Maple Leafs limp home after disastrous road trip as pressure mounts on Keefe

TORONTO — Mitch Marner says the Maple Leafs aren't thinking about their head coach's future.

They’re also convinced the solution to a disastrous start to 2022-23 rests inside the four walls of the team's locker room.

Toronto limped home from a long and disappointing road trip with even more questions than when the group jetted west Oct. 19 on the heels of a worrying start for a group that sees itself as a Stanley Cup contender.

The Leafs went 1-2-2 in Winnipeg, Las Vegas, San Jose, Los Angeles and Anaheim to bring their record to 4-4-2 through 10 outings – good for a .500 mark, but certainly nowhere near acceptable for a team with designs on finally flipping its long, painful narrative of organizational underachievement.

Not even close.

The results haven't been there, and neither has the cohesion top-to-bottom that propelled Toronto to franchise-highs in victories (54) and points (115) last season.

Stars haven't performed, while the defence corps has, at times, been a mess. Goaltending – the biggest question mark coming into the season – probably deserves a passing grade, but there are issues.

With all that in mind, the heat has been turned way up – on Keefe in particular – in recent days for a team and roster core given yet another opportunity by general manager Kyle Dubas and president Brendan Shanahan.

Marner was asked following Tuesday’s practice if the Leafs are playing for Keefe's job as the pressure mounts among an angry fan base and frothing media.

"Keefer's done an unbelievable job with this team," said the winger, whose club hosts Philadelphia on Wednesday before welcoming Boston on Saturday. "He's done an amazing job here, and it's been a lot of fun to play for him.

"It starts with our effort, accountability. When we get those two things going, I think we're really going to be moving in the right direction."

Keefe was asked about his job status for the second time in as many media availabilities after also being queried Sunday.

"My job is to prepare the group for (Wednesday)," he said. "That's absolutely my focus."

Toronto, which has failed to make the second round of the playoffs every season since 2004, got off to a slow start in 2021-22, but recalibrated before rewriting a couple pages in the franchise's history book.

A familiar refrain this fall has been to lean on that recent past, but Leafs captain John Tavares said his team isn't sitting around expecting good things to eventually come.

"That's not how we think," Tavares said in front of what was by far the largest gathering of reporters and cameras at a Leafs skate since before the COVID-19 pandemic.

"We know we haven't played well enough, and we have to be better."

Keefe said he's been surprised by the early results – Toronto has already lost to teams that finished 22nd, 23rd, 31st and 32nd overall last season – but added things could be even worse based on the October performances.

"When you talk about our start … the points that we've been able to accumulate to this point (are) probably more than what I would expect based on how we've played," said Keefe, whose team has yet to play any of team this season that made it to the second round of last spring's playoffs.

"That speaks to the ability and talent that we have as a group. My focus solely is just to get our team to play better."

The Leafs' inability to break out cleanly has been a fairly consistent issue for a group that relies on speed through the neutral zone to energize its attack.

Toronto also has just three goals from Auston Matthews – last season's Hart Trophy winner as NHL MVP – after he put up a league-high 60 last season.

“There's another level for myself,” Matthews said. “And for everybody in this room."

Marner, meanwhile, has been uncharacteristically poor with the puck, including giveaways that led to a brief benching in Sunday’s 4-3 loss in Anaheim.

"I take a lot of accountability,” Marner said. "I've got no problem with that at all."

Toronto was second in goals scored last season, but sat 22nd overall heading into Tuesday night's action. The power play, first overall in 2021-22, occupied 10th, while the penalty kill has slid from eighth to 25th.

Leafs defenceman Morgan Rielly said his team knows the level required.

"We've been trying to find it," he said. "We believe that we have the structure, we have the personnel to do so. We've gotten there in the past where we've played really good hockey.

“We're grinding away here trying to get back."

Matthews said the players feel the mounting frustration outside their bubble.

"We're frustrated, too," he said. "It's not a one-way street."

More losses, however, could potentially see a new driver at the wheel.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 1, 2022.

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Joshua Clipperton, The Canadian Press