As they entered the home stretch of the 2018-19 regular season, the Maple Leafs had one area of focus on their minds: being better on defence. It's easier said than done, but Toronto's players and coaching staff weren't about to avoid the issue in front of media. They're owning their recent struggles in their own zone, and for head coach Mike Babcock, taking ownership of an area of concern is the best way to find a solution.
"Obviously, we've got to recommit to being better defensively," Babcock said Monday after practice. "We've given up too much on the rush here the last little bit, and so we've got to do a better job that way, and we understand that as a group."
The Leafs have lost three of their past four games - including their most recent game: a 6-2 defeat at the hands of the Ottawa Senators - and were outscored 17-8 in those three losses. Over that span, Toronto has been experiencing some major breakdowns, with and without the puck. And although the Leafs' offence is a beast most NHL opponents have difficulties with, the Buds know that outscoring the opposition at a rate of five or more goals-per-game is something that isn't sustainable, especially with the playoffs starting approximately three weeks away.
So, it's simple: the Leafs have to be more responsible with the puck. They've got depth and talent to spare when it comes to generating goals, but in this recent stretch, Toronto is giving up far too many odd-man rushes, many of which have turned into goals-against. Prioritizing defensive responsibility is going to be key for the Buds in the final 10 games of the season - including their next game, a Tuesday showdown against the Predators in Nashville.
"We've given up too many goals in these games," centre Auston Matthews said Monday. (For) as well as we can play offensively and the firepower that we have, if we play that loose on defence, it's tough to win games like that."
Matthews was quick to quash any suggestion that Toronto's struggles have produced a sour group of Maple Leafs in the dressing room.
"The mood is fine," Matthews said. "In our meetings today…we're not sulking or getting down on one another. We want to hold each other accountable…the big message today was just commitment on defence, making sure that all five guys are communicating."
The Predators have won two in a row entering Tuesday's game; their most recent win improved their record to 41-27-5. The Leafs, meanwhile, have a 43-24-5 record, a fact that should calm some of Toronto's critics. Yes, the Buds are having significant issues keeping the puck out of their net, but in dealing with it over the next 10 games, they have the opportunity to be doing things right once the post-season begins.
If they can do that, this span of tough games may come to be seen as crucial to Toronto's development, both as an organization and as the individuals who help to comprise it.
"I think adversity is really important for you in life," Babcock said. "When you don't have any, you think you should get some so you can get better; (but) when you get it, you don't want it. We have (adversity) right now - (so) let's pull together, let's dig in, and let's get better."