Maple Leafs call players-only meeting in midst of five-game skid

LAS VEGAS — With the losses mounting and tension growing, the Toronto Maple Leafs are looking internally for answers.

They even held a players-only meeting in the aftermath of an embarrassing 6-1 loss in
Pittsburgh on Saturday night – airing some grievances in an effort to reverse their fortunes during a critical stretch of schedule.

"We talked about what we needed to talk about, I think, and it was just kind of an open discussion with the players," Jake Muzzin said before Tuesday’s game against the Vegas Golden Knights. "Get a clear kind of view on what we think needs to happen."

The Leafs have dropped five straight games and sit tied for 21st in points percentage with a 9-9-4 record. This is a spot they never imagined they’d be in with more than a quarter of the season played, which only adds to the urgency everyone is feeling during a season-long, six-game road trip.

In addition to the players-only meeting, captain John Tavares sat down with head coach Mike Babcock here in Vegas to take the temperature of the group. Morgan Rielly did as well.

"I think we’re just trying to find solutions to get out of the funk we’ve been in," said Tavares. "Just talking about the feel of the team and how we’re playing and how we can get better going forward."

This is a big test for the Leafs new leadership group.

For all the excuses that can be made about why the team has underperformed so far, players failing to meet individual expectations has been their biggest downfall.

Tavares was given the "C" on opening night while Rielly, Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner were named alternate captains. Beyond them, Babcock says a trusted group of veterans – Muzzin, Zach Hyman and Frederik Andersen – play an important role in setting the tone for the group.

He likes that they’re taking ownership over the recent struggles.

"There isn’t one guy in the room that doesn’t want to be better, obviously," said Babcock. "And so I’m impressed with those guys as people. They’re all-in, they want to be Leafs and they want to be good Leafs.

"And they want to be proud of how we play."

Muzzin believes the players need to show more commitment on the defensive side of the puck. The Leafs have repeatedly shot themselves in the foot with turnovers and blown coverages that turn into high-danger chances against – losing 6-1, 4-2, 5-4 and 5-4 in their games last week.

They’re giving up way too much to be considered a top team. And their confidence is struggling because of it.

"When you’re playing good you’re just kind of playing. You’re just feeling the game, your instincts are kicking in and things just kind of come naturally," said Tavares. "Obviously we have to tighten up defensively and then I think for us just to continue to trust one another and then just breathe and play the game one shift at a time and just stay with it for a full 60."

"There’s no secrets. It’s time to get going," added defenceman Tyson Barrie. "It’s not time to panic, but we’ve got a good chunk of the season out of the way and we’re not where we want to be. So it’s time to bear down and man up."

T-Mobile Arena can be a difficult place to do it. The Golden Knights have had some of their own struggles in the early going, but they took their game up a notch in hammering Calgary 6-0 here on Sunday.

Babcock attended that game along with other members of the Leafs coaching and management staff, and believes Vegas is one of the deepest teams in the NHL.

If nothing else, that will get the attention of a Leafs team that is on its worst losing run since 2015-16, when it finished last overall and won the right to draft Matthews with the No. 1 pick.

"You’re always going to go through rough times or go through little skids, but this one’s been a bit longer and tougher than I think you’d like," said Matthews. "But I think in the end, that adversity can obviously help you in the long run, so I think that’s the way we’re trying to look at it positively and putting our best foot forward here."

It’s not usually a good sign when the players feel the need to shut the door and talk it out amongst themselves. That only tends to happen when a situation starts to feel dire.

This is where the Leafs are right now.

"Sometimes when you need to do it, you need to do it," said Muzzin. "Obviously winning solves everything and you don’t have to have those meetings. When stuff needs to be addressed it needs to be addressed for the team.

"That’s what we did."