The Maple Leafs continued to struggle for even-strength offense en route to a third-straight loss on Saturday night in Los Angeles.

Your game in 10:

1.   I again didn’t like the first period by the Leafs in this game. They scored the power-play goal via John Tavares and had some chances shorthanded (a Mitch Marner breakaway, an Alex Kerfoot partial breakaway), but they generated a total of one-even strength shot on goal in the 14 minutes of 5v5 play. They were outshot 8-1 at evens.

Just like in the loss to the Sharks, they weren’t playing great, but they were in a perfectly fine position through 20 minutes — and then the penalties arrived in the second period (tonight, they both came courtesy of the last guy who needed it right now in Justin Holl), leading to two quick power-play goals against just like in San Jose.

The Leafs really have to be careful about walking the line between making plays when they’re available in order to press offensively while shorthanded, and losing sight of the first priority of making sure pucks are sent safely down the ice. TJ Brodie, Kerfoot, and Pierre Engvall — who was wearing the goat horns on the 2-1 goal — all forced plays on clearance opportunities leading to danger in the Leafs’ zone on the PK.

I also thought Ilya Samsonov could’ve done a better job of tracking and getting across quicker on the 1-1 power-play goal. Adrian Kempe was well outside the faceoff dot and basically one-timed it into the middle of the net.

2.   The Gabe Vilardi 3-1 goal in the second period started with a weak effort on the wall by William Nylander to get the puck out; he didn’t dig in on it at all and just sort of waved his stick in the direction of the puck and the pinching defenseman. But Justin Holl and Morgan Rielly — who were out there together after Dean Chynoweth had the pairs in a blender following the penalties — were definitely pressing again and running around inside their own zone. The Leafs have been outscored 10-5 at 5v5 in Rielly’s minutes and 6-4 in Holl’s.

3.    The Leafs were again getting bogged down on their zone exits or stalling in the neutral zone too often in this game, but the puck seemed to be moving more smoothly from Rasmus Sandin’s side of the ice in the opening 40 minutes… then he had a disastrous third period that included getting stripped in embarrassing fashion for the back-breaking 4-2 goal and then coughing it up inside the offensive blue line for a 2v1 against. It’s been a rough start for the Leafs blue line overall, and I can only imagine we will see Timothy Liljegren and Jordie Benn make their season debuts this upcoming week to change the mix.

It was a year ago today that Sheldon Keefe scratched Justin Holl for a run of five games after a rough start to 2021-22 where he was a minus-seven in seven games. The reset seemed to do him some good — the rest of the way, he was a +22 with 23 points in 62 games while playing over 20 minutes a night.

4.    I thought the “fourth line” was a bright spot for the Leafs again in this one (fourth line is in quotes because it was used as the team’s third line tonight).  It was their hard-working offensive-zone shift that got the Leafs back in the game at 3-2 with the Pierre Engvall goal in the second period, and they seem to be playing a more direct game than the other lines at the moment.

That said, Nicolas Aube-Kubel’s stick has been where plays go to die so far this season. The difficulty is that Engvall struggles on his off-wing, but the line is better off with Zach Aston-Reese on it right now (maybe ZAR shifts to the right with Engvall-Kampf next game).

Despite quite a few defensive-zone starts, the Leafs are controlling nearly 60% of the expected goals with Kampf and Engvall on the ice so far with a high-danger chance count of 7-2 in the Leafs’ favour.

5.   As for the “third line” (actually the fourth line tonight), it was a really awkward-looking setup from the beginning with Nick Robertson and Wayne Simmonds flanking Calle Järnkrok, and it ended with Simmonds and Robertson playing a paltry 5:31 and 6:32. None of it made sense in the first place from a stylistic point of view or when we consider that Järnkrok can’t win faceoffs (20% since the move to center) and neither Robertson or Simmonds can shift over to take them.

I thought it was a bit of an unfair move by Keefe to play Robertson so little in his return to his hometown — even if the line was clearly not gelling (which, again, was predictable), it’s not like the top lines were really rolling to the point where he couldn’t be mixed in a little more.

6.   Another small positive tonight to go along with the fourth line: the approach of using four forwards at 5v5 for an offensive-zone faceoff when trailing late in the game led to a near goal and a penalty drawn for the Leafs. Unfortunately, Auston Matthews’ really uncharacteristic start to this season included two penalties this evening. A bobbled puck on that late power play led to his penalty that all but ended the game.

7.   The parallels to last season’s start are a worthwhile talking point right now on account of the fact that they were also 4-4-1 through nine games last season and of course ended up with a franchise-record-shattering 115 points 72 games later. I do think this team will manage some version of a similar turnaround story, if not quite to the same degree.

