Leafs need a new mindset

LANCE HORNBY, SUN MEDIA

, Last Updated: 8:29 AM ET

Looking for an early Christmas present for your favourite Maple Leaf?

How about a game night alarm clock with the snooze button ripped out.

Coach Ron Wilson is getting so peeved with his club’s stumbling starts, surrendering the first goal in 16 of 18 games and falling behind by two in nine of them, that he’s threatening sanctions for stage fright.

“I have to be a lot more adamant and take ice time away from guys who don’t do the right things in the first shift or two,” Wilson said Monday at the MasterCard Centre, before the flight to Ottawa for Tuesday’s game.

It wasn’t that long ago that Wilson wanted to ease all that outside pressure on the team, letting them frolic with tennis balls in practice or play on a three-quarter ice surface.

At least the Leafs were getting points for a bit, but now the early deficits, coupled with 25 even-strength goals out of 45 has snapped the coaching staff’s patience.

At one stage during offensive drills Monday, assistant coach Tim Hunter shouted: ‘Wakey, wakey’ at the line of Mikhail Grabovski, Jason Blake and Niklas Hagman, a trio with 11 combined goals.

“Our power play is doing great, our penalty killing is starting to do better, but even-strength, we have to find a way,” Blake said. “You don’t have to be great in every area, but you have to be pretty good.”

The Leafs still get a rousing welcome at home and can be seen firing each other up as they leave the room.

What happens in the few yards to reach the ice is another matter.

“It’s definitely a mindset,” winger Lee Stempniak said. “Each person has to take responsibility for themselves, so coaches don’t have to come in and give rah-rah talks. It shouldn’t take older guys or different guys to write inspirational speeches. (Being game-ready) is part of our job.

“I don’t know what it is. It seems we’re coming out and trying hard, but not being mentally tough, not sticking to basics, turning pucks over and basically spotting teams goals. Then we have to fight that much harder to come back. If we’re a bit more responsible with the puck, I think we’ll be fine.”

With each loss, however, Wilson is showing less resolve to let lines play their way through difficulties. Top gun Phil Kessel has bounced between centres Matt Stajan and John Mitchell, the Euro unit of Grabovski, Nikolai Kulemin and Alexei Ponikarovsky has been broken up and Rickard Wallin was moved from fourth line to third and back again.

“When we start to win consistently, then the lines will be consistent,” Wilson said “It’s something for you guys to write about.”

But the bottom line in every newspaper dispatch is the Leafs’ record, 3-10-5, is in danger of being last overall again if they lose Tuesday and Thursday to 30th-place Carolina.

While it’s hardly playoff-calibre hockey, neither should a fairly expensive roster be sitting among the dregs of the NHL.

“We’re obviously not happy where we’re at,” Stajan said. “But there’s a lot of hockey left, over 60 games. The next two weeks are big, a lot of games against teams close to us in the standings.

“It’s important to get that first goal, it builds confidence throughout the lineup. We have to come out with better starts, no matter where we are.”

Wilson also wants his team to pay a bigger price in front of the opposing net, the so-called “dirty areas”.

“It’s up to the individual, but the science of it is to stand in front of a puck and pretend you’re the goalie,” Wilson said. “Maybe I should be facetious and say: ‘Be like our (goalies) and let the puck go by you and into the net.’ But if you line up like you’re going to block a shot, chances are the goalie is going to be screened.

“When we do it right, Pony has done a pretty good job, Hagman and a lot of guys, but not consistently. We do that well on our power play, but there’s one less guy to block a shot on the other team.”


Videos

Photos