By James Mirtle
Uploaded by: Martin Arnold
CALGARY — How much time is enough time, for old habits to die and new ones to take hold?
When does the new message become the new results, under a different voice?
And when does the finger get pointed more squarely at those who aren’t delivering rather than the messenger who delivers it?
Are 10 games enough? Or will it take 20, 30 … or the rest of the season, which could easily be lost somewhere along the way if it does stretch on?
Sheldon Keefe isn’t making excuses. He believes 10 are enough for what he’s trying to instill to make an imprint.
Even if the results are sometimes messy, as they were here in an ugly 4-2 loss to a rising Flames team.
“I would think that it is (enough time) in terms of the message,” Keefe said, of hitting the 10-game mark under his watch. “But I still think we have a long way to go in terms of structure, habits and those types of things.
“Those types of things are going to take a little bit more time. I think the message is there in the conversations that we’re having with the guys. They’re understanding. But going out and executing is a whole other thing. Then there’s the whole defensive side of it when things go bad and how you handle situations. That’s the stuff that takes a significant amount of time.”
The Leafs are 6-4-0 under Keefe, which on the face of it sounds pretty decent. But a .600 record extrapolated over their final 49 games will leave them with between 92 and 93 points, which has been good for 10th or 11th in the East the past three seasons.
That would mean a playoff miss. And a 2020 first-round pick in the low teens delivered to the Carolina Hurricanes.
Toronto needs to win more regularly — or at least lose closer games, picking up some much needed Bettman points between here and April — to get to where they want to go.
To do that, they can’t be nearly as porous as they have been, under both coaches this season. Keefe was highly critical after the Flames loss for not just the three-minute meltdown to start the third period but how unbelievably careless with the puck his team was in the second period.
He didn’t believe they’d earned their 2-1 lead to that point. (“Freddy (Andersen) bailed us out a lot in the second,” was how Mitch Marner put it.) The coach’s concern became actualized almost immediately, with brutal brain farts from some of his most experienced players on three goals against.
Tyson Barrie, in particular, blew coverages on the Flames’ second and third goals. Jason Spezza blew a centre-ice pass in a dangerous area without numbers in support.
Their teammates then sagged, struggling to mount much of a comeback attempt after those ones went in.
The gaffes were what we’d usually call mental mistakes, but it’s hard to blame fatigue or whatever when the reality is the Leafs haven’t played or practised a ton lately. Some of this is players with a reputation for risky plays simply delivering on their reputations.
Maybe the Leafs are bad defensively in key situations like this because their roster, collectively, adds up to that result?
That’s kind of what it looked like here. And it’s a grim conclusion, if accurate, given a full-scale lineup makeover is going to be hard to pull off midseason.
The Hyman-Tavares-Marner line was incredibly dangerous early and generated both of Toronto’s goals, but they were also on the ice for three against. (In fairness, I’m not sure how much you could peg those on any of them. On the first, for example, it looked like a scrambled line resulted in William Nylander being out there with Tavares and Marner and it was No. 88 with the blown assignment at the point.)
Marner and Tavares were both bitterly disappointed postgame, more so than perhaps I’ve seen them all year. It’s hard to say if that’s because they were upset at the careless mistakes made by teammates or something they felt they could have done differently on their own.
They weren’t going to start calling anyone out, certainly.
Marner, actually, seemed downright sour, answering one innocuous question about the line’s strong production of late with a “but we’ve always been good” response that seemed out of character.
“I thought we’ve been good all year to be honest,” Marner said, including Tavares. “Everyone just keeps talking about the start. No one cares about it anymore. It’s done with. I’m over it. So is he. Our team needs to be better every night. We’ve got to help our team win every night. That’s what we’ve got to keep doing.”
The Leafs were outscored 15-7 with Marner on the ice at even strength in their first 13 games of the season. Toronto’s share of expected goals in those minutes was just 46.7 percent, too, after that line dominated the NHL in that department a year ago.
It was a slow start, for whatever reason, and it’s turned around significantly since Marner returned from an ankle injury a few games ago. That’s not so much lazy reporter narrative as it is plain results. It’s also vital that it continues, given the Leafs have 30 percent of their payroll tied up in those three players, all of whom have had to battle injuries already.
The bigger concern here, other than obviously the late collapse, remains the mental state of this group. Reading between the lines of their comments, I think it’s fair to say Marner and Tavares were so frustrated on Thursday because the momentum they’d fought for and earned early in the game disappeared so quickly on careless mistakes made (mostly) by others.
This team is going to need to grow some extra resilience in the face of adversity like that here in the coming weeks, however, as this has all the makings of a difficult fight the rest of the way. They have to win a lot of games. And they can’t expect to lean so heavily on Andersen, every single night, and have him save them — literally — from this kind of outcome.
As spectacular as he has been — a Vezina candidate of the highest order the past six weeks, with a .942 even-strength save percentage that’s bested by only two regular starters leaguewide — it’s glaring that he has had to be that damn good just to coax out a decent 9-6-1 record in that time frame.
Factor in the mess when the backup plays and that’s not a recipe for success. Even if the big Dane does somehow keep playing this well.
Keefe, for his part, is clearly worried about his team’s ability to bounce back after bad goals against. He quickly called a timeout at 4-2 and delivered a blunt message, one Marner relayed as being focused on their mistakes to that point in the game.
“I mean, we know what team we can be when we control the puck,” Marner said. “We’ve got the skill. We’re a hard team to defend when we have it in our hands. The message was stop throwing the puck away.”
Ten games in, that hasn’t yet sunk in.
Which feels like a problem.
Or, at the very least, another indicator to players that things still need to change.
“The game works in funny ways,” Keefe said, “and teaches you lessons along the way. So it’s just another sign that we have a long way to go as a group.”