Inconsistent Maple Leafs taking their time in establishing the right identity

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A month into the regular season and it’s a guess as to which Maple Leafs team will come to play on any given night. 

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When the Leafs entertain the Ottawa Senators on Wednesday at Scotiabank Arena, will it be the group that rallied against the Tampa Bay Lightning on Monday to win in overtime? Will it be the group that had little intensity 48 hours earlier in a loss against the Buffalo Sabres, a game that kicked off a five-game home stand?

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What we can say with certainty through the Leafs’ first 12 games of 2023-24 is that they’re a team that can’t get a grip on consistently good hockey.

Perhaps the biggest question about the Leafs: Is this what they are, a club that can fill the net in some games but often is lacking in urgency and defensive awareness, or is it one that has not played to its capabilities and can turn a corner in the coming weeks?

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The Leafs have managed to put early season struggles behind them in recent years, but this is a different group. As much as the core is the same, the exterior pieces are different and not one of the newcomers has performed to expectations. 

Things are changing as well in the Atlantic Division. The Senators come to Toronto with five losses in their past six games and sit last in the Atlantic, but it’s becoming clear that points in the division won’t be as easy to come by.

Before games on Tuesday, the second-place Detroit Red Wings and the seventh-place Buffalo Sabres were separated by just three points. 

In the middle were the Leafs, who have the sport’s most dangerous scorer in Auston Matthews, but have won just three games in regulation. That’s not the mark of a team that has serious designs on ending a Stanley Cup drought this spring.

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Of the parts of the Leafs’ game to like through four weeks, much of it boils down to what’s happening on an individual basis. That will change if the new lines that were good in the victory against Tampa — Matthew Knies with Matthews and Mitch Marner, and Nick Robertson on the left with centre Max Domi and Calle Jarnkrok — use the game as a springboard and continue to play smart hockey.

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With 13 goals, Matthews appears intent on taking a healthy run at his career-high of 60.

Not only has Marner put together a seven-game point streak, he had consecutive four-point nights. A similar evening of production against Ottawa and Marner would become the first player in franchise history to put together a streak of three games with at least four points.   

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William Nylander’s assist on Jarnkrok’s OT winner on Monday ran his team-record point streak to start a season to 12 games; captain John Tavares’ production has fallen off, but he remains on pace to contribute a point a game. 

Where Ilya Samsonov has faltered in net, Joseph Woll has not. Morgan Rielly has been the Leafs’ best defenceman and is back on the top power-play unit, where he should be.

As far as the additions go, we’re getting into beating-a-dead horse territory. With two goals, Tyler Bertuzzi has been a $5.5-million disappointment. If you’re going to get that kind of money in free agency, the reasonable assumption would be that you don’t need much of an adjustment period to make an impact. Yet it continues for Bertuzzi.

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John Klingberg has talked a few times about having to be better, but hasn’t been able to put that into action.

Domi, who seemed to be re-energized at centre against Tampa, has yet to celebrate his first goal with Toronto.

Ryan Reaves is a liability each time he goes over the boards and, if you think it’s difficult to envision his time with the Leafs lasting the season, remember that he’s here on a three-year contract. Of the off-season moves made by general manager Brad Treliving, that Reaves got anything more than one year is the most bizarre. 

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As for the physical aspect, the Leafs were second in the National Hockey League with 254 hits. But does anyone think opponents are wary when they hit the ice at Scotiabank Arena?

Coach Sheldon Keefe was encouraged by his players’ resolve versus the Lightning, and any time a team can erase a three-goal deficit and win, it’s worthy of praise.

Yet allowing at least four goals — as the Leafs have done in each of their six home games — can’t continue.

Keefe, like everyone else, won’t really know what he’s going to get from his players against Ottawa until the puck drops just after 7 p.m. It’s not an identity that the Leafs want to continue to wear as the games get crossed off the calendar.

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