There have been times this season when Maple Leafs head coach Mike Babcock has been very pleased with what he's seen out of his players. Indeed, any team that begins the season with seven wins in its first 10 games has to be doing a lot of things right. But Babcock's experience as an NHL bench boss makes him keenly aware the key to any squad becoming a serious contender for a Stanley Cup championship is consistency - and that's something that hasn't come easily in Toronto's most recent stretch of action, including the Buds' 6-3 loss to Carolina Thursday.
"If you go back, we beat Chicago before we lost to New Jersey, and everyone was talking about '(the Leafs are) a good team, and (it was) a good win', and what happened to us - we weren't ready to play the next day," Babcock told Leafs Nation Network after a short practice Friday. "Then we beat L.A. (on Monday), it was supposed to be a good team, they hadn't lost yet, (and) what happened to us (against the Hurricanes)? So the level of commitment to doing it right every single day for a championship team is that: you've got to do it every single day, and you have to do it at practice, and you've got to do it when you don't feel good, and you've got to do it when you travel, and you've got to do it when you're tired. And you just do it every single day, and that becomes the norm and the expectation. And that's what we have to set here."
All three of the Leafs' losses this season have come by a score of 6-3, and revealed a lack of defensive effort and cohesion in their own zone. And although Toronto's high-powered offence has often helped them out of difficult situations, hockey's best league also has too many good goaltenders and too many skilled shut-down players to allow the Buds to rely on their scoring prowess to be the driving force behind their wins night after night. At some point, the Leafs have to be more structured and driven away from the puck, and prove they can play that way game-in and game-out.
"We haven't played well enough defensively," said centre Tyler Bozak. "Too many turnovers, and not good enough in our own end with sort-outs and stuff like that. So it's something we've got to work out in practice and get better at as the season goes on."
"I think we've still got work to do," added goalie Frederik Andersen. "Working on the consistency, I think we can improve on that a little bit. But yeah, we did some good work today, and we'll try and get ready for tomorrow."
Toronto's next game comes Saturday against the visiting Philadelphia Flyers, a team that's mired in a two-game losing skid - the same skid the Hurricanes were dealing with when they came into Air Canada Centre. But the Flyers are a more offensively potent club than Carolina has been - averaging 3.4 goals-for per game through 10 games, compared to the Canes' 3.0 goals-for average in their first eight games - and they have the ability to again push the Leafs hard in their own end.
With a four-game road trip looming after Saturday's game - a trip that will see them square off against the NHL's three California teams as well as the Central Division-leading St. Louis Blues - the Leafs will be aiming for a strong defensive showing against the Flyers to set the tone for their road swing.
"You always look at the teams that end up winning at the end of the year, and they play really good team defence," Bozak said. "We know we can score goals in here and stuff like that, but we've got to keep them out of our net. We're not going to win too many games giving up that many chances and opportunities-against."