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Mirtle: Leafs not satisfied despite strong first-quarter results

Toronto Maple Leafs goalie Jonathan Bernier makes a save with teammate Carl Gunnarsson, centre, against New York Islanders' Josh Bailey, left, during third period NHL action in Toronto, Tuesday November 19, 2013.


They have one of the best records in the Eastern Conference, with a 13-7-1 start equating to a 105-point pace that would put them ahead of even last season's 48-game showing.

But while many teams would be comfortable, even complacent, with that situation, the Toronto Maple Leafs hardly sound anything of the sort.

Leafs management, coaching staff and players are all insisting they can be better – and they likely need to be to keep up the pace.

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"I don't think we're anywhere near as good as we can play yet," said winger James van Riemsdyk, who is on pace for 38 goals and 67 points in what would be a second consecutive career year. "That's encouraging, especially because we've been able to put some points in the bank in the standings."

Where Toronto has had success this season isn't disputed. The Leafs goaltending has been outstanding, the power play is one of the NHL's best and Phil Kessel has once again been one of the most dangerous scorers in the league.

Where it needs to improve, however, draws a slightly different answer depending on who's asked.

After last Tuesday's 5-2 win over the New York Islanders, Kessel argued the Leafs need to allow fewer shots on goal to help their goaltenders more. But teammate Joffrey Lupul explained Wednesday he believes the scoring chance numbers assistant coach Chris Dennis keeps and posts in the dressing room each game are more pertinent.

"Our coaches track scoring chances, not shots," Lupul said. "After the game, they put up the scoring chances. And if there's ever a big disparity in that, it's going to be an issue with the coaches and the players. But if [opponents] get 40 shots and five scoring chances, that doesn't concern us."

Not that the players always agree with the numbers on the board.

"Some games, we argue with the stat-taking," Lupul said. "No matter what happens – shots, chances, faceoffs – we can still make the argument [that they're wrong]."

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Leafs head coach Randy Carlyle, meanwhile, framed his team's issue as one with giving up the puck, adding another wrinkle to the conversation.

He said his staff breaks down turnovers by whether they were forced or unforced, and early in Tuesday's win, there were far too many of the unforced variety.

"It's always something we chart and try to minimize the number of turnovers that we have," Carlyle said. "The good teams and the teams that win hockey games have less of them. Simple as that."

Overall, what the talk boils down to is the Leafs aren't particularly happy with their defensive game, despite the fact they've allowed just 2.29 goals per game.

That's why rumours continue to persist there will be a change made on the blueline, and the names most often in the mix are Jake Gardiner and John-Michael Liles.

One (Gardiner) is of immense value because of his youth and ability to play in the top four on a decent team, while the other (Liles) is a burden on the salary cap management is anxious to move even if they have to eat half of the $3.875-million (U.S.) hit.

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(The Carolina Hurricanes are considered the most interested in adding Liles at this point, with vice president of hockey operations Ron Francis reportedly attending some of the Toronto Marlies recent games. Liles has eight points and is plus-6 in 11 games in the AHL.)

Even if a move isn't made, the Leafs are confident they can keep pace in the Eastern Conference through improvement from within, something their coach has called for repeatedly.

"We feel this hockey club can play to a higher level," Carlyle said.

Even if a move isn't made, the Leafs are confident they can keep pace in the Eastern Conference through improvement from within, something their coach has called for repeatedly, even after wins.

"We feel this hockey club can play to a higher level," Carlyle said.

"Obviously it takes time for the guys to fully realize how to play in different systems and get comfortable in their roles," van Riemsdyk said of a Leafs lineup that has had plenty of different looks due to off-season changes, injuries and suspensions. "There's a lot of things at play. But you don't want to peak in November. That doesn't do anyone any good. We know we've been fairly successful so far, but as long as we continue to get better, that's all that really matters."

Follow me on Twitter: @mirtle

Get all the latest Globe and Mail hockey coverage on Twitter: @globehockey

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About the Author
Hockey Reporter

James joined The Globe as an editor and reporter in the sports department in 2005 and now covers the NHL and the Toronto Maple Leafs. More


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