Ferraro: The time for excuses is over for Leafs
TSN Toronto reporter Mark Masters checks in daily with news and notes on the Maple Leaf, who skated at T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas ahead of tonight's game against the Golden Knights.
The Maple Leafs have done a lot of talking since that ugly 6-1 beatdown on Saturday against the injury-ravaged Pittsburgh Penguins. On Monday, head coach Mike Babcock credited John Tavares and Morgan Rielly for initiating a meeting with him. Today, Jake Muzzin revealed that the leadership group also organized its own players-only meeting.
"We talked about what we needed to talk about," said Muzzin, part of the leadership group and the only player on the roster with a Stanley Cup ring. "It was just kind of open discussion with the players to get a clear kind of view of what we think has to happen … I think it's pretty clear and we just got to keep hammering home those things we talked about."
Competing harder on defence was on the agenda.
"It's not Xs and Os,” Muzzin told a small group of reporters, including the Toronto Sun's Terry Koshan, on Monday. "It's playing with passion and playing with heart. That's what we need to do."
Why does that become an issue for a team?
"When you have a lot of skilled guys and a team that’s skilled you just rely on the skill sometimes and it takes more than that," Muzzin explained after today's skate.
With a 9-9-4 record, the Leafs are tied for 21st in NHL points percentage entering play on Tuesday.
Tavares and Auston Matthews suggest the biggest issue right now is more mental and how the players are thinking the game and processing the results.
"Just getting our confidence back," Matthews said of the key to a turnaround, "getting our swagger back. Obviously, it's tough when we're on a skid like this, but I think we have belief in this locker room and in one another despite all the noise going on all around us. For us, we want to pay attention to detail in all areas of our game, especially defensively."
The team almost seems paralyzed at times during games, which may lead to moments where work ethic appears to be an issue.
"I think guys are competing," Tavares insisted, "and, obviously, guys care. We're not happy with the ways things are going. This is when you need your resolve and resiliency to come through. At times you can you feel like things aren't going your way and you’re not playing your best, sometimes (it freezes) you up a little bit."
What's the message from the captain to his teammates?
"Just playing and breathing a bit and everyone just getting themselves outside their comfort zone a little bit and finding another way to up our game and tighten up where we have to, to get the results we want."
Babcock praised Tavares and Rielly for coming to him for a meeting after the loss in Pittsburgh. Today the coach was pressed about what was discussed.
"In this case it was more about, 'What can we do?'" Babcock said. "You know, we're all like that, what can you do? How do you make it better? Anybody who's been around a hockey team that hasn't gone well has lived this and knows you have to find your way out. The best way to do that is to band together and really dig in and compete and when you do that you'll turn it."
What was Tavares looking to accomplish by approaching Babcock?
"We're just trying to find solutions to get out of the funk we've been in," he said, "so just talking about the feel of the team and the way we're playing and how we can get better going forward."
Babcock has highlighted the need for the defence and forwards to work better together to create more transition chances. He's also shuffled the defence pairings to offer the group a "reset." Muzzin will play with Justin Holl tonight while Tyson Barrie lines up beside Travis Dermott.
"We have to tighten up, obviously, defensively," Tavares said, "and then, I think for us, just continue to trust one another … just breathe and play the game one shift at a time and just stay with it for a full 60."
The Leafs haven't won since edging Vegas 2-1 in overtime on Nov. 7.
"We've gone through the formula that we believe we have to have to have success,” Babcock said, "we all understand it and now we have to do it."
Matthews has scored 13 goals in 13 home games this season, but has just one in nine road games. And that one goal came in Toronto’s first road game way back on Oct. 4 in Columbus. The eight-game drought since is the longest on the road in his NHL career.
But Matthews seems to enjoy playing in Vegas where he's potted four goals in two visits. Last year he scored his 100th NHL goal at T-Mobile Arena.
"It's like a party from the start of warm-ups to throughout the whole game," the 22-year-old said with a smile. "It's a good atmosphere, good music and the fans are really into it. We seem to get a good crowd when we come down here … it always makes for a pretty fun game."
Marc-Andre Fleury was asked about the Matthews shot when the Knights swung through Toronto a couple weeks ago.
"It's a quick release," Fleury noted. "He changes it up, too, it doesn't matter if he goes high glove or low blocker. It's still coming as quick towards you. He's good at hiding it sometimes before he releases it."
Fleury is winless (0-3-1) over his last four games against Toronto, including 0-2 with Vegas.
While the Matthews line was ineffective along with the rest of the team on Saturday, in general they have been clicking well.
"Our line's just been competing," Matthews said. "I think that's probably been the biggest thing. We've tried to be more consistent as a three-man, five-man unit, I guess, when we're all out there, but especially us three just trying to hunt pucks, work hard and then just let our skill take over. I think when we're skating and working hard it kind of just comes out naturally."
Alexander Kerfoot will miss a third straight game after undergoing surgery to repair some dental facial fractures, but the centre is expected to rejoin the team for Wednesday’s practice in Scottsdale, Ariz. Babcock isn't sure if Kerfoot will be able to suit up on Thursday against the Coyotes, but sounded optimistic that a return will come soon.
As for winger Trevor Moore, who was placed on IR with a shoulder issue Monday, the prognosis isn't as positive.
"No one's even even mentioned his name," said Babcock, "so that doesn't sound like any time soon."
Called up Monday, Pierre Engvall will make his NHL debut tonight replacing Dmytro Timashov in the lineup.
"It has been a dream since I was so small," the 23-year-old Swede said. "Really happy to be here. Going to try my best."
Engvall is a natural winger and will play on the left side of the fourth line, but Toronto's seventh-round pick in 2014 has also played down the middle with the AHL’s Toronto Marlies.
"I get to use my speed even more when I play centre," he said, "and I’ve been practising taking faceoffs lately so I think that’s getting better."
Babcock said Engvall will not kill penalties tonight, but will be an option in that role once he gets up to speed.
Lines at Leafs skate:
Johnsson - Matthews - Nylander
Hyman - Tavares - Kapanen
Mikheyev - Spezza - Petan
Engvall - Shore - Gauthier
Rielly - Ceci
Muzzin - Holl
Dermott - Barrie
Power-play units at Leafs skate:
Matthews - Johnsson - Nylander
Kapanen - Petan - Spezza