TORONTO — Phil Kessel was back to his subdued self, Dion Phaneuf repeated that he and his teammates put themselves in this tough spot and Joffrey Lupul talked up being professionals while playing out the string.
The Toronto Maple Leafs returned home from a bizarre week approaching the final 17 games of the regular season as business as usual. Out of contention with almost a quarter of the season remaining, finding motivation is the biggest question.
"I think that we’re motivated in the sense that we’re playing in the National Hockey League and you’ve got to be professional," Phaneuf said Friday. "We’ve got to come to work every day with the right attitude. We’ve got to put in the work and we’ve got to try to improve."
While the Leafs were on the road, players were traded, Phaneuf and Lupul threatened a lawsuit against TSN and a Twitter user over an offensive message that appeared on the air and Kessel lashed out at the local media, saying it unfairly criticizes Phaneuf.
Pending unrestricted free agents like Joakim Lindstrom and Zach Sill, each acquired via trade, want to show some team they deserve another deal, and younger players like Richard Panik and Brandon Kozun can prove they belong here next year.
For the established veterans with long-term deals like Kessel, Phaneuf, Lupul, Tyler Bozak and James van Riemsdyk, it’s more about internal motivation. Coach Peter Horachek has to approach those players differently.
"I don’t think you can categorize Lupul with Dion — they’re all different, they’re all motivated and wired a little differently," Horachek said. "You try to embrace the team concept and being focused and being their best version of them that night and every day."
Lately, the Leafs haven’t seen the best of anyone. They’re 7-25-2 dating to Dec. 16, going into Saturday’s game against the St. Louis Blues.
Kessel leads Toronto with 51 points but has just three goals in his past 15 games. Individually and from a team perspective, the star right-winger is determined to keep pressing forward amid the struggles and the losing.
"It’s been tough, you’ve got to still stick with it, go out there and try your best and hopefully good things happen," said Kessel. "You play for the guys in here. That’s what we’re going to do here. We’re going to go out there and battle each night and try to get wins."
Lupul said he had been in a situation like this once before, when the 2006-07 Edmonton Oilers played out the string and finished in last place. The 31-year-old has consistently said he still enjoys playing hockey and makes no secret that he doesn’t enjoy losing.
In Lupul’s eyes, everyone on the Leafs has something to play for.
"You always want to improve and get better," he said. "The young guys are trying to get a spot on the team, guys are playing for contracts, and then obviously once you get on the ice you want to win the game. It’s competitive and you want to win."