Dreadful road trip shows Maple Leafs GM Dubas has not built a Cup contender

Trevor Zegras scored twice, including the overtime winner as the Anaheim Ducks rallied from a 3-1 deficit to defeat the Toronto Maple Leafs 4-3, giving them their fourth straight loss.

ANAHEIM — If you build a house with faulty materials, it will eventually come crumbling down in shambles.

Morgan Rielly has been living within these comfy walls the longest. He has security for years and skill for days. He wants you to know that he believes. That another turnaround after another baby-food-soft start to the regular season is coming.

With the Toronto Maple Leafs frequently playing like 20 strangers during this dismal losing skid out west, gifting goals and missing passes, Rielly framed Sunday’s Fragile Bowl as a litmus test for a room that has only known defeat when the stakes get high.

“This is a great opportunity for our team to prove our character, to compete, and to respond,” Rielly proclaimed, following Saturday’s defeat by the Kings.

“We know that we have better in us. It’s about time we start showing it,” echoed Alexander Kerfoot.

The 32nd-place, one-win, rebuilding Ducks were being served up on a platter. And the supposedly high-flying Maple Leafs failed to make à l’orange, losing 4-3 in overtime.

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Does that mean Rielly lacks character? No.

It means his general manager has constructed a hockey team with not nearly enough of it.

Yes, the Maple Leafs will dig out of this hole, maybe as early as Wednesday against a tired and injury-riddled Philadelphia Flyers team. Their shooting percentage will improve, and their high-end skill will find more nets.

But after 10 games, after going 4-4-2 and deserving each of their six losses to teams that never made or survived Round 1 last spring, we’ve seen enough to say this roster ain’t it.

As currently constructed, the Maple Leafs may reach the playoffs — but they won’t scare anyone when they get there.

Can a big trade or desperate change behind the bench make a difference?

Head coach Sheldon Keefe is scrambling out of pocket.

He’s tried the whip, the callout, the walk-back, and the shake-up.

Each night brings scrambled lines, uneven pairings, and sloppy results.

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As these losses to supposed lesser-lights mount, the coach has flipped from taskmaster to encourager. He’s dealing with a wounded animal.

After his group coughed up a 3-1 lead Sunday — and got lucky with a curiously successful goalie interference challenge — Keefe mentioned the difficulty of playing a back-to-back. He said he saw positive moments to build on. He referred to the return of young Timothy Liljegren (off hernia surgery) and journeyman Jordie Benn (groin) as reasons for optimism.

Earlier in the trip, the coach noted that the Leafs have been seeing the very best from their opponents this season. As if Toronto’s players are not allowed to also provide their best, too.

The man is grasping at straws.

Once Anaheim mounted its third-period rally, off a Mitch Marner turnover, Keefe burned his timeout with a 3-2 lead and 11 minutes on the board to deal with a delicate group psyche.

Then the Ducks went out, outworked the Leafs, and popped in two more.

Keefe was asked if he’s concerned his job may be in jeopardy.

“I’m just going to focus on what I can do here,” he replied, calmly.

(Dubas was requested to speak publicly Sunday. That request was denied through Leafs p.r.)

It’s becoming apparent that the coach cannot make lemonade here.

Dubas has failed to provide him with the tools to build a legitimate contender.

Calle Jarnkrok, Nicolas Aubé-Kubel, Zach Aston-Reese, Victor Mete — they’re cap-friendly, sure, but they’re not difference-makers.

Big splash Matt Murray, like tough D-man Jake Muzzin, were known to be injury-prone in the summer. That prophecy has come true.

AHL goalie Erik Källgren has already started three of Toronto’s 10 games. He’s lost them all.

Dismiss this as old-school if you wish, but the Maple Leafs don’t have enough gritty, hard role players orbiting around their talented core.

The frustrating thing is, they’ve had a bunch of them filter away due to economics or an inability to fit the vision. Nazem Kadri. Zach Hyman. Connor Brown. Ilya Lyubushkin. Mason Marchment.

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This is a one-note club, and when they can’t outscore their mistakes, all you’re left with are mistakes.

Dubas sextupled down on his players and his philosophy in composing this team. Same plan expecting different results.

So, here we are. Another lacklustre October in the books.

But there is a concerning difference between 2021’s uneven start and this one.

“There was probably some better performances inside of some of those (lost) games last year,” Keefe concedes, correctly. “We haven’t looked like ourselves as much as we did during that period of time.”

It’s not the coach’s fault, but there is an atypical urgency to solve this problem, which is eating a demoralized and disorganized dressing room.

These thick walls of Maple Leafs HQ, they swear, are soundproof. They block out white noise. The people within stay the course and stick to the Shanaplan. Because, hey, on paper this should all work out just fine.

“We started off a lot worse last year, and everyone tried to put shambles in our brain,” Marner says.

“It’s not going to happen with us.”

Fox’s Fast 5

• Keefe’s spread-the-offence third line — William Nylander centring Nick Robertson and Denis Malgin — was designed to create a third wave of offence and take advantage of an easier depth matchup on the road.

It worked to some extent, as the trio combined for Toronto’s lone even-strength goal.

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• Poor Justin Holl is fighting it right now. He looks overwhelmed when the puck is on his tape.

Partnering righty Holl with T.J. Brodie (the Leafs lefty most comfortable on the right) was an insulation move by Keefe. The coach was forced into retrying the risky Rasmus Sandin–Morgan Rielly duo as a result. And they fared well, finishing in the plus column.

• Kerfoot is going to regret celebrating this non-goal instead of tapping it in:

• Anaheim’s Mason McTavish has now played nine NHL games. His next one will burn a year of his entry-level contract. The 2021 third-overall pick is skating on the top line. We can’t see him getting sent down anytime soon.

• I suppose if the Ducks’ goal is to win the Connor Bedard sweepstakes, you simply stay the course. But Anaheim’s defending, special teams, and structure all look shaky.

“We just want to get connected in our game. We show spurts of some good, and then a mistake can dismantle us,” coach Dallas Eakins told reporters of his fragile group. “We’ve had enough talk about it. We just need to put it into action now.”

Eakins is in his fourth sub-.500 season coaching this club.

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