TORONTO – There’s no mystery about how Mike Babcock expects the Toronto Maple Leafs to pull out of their mini-tailspin. Facing a rare Sunday practice after scoring just one goal in two games, the coach blared his message across the video screens in the team’s dressing room:
“Frustrate With Our Work Ethic.”
If there’s a downside to building a team with as many offensive weapons as the Leafs have – and we fully acknowledge this should be regarded as a very good “problem” to have – it’s that they can grow easily frustrated when the goals dry up.
However, in Thursday’s 3-0 loss to Pittsburgh and Saturday’s 4-1 loss to St. Louis, they came up against some big defencemen who funnelled the play to the outside. The Leafs generated just seven high-danger chances against the Blues while too often settling for low-percentage shots.
When Babcock rewatched the game from the vantage point of a higher camera angle, he saw too much space between the forwards and defencemen. That made clean breakouts much tougher to execute and had the Leafs hemmed in their own zone. The coach also made note of too many puck battles lost for his liking.
“We just got to the nitty gritty today,” said Babcock, in explaining his approach to Sunday’s practice. “We just talked about the facts. Today was a reality therapy meeting: What’s really going on? Let’s solve the problem and let’s put the problem behind us and get on. So we did that.
“I don’t know what you’re like, I always like people that tell me the truth. Tell me what they want and tell me how to fix it. As soon as someone tells me what to do, I can get that done.”
He is asking his players to put on their hard hats. For as much skill as the Leafs boast, Babcock believes the key to success is pressuring the puck to such a degree that opponents will quickly come to realize that nothing comes easily against Toronto.
To create some frustration in others rather than getting frustrated themselves.
“We’ve got to get to work,” said Babcock. “You never mind leaving the building and walking by everyone when you’ve played really hard and you won all the battles and you won all the races and the score didn’t turn out right. You can be proud and happy and it’s no big deal.
“But when, [like] the last couple nights, you haven’t won enough battles and enough races – to me you don’t feel very good about what’s going on, so you’ve got to fix it, you’ve got to get back to work.”
They should also benefit from a little rest. Toronto was the first NHL team to play nine games this season – a handful are only at six – so players were understandably looking forward to a team Halloween party on Sunday night and a complete day off Monday.
A light week ahead comes with just two difficult games on the schedule – a home-and-home with the Winnipeg Jets on Wednesday and Saturday. That should afford them some time to step back and take account of where things are at.
Matthews believes they’ve got to show a little more creativity to get back to producing the scoring chances that led to 33 goals for in their first seven games.
“I think it starts with not only working harder, but I think working smarter,” he said. “I think sometimes we’re a bit too predictable. You do the same thing over and over again, I think teams obviously they watch video. Kind of mixing it up, changing it up off of faceoffs and neutral zone and stuff like that.”
They’re also focused on setting up shop a little more in the offensive zone.
“I just don’t think we’ve been moving that much,” said winger Mitch Marner. “Those big D-men can trap you pretty quickly if you’re not moving. So that’s something I didn’t think we did enough of and something we need to get back to.”
It won’t come easily. The Jets are arguably the class of the Western Conference and feature a group of forwards just as skilled as Toronto’s. They can also roll out a blue-line that includes Dustin Byfuglien, Tyler Myers, Jacob Trouba and Josh Morrissey, not to mention Vezina Trophy finalist Connor Hellebuyck in goal.
They won’t be an opponent that’s easily frustrated.
“We don’t think we’re going to score like we did at the start [of the season]. That’s a fantasy tour,” said Babcock. “We think we’ve got enough people to score, but we want to play better than this. I think when you play better you score.”