Through their 4-4-1 stretch last season, the Leafs led the league in expected Goals For at 22, which was six above the 16 5v5 goals they scored during the month. This season, they’re at 19 expected Goals For through nine games, which is a more middling 12th in the NHL but also six above the 13 they’ve actually scored during the month.

Their special teams were also mediocre-to-bad last October and found their way as the season wore on. After a rough couple of games in San Jose and LA, the Leafs are near the bottom of the league right now on the PK at 74.3% despite an expected goals against per 60 that is quite similar to last year’s number and currently top five in the league.

8.    I have been getting the vibe off of this team that they were/are going to put themselves in a spot of adversity before they’re going to show the desperation level needed to get themselves out of this.

There is an air of staleness and joylessness to this group in the opening month of the season.  It’s been a lot of years of running it back with the same core group. They’ve experienced a lot of collective failures together — a unique run of disappointment involving huge buildups of anticipation over successful regular seasons only to flame out over 1.5-2 weeks in the postseason, over and over again, five years in a row (we’ll call the first playoff appearance in Matthews’ rookie season “playing with house money”).

It’s always been followed by changes on the periphery during the offseason before embarking on another kick at the can, starting with the whole song and dance of an 82-game schedule where convincing wins by the team are always followed by “yeah buts” and all losses are indictments of this team’s mettle as a true contender. We all know how little this team can change about its reputation until playoff time. Does it seep into the players’ thinking at some point?

There are only a handful of games a year — even if you’re a great team — that match the true definition of a “60-minute effort,” but the Leafs have been very far off of complete 60-minute efforts in the majority of their October games. The other team has looked more desperate than them over the 60 minutes pretty consistently. Tonight’s refrain from a number of the players and the coach after the loss was about “getting off of the wall” in the offensive zone — there is no magic to this in terms of strategy or systemic adjustments; it simply comes down to winning more puck battles.

Boston is a perennially good team riding a new coach bump out of the gates. The Buffalos, Ottawas, and Detroits are entering the year with a lot to prove, armed with the belief they’re not the league’s laughingstocks anymore (we can throw the Habs in here, too, to an extent). The Leafs are just sort of meandering through October going through the motions.

Is it really a damning indictment of this team’s character if there is such complacency coming off of another first-round playoff exits?  How long will they sputter before the desperation kicks in? Is it in fact the opposite of complacency, and they are actually facing a crisis in confidence here?

Is it possible we’re seeing the beginnings of them tuning out the coach? Certainly, declining special teams, one-and-done offensive exploits, a lack of attention to detail defensively, a lack of urgency in puck battles can be tell-tale signs of a bench boss losing his sway in the room.

We’ll only know in time, but my guess is that more than anything else, this team hasn’t really felt the desperation to dig in and work its way out of this yet. Maybe a flip is switched as soon as tomorrow. We certainly know they have it in them.

9.    I heard Sheldon Keefe talk after the game tonight about how they seem to be getting the other team’s best. He also mentioned how everybody knows the Leafs had the number-one power play last year. This past training camp, he made the statement: “We have established ourselves as an elite team in the NHL.”

It’s an interesting tact he’s taken there publicly. He would totally be within his rights to say, “We’ve had great regular seasons, but we haven’t won a thing (a thing, in this case, includes not just Cups or playoff rounds but even division titles and President’s Trophies), and we need to prove ourselves as true contenders in this league.” Even if you believe deep down your roster is as good as anyone’s in the NHL, you could’ve/should’ve beaten Tampa, and you weren’t afraid of any opponent to come afterward if they had advanced, who within the organization or outside of the organization would take umbrage with that message? 

Is it indicative of an entitled group with an inflated sense of its own accomplishments, one that thinks it can show up and win a bunch of these games on talent alone? There is certainly a group of fans and media in this market that believe this is the case, with one point of evidence being all the dropped points to bottom-feeding opponents. Or is it indicative of the Leafs being a fragile group — Keefe used to call them one all the time in his first season and a half here — that the head coach feels the need to boost constantly?

I honestly don’t know. Maybe it’s healthy self-belief in a team that will prove itself good enough to justify it. I recognize I am talking in a lot of unknowns and intangibles here, but there is something that’s been off about this team to start the year, and it’s hard to put a finger on what exactly.

10.   In the middle of this dreary Leafs performance, we apparently needed to hear Chris Cuthbert recite this on the broadcast:

What kind of fresh hell are we living in here?

Heat Map: 5v5 Shot Attempts

Game Flow: 5v5 Shot Attempts