Despair grows deeper for Maple Leafs

January 10, 2014, 12:24 AM

RALEIGH, N.C. – No compete. No consistency. Nothing.

We seem to be watching the Toronto Maple Leafs season unravel right before our eyes. Sure, it has essentially been trending in the wrong direction for the last two months, but during that spiral down the standings the players could always point to the fact that they remained in a playoff position.

Well no more.

The Leafs now have to look up in the Eastern Conference, which is going to be awfully tough to do since so many of them seem to be hanging their heads. The talk after a win at the Winter Classic on Jan. 1 was all about how it should serve as a springboard to new heights for this team. In the eight days since, they’ve stumbled through what should have been a relatively each stretch of schedule with an 0-3 record – getting outscored 18-5 in the process.

There are still 93 days and 37 games left to go before the post-season positions are crystallized. That’s an awfully long time and an awful lot of hockey. However, it doesn’t minimize the suddenly precarious position Toronto finds itself in, especially considering that it marched through October with a 10-4-0 record.

The great start is nothing but a distant memory now.

“There’s no excuse why we don’t compete every night,” forward Jay McClement said after a humbling 6-1 loss to the Carolina Hurricanes on Thursday. “That’s something that, as a pro, I think all of us have to look ourselves in the mirror.

“The effort and the compete have to be there every night.”

While many have started to place the team’s troubles solely at the feet of coach Randy Carlyle, from this seat that looks like taking the easy way out. No one should be put on an island with so much blame to go around. What about the six core members of this team who are signed through at least 2017-18 at an annual cost of almost $34-million?

That would be Dion Phaneuf, Phil Kessel, David Clarkson, Tyler Bozak, James van Riemsdyk and Joffrey Lupul – all of whom are heavily invested in this franchise, or should be, and all of whom need to find a way to be part of the solution right now.

By no means is that meant to excuse Carlyle’s role in this mess. His decision to bench Jake Gardiner in place of Mark Fraser on Thursday, for example, is a tough one to wrap your head around, especially since the coach later identified one of the problems against Carolina as moving the puck.

“We’re not making plays, we’re not playing with any confidence with the puck that’s for sure,” said Carlyle. “When we have chances to skate the puck, we’re not skating it. We’re making poor decisions.”

Given that ongoing issue, I’d rather try my luck with a smooth-skater like Gardiner on the back end than risk diminishing his confidence by relegating him to the press box. It would be shocking if the 23-year-old wasn’t back in the lineup when the Leafs visit Washington (and old friend Mikhail Grabovski) on Friday night.

At this point, the onus also must fall on general manager Dave Nonis, who was understandably agitated while watching the Hurricanes embarrass his team. He already pulled off last week’s Tim Gleason for John-Michael Liles trade – Liles added some insult to injury by scoring Thursday – and must seriously contemplate more moves.

There are only 18 games to play before the March 5 trade deadline passes. That is coming sooner than you might think.

And while Nonis hasn’t said so publicly, the internal expectation for this team is to qualify for another playoff run. Speaking to Sportsnet last week, MLSE president Tim Leiweke made it abundantly clear that it was a priority for the organization to play more meaningful games this spring.

“We haven’t had back-to-backs in a long time,” he said. “You can’t win the Cup if you’re not in the playoffs, so we get that our goal has to be that. That’s what we’re going to try to do and we’re focused on that.

“Do I think we’re there? No.”

The words seem even more prophetic now than when they were spoken.

And while some will again point to that as more ammunition for the need to replace Carlyle, it should be pondered about what message exactly that would send to these players. That they can simply stop giving a full effort and have someone else take the fall?

The core members of this team are the same ones that got them within a few minutes of upsetting the mighty Boston Bruins in the first round last year and they’re not performing to the same level now. As a group, they need to regain some confidence and swagger.

“It’s just a matter of finding it,” said goalie James Reimer, about the only Leafs player to escape criticism on Thursday. “It’s not like you wake up one day and all of a sudden you don’t know how to stop a puck or you don’t know how to score a goal. It’s just a matter of finding that belief and tapping into it.”

Added winger Mason Raymond: “I think we’re searching for answers and that’s the hard part.”

There is really only one place to find them: Under the bright lights, after the puck is dropped, in the throes of competition. The next opportunity to do that comes Friday night at the Verizon Centre.

If the Leafs don’t show up for that one, the despair will only grow deeper.

“I think the talking has to stop to be honest – we’ve talked all year about all these things and we’re just not getting the job done,” said McClement. “Nothing seems to be changing. We’re just still very inconsistent with our efforts and two of the last three games we get blown out.

“It’s just not acceptable.”

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