TSN Toronto reporter Kristen Shilton checks in daily with news and notes on the Maple Leafs, who held a noon practice at MasterCard Centre on Sunday.
The Maple Leafs have not often had trouble putting pucks in the net this season. With seven games to go in the regular season, Toronto has scored 264 goals and sits fourth overall in goals-for per game (3.52).
Lately, though, lighting the lamp has been tough for the Leafs with several of their forwards working through simultaneous scoring slumps. William Nylander has posted zero goals in his last 12 games, Kasperi Kapanen has one goal in 15, Nazem Kadri has zero goals in 11 games, Andreas Johnsson has one in 14 outings, Patrick Marleau has one in 12, and Connor Brown has just one goal in 23 games.
“It has to turn,” insisted Mike Babcock after the Leafs’ practice on Sunday. “We got a number of guys who have [scored] one in a long time. It has to turn. I’m a big believer in process, and when you do good things, good things will happen.”
It’s not that Toronto hasn’t had chances to score; they’ve actually generated plenty. In the Leafs’ last three games, they’ve put 113 shots on net, but come away with only five goals and a 1-1-1 record.
Reflecting on why Toronto’s had such difficulty converting, Babcock and Kapanen see the same problem resurfacing.
“I just have to hit the net. If you don’t hit the net, it’s not going to go in,” Kapanen said. “Just have to focus on that, try to fire it on net and not try to pick my corner too much and just be confident with my play and know that I’ve scored before and I’ve been hot, so just have to get back at it.”
“Hit the net on your chances, and don’t put any pressure on yourself; just breathe,” added Babcock. “When it’s not going as good as you want, there’s no sense overthinking this. It’s simple: pick a spot in the middle of the net, like five-hole, and when you miss [there], it goes in [somewhere else].”
Toronto did everything but score more than the New York Rangers in Saturday’s 2-1 overtime loss, peppering goaltender Alexandar Georgiev with 46 shots and getting only one by him. That was better than last Tuesday, when none of the Leafs’ 22 shots got past Nashville Predators goalie Pekka Rinne.
Kadri, who has played primarily with Marleau and Kapanen recently, has been around long enough to know such stretches of bad puck luck are bound to happen, and aren't necessarily cause for alarm long-term.
“Every single game, we get at least one or two good opportunities to score [on our line], so I think just a matter of staying patient,” said the nine-year NHL veteran. “Try not to get frustrated and force it and do too much. That’s when you start to overcomplicate it and things go south from there, so I think just be patient and I think we’re good players and it’s bound to come eventually.”
Kapanen admitted he’s already frustrated by his lack of scoring touch, but trusts Kadri’s assertion it would last for long.
“Nazzy and Patty were giving me every opportunity to score yesterday, and it’s just been hard lately,” he said. “But eventually the drought will end and goals will come, so I’m not too worried about it.”
While the pucks haven’t been going in as often for the Leafs, they are suddenly doing a better job keeping shots (and goals) at bay in their own end.
Over the last three games, the Leafs have limited shots against to 28 or fewer per outing, and registered greater than 50-percent puck possession on each occasion. Having made a collective commitment to being better defensively after ceding 23 goals over four games mid-month, the turnaround is heartening for Toronto.
“When you look at our last three games, we’ve done a way better job defensively, we haven’t given up as much,” said Babcock. "And we’ve also generated a ton of offence. We haven’t scored though.”
It would be easy to suggest that focusing in on defensive improvements has somehow distracted Toronto from its offensive responsibilities, but that’s counter-intuitive to how better play in their own end will ultimately help the Leafs attack their opponents more.
“The one translates into the other,” said Marleau. “So if we play well defensively, we should be in the other team’s end that much more.”
Ultimately, Kadri said the Leafs should be deriving confidence from how they put that four-game slump behind them, and continue taking pride in the strides made since. On the season, Toronto has given up the seventh-most shots per game (33) but are trending well below that now.
“The last few games we’ve definitely showed we can be reliable on defence and we’ve only given up 20-28 shots which is pretty incredible,” he said. “We’re trending in the right direction, we just have to make sure we’re responsible with the puck and not giving up odd-man rushes.”
As Ron Hainsey took centre stage to lead the Leafs through stretches at Sunday’s practice, his teammates erupted in a swell of stick taps to honour the blueliner’s 38th birthday.
While not the oldest player on the Leafs’ roster – that would be 39-year-old Marleau – Hainsey has brought a unique presence to Toronto’s dressing room, and continues to play big minutes despite his comparatively advanced age.
Through 75 games this year, the 16-year NHL veteran has skated primarily on the Leafs’ top defence pairing with Morgan Rielly, averaging 20:13 time on ice per game and a team-high 2:53 TOI shorthanded per game. For much of the season, Hainsey was leading the NHL in plus/minus, but has recently slipped to fifth overall at plus-30, which still paces all Leafs.
“Unbelievable,” surmised Babcock of Hainsey’s longevity in the league. “He’s a good player, still a good player for us, one of the top plus/minus players in the league and has really helped Mo and makes Mo a better player, just because he looks after some of the details when Mo is roaming around. He’s been real good for us, a good guy in the room and a fun guy to have around.”
Hainsey also has something that only he and Jake Muzzin share amongst the Leafs: A Stanley Cup ring, from his time with the 2016-17 Pittsburgh Penguins. Babcock said it’s important this time of year especially to have players with that on their resume, and he’s leaned heavily on Hainsey to shepherd more of Toronto’s young defencemen than just Rielly.
Since Jake Gardiner (back) and Travis Dermott (shoulder) have been out with injuries, Hainsey has been rotating at times with rookie Justin Holl, and his booming voice can be heard from ice level barking instructions and guiding the freshman around Toronto’s end.
“It’s really important sometimes when you’re starting, especially on defence because it’s a hard league to play defence in, to have someone who knows what they’re doing,” Babcock said. “It’s not like he just stepped into the league and dominated right away, he had to earn his way. I think those lessons and those life lessons are good to pass on, so good on him.”
Now in his fourth season as head coach of the Leafs, Babcock has endured the less pleasant sides of Toronto’s constant media coverage and the city’s sometimes-stifling expectations. But he still says he wouldn’t want to coach anywhere else.
“I love being here,” Babcock said, when asked if Toronto is the worst place to be when your team is losing. “[The media] isn’t influencing anything I do. I believe this is the greatest place to play hockey. And expectations are great, so who cares? Just do your job and keep getting better and find joy in your life outside hockey.”
Babcock has often mentioned his interactions with fans on the street and said whether the Leafs are succeeding or struggling, those are overwhelmingly positive.
“I think the expectations of the fans are perfect,” he said. “I walk around town every day. The fans I talk to, that talk to me, are jacked right up about our hockey club. Why are they jacked up about our team? Because we’re in the running. We got a team. It looks like we got players, looks like we’re going in the right direction, we think we can really improve our team. That’s what we’re trying to do every day.”