A casual observer would never have guessed the Toronto Maple Leafs were the last winless team in the NHL.
There were smiles all around as players exchanged barbs and finished packing up their equipment for the start of a five-game road trip on Thursday.
The 0-6-1 team had just wrapped up a fourth straight day on the practice ice – a potentially monotonous stretch that the Leafs have tried to turn into a positive experience.
They certainly seemed to be in the right frame of mind before boarding a plane and flying west to Vancouver, where they’ll face the Canucks on Saturday (CBC, 7 p.m. ET).
“It’s all about staying positive,” said defenceman Mike Komisarek. “It’s easy to get caught up in the negativity if you follow what the media (are saying). You can’t let it get to you, you have to stay positive. The results haven’t been there and you have to build somewhere – and that starts in practice for us.”
Leafs coach Ron Wilson did his best to mix things up this week. In addition to working on some of the team’s defensive shortcomings with specific drills, he also set aside some time for fun – having his players compete in a 3-on-3 tournament using smaller ice on Wednesday.
The big gap between games also gave some injuries a chance to heal and there’s hope that goaltender Jonas Gustavsson might be ready to return from a groin strain.
Wilson elected not to speak with reporters following Thursday’s practice, but he did tell Toronto radio station “The Fan 590” he had his “fingers crossed” that Gustavsson might be able to play against the Canucks.
The goaltender known as “The Monster” has been out since a start against Ottawa on Oct. 6 and went through his first full practice with teammates on Thursday.
“It’s getting better and better,” said Gustavsson. “I’m not sure about Saturday. We’ll see what happens.”
Goaltending has only been one part of the problem for a team that’s surrendered more goals per game than any other in the league.
The revamped blue-line has struggled with its defensive responsibilities and could see a change of its own. Wilson has been swapping Jeff Finger and Garnet Exelby in and out of the lineup until now, but appeared to be using sophomore Luke Schenn as the extra defenceman in practice Thursday.
Given Wilson’s penchant for sending a message with a scratch, Schenn looks like a candidate for the press box.
The 19-year-old is hoping a good road trip will give the defence a chance to send a message of its own.
“We’ve had a rough start here as a defence,” said Schenn. “We’ve got to pick it up – we have the guys capable back on our defence to do that. … It’s nice to head on the road for a few days and hopefully (we’ll) get something going out there.”
Even though it’s still early in the season, the Leafs have already dug a sizeable hole. They’re dead last in the NHL and will need to play at roughly a 100-point pace the rest of the season to qualify for the playoffs.
The players are currently focused on much smaller goals – like getting a win – and seemed excited to be leaving Toronto behind for a week and a half.
“This is the first road trip this season and the first for me,” said Gustavsson, a rookie from Sweden. “It’s going to be a great adventure for me to see what it’s all about, to be on the road with an NHL team.”
After the game in Vancouver, the Leafs will make stops in Anaheim, Dallas, Buffalo and Montreal.
It’s an itinerary that will see a few team members revisit their old stomping grounds: executives Brian Burke and Dave Nonis each worked in both Vancouver and Anaheim; defenceman Francois Beauchemin plays his first game against the Ducks since leaving over the summer; and forward Niklas Hagman will be back in Dallas for the first time.
That in itself provides some excitement.
“Obviously when the schedule comes out, you always look at some of the cities you go back to,” said Beauchemin. “Anaheim is one of them, obviously having won (the Stanley Cup) there. It’s going to be special for sure to go back to this place and play in front of the fans and against my old teammates.”
For the rest of the players in the Leafs dressing room, they’re hoping it’s memorable for entirely different reasons. They see this as the chance to starting turning around their season.
“We’ve got to go out and win a hockey game,” said forward Matt Stajan. “We’re focused and we know it’s a big road trip for us. We want to come back home feeling good about ourselves.”