Nazem Kadri has seen some things. He's the only Leaf who will dress Tuesday night that was involved in both recent Game 7 collapses in Boston. He saw the 18-wheeler go off the cliff with jerseys thrown on the ice. He was there when interim coach Peter Horachek mentioned the “Give a [expletive] meter.” So, he's not getting too worked up about Toronto's current skid.
“Oh, this is nothing,” he said. “This is nothing. I've been around for much darker days and we're lucky to have the group that we have and the players that we have and we all stick together no matter what ... This is an exciting time to be a Maple Leafs fan and a Maple Leafs player and we take pride in representing our city so we're going to go out there and fight.”
But the numbers suggest Kadri should be at least a little worried. The Leafs have been outscored 20-11 while playing five-on-five over their last four games. Prior to that, Toronto led the NHL in five-on-five goal differential. Kadri insists the situation is under control thanks to some frank discussions within the group“Brutally honest,” he said of the talks. “Very honest. So, I think that's what makes good teams good, you hold each other accountable and whenever you're not okay with something you stand up and say it and clear the air right away and that's something that's positive on our part.”
“You need good leadership,” said head coach Mike Babcock, “and in order to have good leadership you need to have good players because good players are allowed to talk because they can do it themselves. And then you have to have a belief in one another and I think that's one of the reasons we've only had a few blips this year and been able to get back on time or back on track. But I think the whole key is leadership from within.”
Babcock hasn’t sensed too much frustration from the players despite the latest stumble.
“The one thing about our group is the guys are all in and they're all in all the time,” Babcock said, “and sometimes it doesn't look like that because we don't play as good, but they're all in all the time.”
Babcock noted that the way Toronto has lost is more concerning than the losses themselves. The coach believes that, first and foremost, the Leafs must cut down on the rush chances against.
“When you give up stuff off the rush it's usually off turnovers,” he outlined, “losing your F3 or D diving in and we need to clean up those areas for sure in order to feel better about ourselves and play better.”
But there may be an overriding issue. The Leafs have trailed by at least three goals in each of their last four games. They have not had a longer streak since a five-game run like that in October 1991, according to the Elias Sports Bureau.
“The bottom line is you can't chase the game,” Babcock said. “The reason you do things like that is because you're chasing the game. We feel we can play way harder as a group and we have to play harder as a group.”
But some of the issues plaguing the Leafs predate the latest four-game run.
“There are things that appear to be very glaring in the moment that are just small things that can be fixed and then there are other things that have been around a bit longer that it’s important we kind address,” defenceman Morgan Rielly said. “I think all you can do as a player is worry about yourself and make sure you bring your best effort.”
Backup goalie Garret Sparks raised some eyebrows with his post-game comments in Ottawa on Saturday.
“We need more emotion,” he said after the 6-2 loss to the NHL's basement dwellers. “I'm an emotional player. I need more emotion. We need more emotion from everybody. We need people to get angry. We need people to step up and be mad and take it personally.”
Does Kadri think more emotion could help?
“I think it could,” he said. “I mean, you can never play with too much emotion. But, at the same time, I think everyone's passionate and everyone's very competitive and that's why we’ve selected these select few guys to be on this hockey team.”
Babcock was asked what he thinks about players with smaller roles speaking up.
“Everybody's allowed a voice, that’s the greatest thing – no different than sitting at your kitchen table with your family. When you’re family everybody’s allowed to talk and usually if you say something stupid they whack you around a little bit. But if you got something to say they listen and I think that’s the atmosphere we've created here so everyone gets a say.”
One bright spot for the Leafs of late has been the penalty kill. They have gone a season-high five straight without allowing a man-advantage marker killing off all 11 chances.
Mitch Marner led all Toronto forwards with 4:30 of shorthanded ice time in Ottawa. This is the first NHL season in which he's gotten consistent minutes on the penalty kill.
“I did it for two of my three years in junior and I was talking to (assistant coach D.J. Smith) about [killing penalties] this year and he said we may need somebody to hop in,” Marner explained on Saturday before the game.
“For me, personally, I'm just trying to read plays and make it hard on forwards. As a guy who plays the power play you know what frustrates you so just trying to make it hard on them to get in the zone and when they’re in zone not let them get set and try to pressure as much as I can.”
The penalty-kill unit has bonded this season over something called the Dr. Kill stick. It's a three-foot stick covered in white tape with a sharp edge that gets passed among players on the unit throughout the season.
A player keeps it in his stall until the team allows a P.K. goal against and then it gets passed on to another player as determined by Smith. It's a gut-call type thing for the coach and players can lobby to get it if they're feeling good.
Every game where the Leafs don't allow a power-play goal the player with the stick is able to put his logo on it with a sharpie. Some use their initials or sweater number. Marner apparently uses a horse, because Smith has been known to call him 'Stang as in a mustang. Frederik Gauthier has the most logos – a goat, of course – on the stick, but Marner now owns the longest streak.
How much pride does he take in that?
“A lot,” he said. “I mean, it's kind of a thing our team jokes around about a lot in our room. It’s been there for a while and hopefully it stays there for a little longer too.”
The Predators have struggled on the power play this season, ranking 30th in the NHL (13 per cent).
Projected Leafs lineup for tonight's game: