Maple Leafs need a change, and tomorrow is too late

Eric Staal scored twice and three Maple Leafs jerseys were tossed on the ice as Carolina beat Toronto at the ACC, 4-1.

TORONTO — Inertia has set in here.

The Toronto Maple Leafs are once again frozen and helpless — unable to get out of their own way, let alone the way of the 28th-place Carolina Hurricanes.

You’ve seen this ugly drama play out before. We all have.

“It’s been like this for a couple years now, hasn’t it?” said Phil Kessel after Toronto’s 13th loss in 16 games. “We go through great stretches and then we have these just horrendous stretches. It’s pretty frustrating.

“It’s similar, isn’t it? Same stuff keeps happening. I don’t know what to make of it anymore.”

Well, here’s a start: Some kind of trade must be made and two days from now is too late. These players have left management without a choice.

There are obviously no easy long-term fixes to be made, but something small in the interim is perfectly justifiable after watching this foundation fall to pieces yet again. Call it a warning shot — the sort of thing president Brendan Shanahan thought he had sent less than two weeks ago when he addressed the team and told them management would be watching closely in the second half.

It hasn’t worked.

Neither has firing coach Randy Carlyle, although the defensive improvements made in seven games under interim Peter Horachek can’t be dismissed entirely.

The biggest issue for the players is that they thought finally buckling down in their own zone would magically make everything right. Karma had other ideas and the Leafs are now locked in a near-historical run of futility — having scored just two goals during a five-game stretch for the first time since January 1929.

“It’s extremely frustrating that we’re doing a lot of things in areas that we weren’t doing earlier in the year better, and now it’s the other side of that we’re having a tough time with,” said captain Dion Phaneuf.

How they’ve handled that frustration has to be most concerning for Shanahan and general manager Dave Nonis. There is a trend here, remember. (See: 2-13-2 run in 2011-12 and 3-13-0 stretch last season, among others).

While the scoring is obviously going to return eventually — I’ll eat my shoe if Toronto maintains a two percent shooting percentage over its final 35 games — that won’t change the fact the psyche of this dressing room is severely shaken.

The Leafs were openly admitting as much after Monday’s 4-1 loss to Carolina.

“It’s definitely a frustration that builds over time,” said centre Nazem Kadri.

“I get the sense like there’s a big letdown (when they fall behind),” said Horachek. “It’s a 60-minute game, and you can’t let one event — whether a bad call, an injury, a goal — affect you.”

What we saw during the first period against Carolina was a team looking for someone, anyone, to take control. At the first hint of trouble — Brad Malone’s goal off the rush at 7:06 — everyone in blue and white appeared to be running for cover.

In the process, they abandoned playing any kind of defence in the area directly around goalie Jonathan Bernier and dug a 3-0 hole before mounting a pushback in the third period.

From these eyes, it looked like a group that was hanging its collective head and thinking: “Not again.” Not to mention: “Why us?”

This, more than any other reason, is why the change has to start now. I’m not even part of the blow-it-all-to-smithereens crowd, either.

The last thing Horachek needs is a negative atmosphere permeating his dressing room while trying to lay the foundation of something bigger. He was adamant that he won’t allow his players to roam free again — “I don’t think any of the top teams, any of the good teams, play that way” — and plans to reaffirm his expectations before Wednesday’s visit to Ottawa.

“I’m going to make them stand up and I’m going to make them stand up and go harder,” said Horachek. “Nobody’s heads are going to be down, and nobody’s lips are going to be dragging on the ground.”

That will be a tall task.

Tough days are here again for the organization — no doubt exacerbated by the sight of three more Leafs sweaters tossed on the Air Canada Centre ice in frustration Monday. The players are certainly sick and tired of that grating form of protest.

“I don’t know how that happens or what security or the ushers are doing,” said Kadri. “It seems like we’re giving the guy an extra couple minutes to flip everybody off and to mock our real fans. I don’t know how that guy’s not taken by his shirt and dragged out of there, but what do I know?”

His frustration is understandable, if a little misplaced.

Throwing a sweater on the ice during play is disgraceful, but no more so than letting yet another season slip away like this.