TORONTO – The speech wasn’t particularly long, but the message was abundantly clear to the Toronto Maple Leafs: with no help on the horizon, it’s up to the current players to turn things around.
Assistant general manager Dave Nonis delivered an address to the team at practice Friday and they responded with a shootout win over Boston on Saturday. The players hope it’s something they can build on.
“Dave pretty much said that he just believes in our group,” said forward Colby Armstrong. “I think we were going through a time where it was tough for us. I don’t know if it was confidence or what. It wasn’t a long talk—pretty much just a little kick in the butt to the boys and also a little confidence boost.
“I guess message received.”
The win was just the fifth for Toronto in 21 games.
After starting the year with four straight wins, it’s been a pretty bumpy road. The early success provided a basis for Nonis’s address.
“It was pretty simple really,” said rookie forward Nazem Kadri. “He just kind of told us to keep our heads up (because) we’ve got a group in here that can win. I think that showed for the first couple weeks of the season—that’s kind of what he hinted at—he said, ‘If you look back at those two weeks you kind of were doing everything right.’
“We were beating good hockey teams and we were a good hockey team ourselves. He kind of just wanted us to reminisce about the first couple weeks and just remember what we did properly.”
Since they’re moving forward with what they have, it’s worth looking at what’s gone right and what’s gone wrong so far this year:
The biggest surprise in Toronto can be found on the blue-line, where third-year defenceman Luke Schenn has bounced back from a sophomore slump. He’s among the team leaders in ice time and has become a reliable performer for coach Ron Wilson.
Amazingly, the goaltending has already been pretty good.
Jonas Gustavsson’s record is only 3-7-2, but the team has scored more than one goal in just five of those games. The second-year Swede has a .910 save percentage and 2.66 goals-against average.
Among the surprises: Nikolai Kulemin, who is on pace for a 30-goal season; and free-agent pickup Clark MacArthur, who is well on his way to surpassing his career-high 31 points after putting up 19 points through 25 games.
The scorers are in the cross-hairs here and with little surprise—only one NHL team has scored less than Toronto’s total of 2.12 goals per game.
Tyler Bozak has been the primary target after spending the majority of the season as the team’s top line centre. The 24-year-old has just three goals and eight points thus far.
Another frustrating performer has been Phil Kessel even though he has 10 goals. The winger was pencilled in for 40 this season and readily admits he’s expected to do more.
“It’s frustrating,” Kessel said Saturday. “I was brought here to score goals and be an offensive player. Right now I’m not scoring enough and I’m not doing enough. I’ve got to pick it up here.”
Goals have kept the team from a better record.
Kadri, who has played 11 NHL games, is still looking for his first in regulation. While some might call him a disappointment, that ignores the promise he’s shown with five assists and the shootout goal on Saturday. He will clearly have something to say about the Leafs future.
The team is facing a particularly tough week. With four games in six days against top opponents—Washington, Pittsburgh, Philadelphia and Montreal—the need to buckle down is evident. The time for talk is over.
“We’ve said everything the last few weeks, we just have to do it on the ice,” said defenceman Francois Beauchemin. “We finally did that (Saturday). And we need to keep doing it.”