“We’re out there trying to win games, that’s all we are thinking about,” defenseman Morgan Rielly said at practice Tuesday.
After a 1-2-2 road trip that ended with a 4-3 overtime loss to the Anaheim Ducks on Sunday, when they gave up a 3-1 third-period lead, the Maple Leafs began a stretch against the Philadelphia Flyers on Wednesday that has them play eight of 10 games at home.
Despite high expectations, Toronto (4-4-2) has started slowly through 10 games, including regulation losses to the Montreal Canadiens, Arizona Coyotes and Vegas Golden Knights, and overtime losses to the San Jose Sharks and Ducks — all teams that did not qualify for the Stanley Cup Playoffs last season.
As for any suggestions that Keefe’s job is in jeopardy, the players do not agree.
“We’re a hockey team that wants to win games,” forward Mitchell Marner said. “Keefe has done an unbelievable job with this team when he’s come in and done what he’s done. If you look at our numbers, we’ve really improved on a lot of things and he’s done an amazing job here. It’s been a lot of fun to play for him. For us, it’s just making sure it starts with our effort, accountability and once we get those two things going, I think we are really going to be moving in the right direction.”
Marner was held publicly accountable by Keefe during the loss Sunday, being benched for a shift after committing two turnovers that led directly to Anaheim goals. He left the bench during a stoppage in play to take out his frustration, but said his discontent stemmed from his poor play, not the benching.
“I take a lot of accountability in myself, and [Keefe] does with everyone here in this locker room,” Marner said. “It doesn’t matter who you are, you have to show every player is accountable regardless, and I’ve got no problem with that at all.”
Keefe is 120-54-21 in 195 games across four seasons since replacing Mike Babcock as Toronto coach Nov. 20, 2019, and the Maple Leafs have lost all three of their playoff series during his tenure. He said he’s not focusing on the mounting pressure.
“My focus solely is just to get our team to play better,” Keefe said. “I think an area we can improve on the most is how connected we are, how we execute coming out of our zone and getting through the neutral zone and just getting on the attack from there.”
The Maple Leafs are built around offensive prowess but entered Wednesday 26th in the NHL in goals per game (2.70), having scored more than three in a game once. Toronto ranked second with an average of 3.80 goals per game last season, when it went 2-4-1 in its first seven games, then won five straight on the way to finishing second in the Atlantic Division (54-21-7).
Captain John Tavares agreed with Keefe that the path toward improvement offensively starts in the defensive zone.
“We look at the way we are breaking the puck out and just trying to be more efficient there,” Tavares said. “Open up our speed and our ability to get on the attack and on the forecheck and hopefully connect all three zones together.”
Though the players admitted they can sense the frustration among a fan base eager to see the Maple Leafs have success, center Auston Matthews said the fans are not alone in those feelings.
“I think we’re frustrated too,” Matthews said. “I think it’s not a one-way street. We want to be better, win games and play to our capabilities. … We expect a lot from each other.”
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