston Matthews, "so it’s just finding that consistency and putting everything together for a full 60 minutes ... We’re going through adversity and we got to lean on one another and get through this and hopefully, in the end, it will be good for us."
The roster turnover during the summer has been cited as a reason for the slow start, but Babcock believes the team is turning the page on that.
"Even our dialogue today was much more honest," the coach noted, "because we know each other better so I think that’s a positive step."
Barrie, meanwhile, suggests Toronto can learn something from the NHL's hottest team.
"You can honestly look to the way the Islanders play," Barrie noted, "I think you look at their team and nobody’s putting up huge numbers, they don’t necessarily have those superstar guys, but they're getting it done by committee and they're making no mistakes and that's putting them in a position to go on 10-game runs and stuff like that so maybe a bit of that mentality, we have to really focus on the D side."
The confidence issue may be most apparent on the power play. Despite all that talent up front Toronto has only clicked on 17.6 per cent of their chances, which ranks 20th in the league. On Wednesday, the Leafs went 0-for-2, failing to register a shot and giving up three shots to the Islanders’ penalty killers.
"Just a little too much thinking," said Matthews. "We have to let our instincts take over and lean on one another out there and react off one another."
Babcock agreed with that assessment. The coach also said his skilled players must match the desperation level of the penalty killers.
"Let's own this two minutes," Babcock said of the desired mindset, "let’s dominate this two minutes, and some nights it’s not going to go in, but when you have a real good power play and you dominate and don't score you're still sending a message to the rest of the guys on the bench, ‘Everything’s good here, let's go!'"
The Leafs actually rank fourth in expected goals in five-on-four play this season (per NauralStatTrick), but Rielly admits that's little comfort.
"If you look at the stats, I mean, I'm not positive what they are, but we’ve had lots of chances," the top unit's quarterback said. "We've gotten a lot of pucks on net and there is an aspect of it where maybe it’s just not going our way, but there’s also an aspect of it where we're not going to make excuses. We need to score goals, we need to be game breakers when you're on the power play and we haven't been and you take that personally. If you're one of the guys out there that’s not getting the job done, it's not good enough and you have to be better. It doesn’t matter how many chances you're getting, how many shots you're creating, it's about results and obviously they're not there for us now."
The Leafs are scheduled to skate at Scotiabank Arena at 10:30 a.m. Friday ahead of their game against the Bruins.