EL SEGUNDO, Calif. — The one season the Toronto Maple Leafs escaped California with a winning record they immediately lost their next eight games. That was Randy Carlyle’s 2013-14 team, which collapsed under the weight of unsustainable shot differentials and an ill-timed groin strain suffered by Jonathan Bernier at Staples Center.
The following year, the Leafs returned here in the early days of Peter Horachek’s half-season as head coach, and the interim boss tried to foster some goodwill with his players by ordering “In-N-Out” Burgers following a late afternoon practice in suburban Los Angeles.
He then watched them lose 2-0, 4-0 and 3-1 while going oh-for-California. That was the beginning of a slide that eventually led to a complete overhaul of the entire front office and coaching staff.
“Not a lot of fond memories,” Morgan Rielly said Monday of his games in this state. “I think you play with guys and you create friendships that you like and you try to approach every day with a good attitude, but when you’re losing it’s not very fun.”
Even in the more prosperous era under Mike Babcock, there hasn’t been much winning out west. They are 3-5-1 here since he took over and just 5-9-1 in the previous five seasons overall.
Now, there isn’t a huge mystery as to why this has happened. A California-based team played in the Western Conference final every year from 2010 to 2017, with the Kings winning two Stanley Cups and the Sharks and Ducks often icing teams with legitimate championship aspirations.
Together, they formed an intimidating stretch of schedule for any visiting opponent, especially those like Toronto who almost always played the three heavyweights in a four-day span.
They will do so again this week starting with a Tuesday visit to Los Angeles, where the Kings are uncharacteristically floundering at the bottom of the NHL standings. But even if the quality of hockey being played in California has been diminished this season, the Leafs aren’t looking past their recent struggle.
“A good test for us. These road trips are always tough,” said Rielly. “These teams out in California are always good, they’ve been good for a long time.”
“They’ve got a lot of great players on all the teams we’re going to play on this road trip, so we’ve got to be ready for that,” added Mitch Marner. “We’ve got to make sure we come ready to play. Against L.A., they’ve got a lot of skill on that team. The bounces haven’t been going their way as you can see in the standings, but I think as everyone knows when you play against them you see how good they are.”
The Leafs are still learning how good they might be. They arrive here with a promising 11-6-0 record and a justified belief they’ll eventually become even more dangerous when Auston Matthews returns from a left shoulder injury and if William Nylander is eventually signed to a contract.
Even though Nylander’s absence is generating big headlines and becoming a source of concern for many fans, it hasn’t cast a shadow over his teammates. They hope he’s signed before the Dec. 1 deadline passes, but seem to fully support his willingness to push negotiations this late into November.
“He’s a big part of this team. He’s a big part of our offence and you miss him every time out there on that ice,” said Marner, who will soon go through his own contract negotiation. “It’s a life decision and he’s going to make the right one.”
“To be honest I’ve never seen this before,” said Kasperi Kapanen, Nylander’s closest friend in the organization. “He’s got to do what he’s got to do. I don’t know what to think about it and they’re for sure trying to figure something out now.”
Even Babcock is remaining Zen. His forward lines would be even deeper with Nylander and his second power-play unit would instantly get better, but he’s not playing the coulda’-woulda’-shoulda’ game.
“I mean obviously we want Willy on the team,” said Babcock. “We’d like [Matthews] to be playing every night, Willy to be playing every night. When you go around the league and you play against good teams it really shows when you’re not quite as deep as you could be.
“We like our whole group, we think Willy’s a good kid. But this is the business side of the game and as a coach, I just coach the players they’ve got here.”
So here they are without a full deck in a place where the games tend to be tough. Los Angeles, San Jose and then Anaheim.
It’s never boring in California.
A look back at Toronto’s most recent road trips through California
Oct. 30, 2017, 3-2 loss at San Jose
Nov. 1, 2017, 3-1 win at Anaheim
Nov. 2, 2017, 5-3 loss at Los Angeles
Feb. 28, 2017, 3-1 loss at San Jose
March 2, 2017, 3-2 shootout loss at Los Angeles
March 3, 2017, 5-2 loss at Anaheim
Jan. 6, 2016, 4-0 win at Anaheim
Jan. 7, 2016, 2-1 loss at Los Angeles
Jan. 9, 2016, 7-0 loss at San Jose
Jan. 12, 2015, 2-0 loss at Los Angeles
Jan. 14, 2015, 4-0 loss at Anaheim
Jan. 15, 2015, 3-1 loss at San Jose
March 10, 2014, 3-1 win at Anaheim
March 11, 2014, 6-2 loss at San Jose
March 13, 2014, 3-2 win at Los Angeles