TORONTO – It was almost as if Randy Carlyle sensed this was coming.
“I don’t think anybody on our hockey club looked at ease last game,” he said before Tuesday’s 2-1 loss to the Colorado Avalanche, yet another night where the Toronto Maple Leafs didn’t look quite right.
The coach was no doubt aware that there were only so many holes his team could cover up with Jonathan Bernier’s spectacular play before the turnovers caught up to them.
Leave it to Patrick Roy’s surprising and speedy Avalanche to prove him correct. The visitors did exactly what was needed to leave Air Canada Centre with two points, playing patient and controlled while waiting for the Leafs to give them an opening.
It came early in the third period when defenceman Paul Ranger first let the puck get by him at the point in the offensive zone before allowing Jamie McGinn to skate around him and set up P.A. Parenteau for the winning goal. Ranger, himself, had spoken earlier in the day about his ongoing adjustment to the speed of the NHL game after four years away and it's obviously going to take a little bit more than four games for him to get it back.
That's not to suggest Toronto's first loss of the regular season was all on him - far from it. There was an overall lack of crispness throughout the lineup and way too many quality scoring chances against Bernier, particularly during a second period where the Avs poured 15 shots on net.
"When you give up that many chances, your odds of winning go down," Leafs captain Dion Phaneuf said.
Added teammate Cody Franson: "We did a better job protecting the puck and managing our turnovers, but it was still not good enough."
Despite a 3-1-0 to start to the year, there is a slightly unsettling feeling around the Leafs. No one seemed anywhere near satisfied after victories over Montreal, Philadelphia and Ottawa - and the mood obviously didn't improve with the effort against the Avs on Tuesday night.
To some extent, the team's overall lack of execution can be pinned on a rotating lineup. It was Jay McClement's turn to miss a game on Tuesday after his wife gave birth to the couple's first child and that opened up a spot for Trevor Smith to join Carter Ashton, Jamie Devane and Troy Bodie among the forward corps - although those four players combined for just 21 minutes 48 seconds of ice time.
To put that into perspective, Tyler Bozak and James van Riemsdyk eclipsed the total on their own.
Carlyle would never willingly choose to play that short of bench at this stage in the season, but he clearly isn't comfortable with the farmhands. For his part, the veteran coach refused to discuss what impact his depleted lineup has had on the start to the season out of fear that it would sound like an excuse.
"We're not going there with this hockey club," he said.
In all likelihood, Carlyle will be given yet another new option when the team plays in Nashville on Thursday. The Leafs are expected to call up a seventh defenceman for the road trip, possibly reigning AHL player of the week T.J. Brennan, and that might be enough to tempt Carlyle to make some tweaks on his back end. Clearly, the status quo won't be good enough right now.
A packed schedule of exhibition games kept Toronto from preparing to Carlyle's liking during training camp - he's already vowed to take a more active role in planning next year - and it means that the team will now attempt to make up for lost time on the practice ice. Fortunately, it is currently facing a manageable stretch of six games in 16 days where Carlyle should be afforded more of an opportunity to work on systems play.
Even in the earliest stages of the season it doesn't seem like a stretch to suggest that the defensive side of the game could ultimately determine how successful the Leafs end up becoming in 2013-14. It doesn't appear that scoring will be an issue and the tandem of Bernier and James Reimer seem up to the task in goal, which leaves defence as the only major question mark around this squad.
"We've been talking about it lately - just being more (responsible)," Ranger said. "That can be as simple as limiting the turnovers, putting the pucks in deep in their zone and working the cycles in there versus playing the transition game and trading (chances) back and forth with another team.
"It can be as simple as backchecking or picking up a man on a 3-on-2."
The concepts may be simple in theory, but the execution has been lacking so far. The silver lining for Carlyle is that his team currently sports a winning record and there are still 78 games left on the schedule to iron out the kinks.