TORONTO — It really says something about how things have gone for the Toronto Maple Leafs that the game Kyle Dubas identified as the team’s signature performance in the first quarter came more than a month ago.
In a loss.
Yes, it’s a reminder that the second-year general manager is evaluating his team differently than a fanbase which is riding Leviathan on a daily basis. But it also hammers home just how infrequently the NHL’s most expensive roster managed to put it together during a 20-game stretch where it surrendered the first goal 15 times and won just six games in regulation.
The standout performance against St. Louis back on Oct. 7 — the game Dubas felt his group most looked like the fast, tenacious puck hounds he built in his mind’s eye — wasn’t completely without some of the worrying trends from these first six weeks. The Leafs had a decided edge in shot attempts, high-danger chances and expected goals against the Stanley Cup champions that night, but also gave up the first goal after a strong start, squandered a 2-1 lead and couldn’t find a way to squeeze out a point from a game where the score was tied in the third period.
“[We] stuck with the way that we want to play, stuck with the system,” Dubas said Thursday afternoon, of that 3-2 loss to the Blues. “That was probably the best one, where I guess you get affirmation that ‘OK, this is the way that we’re built.’ We know that there’s going to be times when it doesn’t look great because we’re still evolving and growing, but we can play against a team that’s built that way and play that way for 60 minutes and have a night like that.
“So that would be the one game, I think, where it all came together best.”
Toronto’s 9-7-4 start has brought about a fair amount of introspection. That amounts to the NHL’s 18th-best points percentage — well off where this group is expected to be even when you factor in their worrying string of injuries and a busy schedule that will see them play a sixth set of back-to-backs already this weekend.
Practice was cancelled Thursday in favour of video work and a quarter-mark progress review. There aren’t too many high grades being handed out at this juncture. But head coach Mike Babcock liked the degree of honesty in the dialogue from a team still getting comfortable with one another.
“We need to take a step in a number of areas,” said Babcock. “We think we’re better individually and should be better collectively. Just talking about, though, isn’t [enough]. You’ve got to show it.”
What Dubas is looking for is a little more assertiveness. Some evidence of swagger and confidence oozing from a roster that features as much offensive talent and creativity as any other in the league.
He loved parts of what he saw from the cozy Nassau Coliseum press box earlier this week, when the Leafs pinned the New York Islanders in their own zone for significant stretches to start the first and second periods. But he didn’t like the way things got away from them after two turnovers became two goals against and swung momentum in New York’s direction in what became a 5-4 Leafs loss on Wednesday night.
“I think when something doesn’t go our way — we don’t get a bounce or a puck bounces and it ends up in our net — just not getting back on our heels and continuing to stay on our toes and staying in attack mode and being able to deal with that stuff better,” said Dubas.
As the Leafs head towards a difficult second quarter of their schedule, starting with Friday’s visit by Boston and trip to Pittsburgh on Saturday, there are only so many levers the GM can pull should the course not be righted soon.
The Leafs have painted themselves into a corner with a precarious salary cap situation. The only reason they enjoy any wiggle room at all is because Mitch Marner suffered a high-ankle sprain last weekend, but they can’t take on any contract commitments they plan on keeping beyond when he’s activated next month.
Dubas is basically limited to money-in, money-out transactions for the remainder of the season, and would likely have to remove a core piece to add anything of significance before the Feb. 24 trade deadline.
Beyond that, the only other nuclear option at his disposal is a coaching change. Dubas was careful not to lay the blame for a sputtering start on anyone in particular, saying: “It’s not up to any one person or any one player or any one coach or any one member of the front office [to turn things around]. It’s up to the collective group to forge its way through.” But Babcock’s seat will get warm if the Leafs don’t get back on the correct side of the playoff cut-off line and stay there.
For all intents and purposes, the team you see today is going to be the team. They need to become a much better version of themselves to keep this from turning into a desperate situation.
“It’s not a finished product by any stretch and we’re still trying to get there,” said Dubas. “I think when you talk about [team identity], you’re saying ‘What do teams think when they’re walking into your building?’ I think we want to shift it away from the questions to the established Stanley Cup-winning players of ‘What do the Leafs need to do?’ to here’s what they are, here’s what we can expect and we’re right there.
“I think that it’s on us to get there.”
The next best performances from this group better not come in too many losses. Even the most process-driven organizations can only stay patient for so long.