TORONTO — What this all boils down to is a test of patience.
Dave Nonis’s patience. Brendan Shanahan’s patience.
The Toronto Maple Leafs are in crisis mode after getting hammered in consecutive games and neither of the team’s top executives is in any mood to let the players off the hook for those poor performances.
Yet, if the losing continues, how long can they reasonably wait before doing something drastic?
This is an organization that has tied up $217.25-million in long-term contracts for six core members of the roster over the last two years. For good or ill, it is a team built to compete now. The Leafs are also playing in a mediocre Eastern Conference and still very much in the playoff picture, but can’t afford to simply mail in their efforts.
So while it’s understandable for Nonis to try and quiet the speculation about Randy Carlyle’s future or the calls for a trade, it’s also a little bit unrealistic. His team was just outscored 15-4 by Buffalo and Nashville.
The fear is real — even if this is the same squad that blew out Boston last week.
“You can do a lot of damage to the long-term success of your team by overreacting,” Nonis cautioned Wednesday. “If there’s a deal to be made then we’ll do it. And, if not, it’s up to this group to get their play back to where it was. It’s not like we’re asking them to do something that they’ve never done before.
“We’re asking them to play like they played seven days ago — that shouldn’t be too much to ask.”
The first order of business following Tuesday’s 9-2 debacle against the Predators was a video session before practice Wednesday. The players were shown clips of occasions where they were out of position or simply gliding around the ice in an effort to hammer home how badly they played.
As you might imagine, assistant coach Chris Dennis didn’t have to search too hard for material when assembling that presentation.
“I think there were numerous failings,” said Nonis.
Once practice began, Carlyle was assertive. At one point, he even had two “X’s” spray-painted on the ice while discussing defensive zone positioning and told the players that he was “sick and tired” of seeing the same mistakes being repeated.
Despite the talk of patience, there was clearly some urgency in the air.
“Nobody’s responsible for this but us,” said Carlyle, before adding: “We can’t correct everything in one day.”
The level of frustration among the players is pretty high right now. One mentioned that he can’t wait for the team to get back on the road — they only have two games outside Toronto between now and Dec. 18 — while another grumbled about a full beer that a Leafs fan apparently launched onto the bench during Saturday’s loss in Buffalo.
The tall can of beer narrowly missed hitting backup goaltender Jonathan Bernier and exploded on a handful of players.
Meanwhile, other disgruntled fans continue to toss their Leafs sweaters on the ice at Air Canada Centre as a misguided form of protest.
“It’s disrespectful, right?” said winger Phil Kessel. “Not just to us, but to the organization to all of the Leafs players that have ever played for Toronto. If you want to boo us (that’s OK) but you’re disrespecting all of the great players and the great teams that they’ve had before us here. That’s the way I look at it.
“I think that’s pretty classless to throw your jersey on the ice like that.”
This is what happens when an organization with one playoff appearance in a decade hits the skids. It’s only November, too.
As the team looks to weather the latest hurricane, management is hoping for the players to pull together and get out of this. Nonis clearly lays the blame at their feet more than the coaching staff.
“We don’t point fingers in here,” said defenceman Cody Franson. “(The coaches) did their job in the pre-scout. We knew what Nashville was going to bring and for some reason we couldn’t put it together.
“It’s up to us in the room in order to make sure that we take steps to become a more consistent and productive group.”
Carlyle is the most likely to go if the losing lingers.
He was far from a lock to survive the summer and only received an extension after Shanahan conducted a month-long review of the organization. We are also in an era where impactful trades are nearly impossible to make in the NHL, so the easiest change is always behind the bench.
“It’s not Randy’s fault,” said Kessel. “Obviously, we’re on the ice. We’re the ones that are playing the game. I don’t think people should be blaming him. We’re out there making mistakes and not playing well the last two games.
“We’ll improve, right? It can’t get worse than that, can it?”
He better be right. It will only be so long before the patience wears thin.