TORONTO — The newest passengers strapped into hockey’s high-flying roller-coaster haven’t much enjoyed the ride through the first half of the season.
So as the Toronto Maple Leafs push forward with a new coach — and a more stern directive from management — those players are hoping that change will put an end to some longstanding issues.
This, in many ways, remains a dressing room divided.
On one side you have the guys who have been part of winning programs and understand the discipline and sacrifice needed to win on a consistent basis. On the other, with a few exceptions, there are the players who have been through so many ups and downs here that they’re bound to be suffering from blue and white vertigo.
Don’t believe me?
Take it from no-nonsense defenceman Roman Polak, who had spent his entire NHL career in St. Louis before a trade to Toronto last summer. He didn’t flinch when asked why the Leafs haven’t played with enough defensive structure.
“Because it’s hard work,” Polak said before Wednesday’s 6-2 loss to Washington. “It’s always tough to do something you know you don’t like to do. I think we have lots of guys that just want to play offence.”
That is in the running for the most honest on-the-record statement uttered in the team’s dressing room during the tumultuous 48 hours that saw Peter Horachek replace coach Randy Carlyle on an interim basis.
Cody Franson, a Leafs veteran with a newcomer’s sensibility, also pointed to some underlying issues when he said that the group has “to hold ourselves more accountable for what’s been going on.”
It was a pretty strong indication that he understood the message management endeavoured to send with the coaching change. In the executive suite, patience is starting to wear thin.
Barring something unforeseen, Horachek will hold down the interim job for the remainder of a season where basically everyone is on trial. He’s going to experiment with lines and player usage — as we saw during the game against the Capitals — and he is going to try above all else to turn this into a more structured team.
The system he’ll be preaching is the exact same one his good friend Barry Trotz brought to Washington this season.
“It’s what we used to call 5-5-5,” said Horachek. “We want five guys in the defensive zone, in the neutral zone and then the offensive zone. It’s all connected and we believe that that’s the way it has to be.”
After a sluggish start, the Capitals are soaring. They’ve climbed into playoff position with an 11-1-3 run and Trotz is pretty clear about how he’s gone about effecting change inside his dressing room.
“The player has to make the commitment,” said Trotz. “That’s where it starts. I’ve been very fortunate that the guys that I’ve gotten an opportunity to coach here, they’re committed to the buy-in and they wanted the change.”
It’s going to take some time before we can determine if the same can be said for the Leafs.
Wednesday’s game offered hints of improvement in some areas — they managed to keep the Caps to just 26 shots — but still featured a small buffet of brain cramps. Naturally, Horachek chose to accentuate the positives.
“We outchanced them,” he said. “They had 12 chances and there were games (recently) where we were giving up 40 shots and (our opponents) were getting 25-26 chances. They had 12. Our possession time that we chart … our numbers were better than theirs.
“But there’s still a game to play when you look at all of those stats and analytics and different things.”
Even if the Leafs won this game in commanding fashion, the jury would of course be out.
This is a team that has experienced incredibly wild swings of fortune with 23 of 41 games so far decided by three or more goals. Progress can only be measured in improvements seen over a meaningful amount of time.
There was a good deal of frustration after the loss to Washington because of a short-handed goal allowed to Eric Fehr — the Leafs got caught making a sloppy change and Jake Gardiner didn’t react well afterwards — and a turnover that allowed Marcus Johansson to make it 4-2 just 42 seconds after Toronto had gotten within one.
“We’re beating ourselves,” said veteran defenceman Stephane Robidas, another newcomer. “You’ve got to have the other team earn what they got. … We need to take pride in playing well defensively and be hard to play against.
“I think that’s something that we can improve on.”
All of which brings us back to the million-dollar question: Will the message sent by Carlyle’s firing and a stronger voice for Horachek be enough to accomplish it?
“It’s tough to say,” said Polak. “I don’t know. As a coach, you can do whatever you want, but the guys have to listen too. It’s not just the coach’s fault; it’s the guys, too, because they have to listen and they have to understand what the coach wants from them.
“If they don’t, it doesn’t matter what kind of coach you have.”
Some new voices are starting to speak up. Will the others hear them?