It was quite a sight at the Toronto Maple Leafs practice facility on Monday.
Five coaches, seven defencemen and both goaltenders all huddled around an empty goal, watching on as a debate over defensive zone strategy appeared to get a little heated toward its end.
Approaching the 20-minute mark of the get-together, Leafs captain Dion Phaneuf and assistant coach Greg Cronin had an animated discussion about where, exactly, the defencemen should be standing in front of their own net.
That such fundamentals are a hot topic, after 38 games of the regular season, isn’t exactly a great sign.
Even so, coming off an ugly 0-2-1 trip that ended with a loss Saturday to the Jets in Winnipeg, the Leafs haven’t quite hit the panic stage just yet.
Frustration? That’s out in full force.
Toronto, after all, has just four wins in its past 14 games (4-7-3), a span during which Ron Wilson’s charges have allowed 3.5 goals a game, on average, and dropped to 10th place in the Eastern Conference from second.
Of late, the blueliners have been directly in the line of fire, with Wilson pointing the finger at Luke Schenn and Jake Gardiner for deflecting in two of the goals-against in the 3-2 loss to the Jets.
That blame game appeared to be what set off the heart-to-heart Monday.
“We weren’t debating,” Phaneuf insisted afterward, trying to play down the on-ice exchange. “We were just discussing some different things to get better.”
“We’re doing some things on blocking shots and being in the proper lane,” Wilson explained. “[We’re] discussing some of the techniques because at times we’re screening the goalie, we’re not blocking the shot. We’ve got to find a way to block the shot or get out of the way.”
Wilson even attempted to illustrate what he was talking about during practice by tying a giant white rope to both goalposts and creating a large V shape on the ice, something meant to highlight how standing closer to a shooter would make it easier to get in the way.
Its significance, however, seemed lost on his players.
“To be honest with you, we didn’t even talk about the rope,” Phaneuf said. “We put it out there and we talked about something else.”
What was clear from the meeting Monday was that there remains a little confusion and even disagreement among players and staff, especially when it comes to fixing the team’s league-worst penalty kill and other defensive deficiencies.
At one point after practice, veteran defenceman Mike Komisarek could be heard just outside of the dressing room candidly advising one teammate to get on the same page rather than go his own way.
If there’s a positive for Toronto at the moment, it’s that there is a sense of urgency aimed at righting the ship, especially given its game Tuesday against the Tampa Bay Lightning will mark the first in a string of nine of 10 at home.
Those nine games are nearly 40 per cent of the Leafs’ remaining home dates – part of a relatively soft January schedule – all of which will be played in the next three weeks in a make-or-break stretch for Wilson’s regime.
Another month like December, and it’s a safe bet general manager Brian Burke will once again have to start remodelling his roster, something that has become an annual occurrence around early February during his time in Toronto.
But even Burke is running out of time to rebuild his rebuild, making January a crucial part of not only Wilson’s last stand as coach, but the GM’s tenure here as well.
All involved realize the playoffs are long past due, and with a half season to go, they’re suddenly playing from behind.
“We’ve just got to take care of business,” Wilson said when asked about his team slipping from playoff position. “Win our games. Especially the head-to-head matches with people that are ahead of us in the standings right now.”
And that is a longer list than it has been all season.