TORONTO — They’ve won just one of five games so far and will be playing to stay out of the Atlantic Division basement the next time the puck drops.
But there’s an unmistakeable — not to mention unusual — feeling around the Toronto Maple Leafs right now.
“If you look at the games, we’re more structured and we’re following the plan,” Roman Polak, arguably the team’s most candid player, said Monday. “You can see improvement from last year a lot.”
Even with a 1-3-1 record so far, this hasn’t exactly been the pain we were promised. The Leafs have taken positive strides with puck possession and kept it close in each of their losses, save for a 4-0 defeat in coach Mike Babcock’s return to Detroit.
If anything, they’ve been let down by something previously viewed as a strength: goaltending. Their team save percentage of .889 is among the worst in the league.
Jonathan Bernier‘s penchant for allowing goals early in games is already enough of a concern that Babcock addressed it with him on Monday morning.
“I’m not a big believer in putting your head in the sand and ignoring what’s going on,” said Babcock. “I like to address it. What I like about Bernie is he takes responsibility, works hard, he’s trying to do everything right.
“I think with our team getting better structurally it’s going to be easier for the goaltenders.”
An unusually slow start to the schedule is largely being welcomed here, with the Leafs having been given a five-day break between games last week and only having visits to Buffalo (Wednesday) and Montreal (Saturday) on the calendar this week.
It’s allowed for much more practice time than usual and has given players a chance to get familiar with what is expected from their new coach.
What exactly this Leafs team is remains a bit of a mystery. Talent-wise they’re clearly lagging behind the pack, but Babcock said after Saturday’s 2-1 loss in Pittsburgh that “we can get this team to win every night.”
“I really believe that,” he said. “When you put your work boots on and you trust each other and you play hard, you’ve got a chance.”
One rival executive recently likened Toronto to an expansion team because of how much of the roster is comprised of journeymen. Only six active players currently have contracts that extend beyond the end of next season and many of the others will be candidates to be shipped out by the Feb. 29 trade deadline.
Yet, despite the level of uncertainty and despite the fact the team isn’t expected to challenge for a playoff spot, a positive feeling pervades.
There will only be a certain shelf life for that, especially if the on-ice results don’t eventually catch-up to the perceived gains being made. But with nine new faces and everyone getting an opportunity to contribute — the team’s average ice time ranges from Mark Arcobello (11:46) to Morgan Rielly (21:59) — there seems to be a belief growing that better things are ahead.
“You see that we are on the right path,” said Polak. “I think that’s the positive thing. You see the things we’re doing good; we’re outshooting teams, we’re playing well.”
Now they need a few more wins to follow.