TORONTO – The screech of the whistle ground the drill to a halt.
"It's not good enough guys," the coach barked as he froze a Monday practice to explain the succession of errors which had just occurred on a forechecking drill.
There was the bad read from Mikhail Grabovski in one instance, a soft chip from Matt Frattin on another. Enough was enough. "I was just a little frustrated the way the drill was going," he said afterward. "We weren't getting anything accomplished."
Stuck in the rut of a five-game winless slide, Randy Carlyle is trying to navigate his team through choppy waters. Plaguing the Leafs during their season-long dip – their last win was nearly two weeks ago – has been a maddening inconsistency within pockets of the game.
In their most recent loss for instance, at home on Saturday, the Leafs veered off course for an alarming chunk of the middle frame, and the Jets capitalized with a string of four consecutive goals. And while Carlyle's club managed to charge back and earn a point before losing in a shootout, the recipe of incomplete hockey is hardly recommended for future success.
"The thing we just did is we just stopped," Carlyle said two days later, "we just stopped skating, we didn't move and we didn't work.
"And then once we got through that in the last two minutes of the second period we scored two goals, we got ourselves back in the hockey game and in the third period we forechecked and played the way we're capable of and tied the hockey game.
"But there's eight minutes there that we're not proud of."
"I'm not really too sure," Cody Franson replied, when asked what caused the puzzling lapse and others like it, "but for some reason we lose our focus I guess you could say for a short pocket."
Questioned for insight on Carlyle's message through the madness of that middle frame, Franson offered a telling look behind the curtain. "[He's] trying to make us clue in as to what we're doing," said Franson. "It's 'What's going on? Why are you guys changing the way we want to approach this game? We had success in the first and now we're on heels because you want to veer off the system. Stay with the system. Start moving our feet again, start hitting guys and keep it simple. Get the momentum back on our side and we'll go from there.'"
Failing to maintain consistent pressure on the opposition defence, the Leafs become a stagnant team and end up in full-retreat mode, swarmed for extended shifts in the defensive zone. Fatigued and lacking the requisite mental exactness, mistakes follow, most ending with a puck in the back of the net. Rather telling of this are the defensive numbers: the Leafs have allowed a bloated four games per game during the five-game skid.
And while the goaltending has certainly sprung a few leaks – with Ben Scrivens and James Reimer both hitting a rough patch – the group as a whole has been under siege defensively. Regression on the blueline has factored prominently into that mix. But save for a trade or the recall of Jake Gardiner, Carlyle will have to somehow harness stability from the complement on hand, the collective inexperience, youth and top-end talent a concern.
For those involved, it's about reverting back to structure and avoiding the pockets of mystifying performance.
"It's not like we're sitting here saying 'Man, we played a really bad game or we did this badly or that badly'," John-Michael Liles said of the recent slump. "It's like we had a brain-cramp for a few minutes."
And so there was Carlyle grinding practice to a halt when the focus in his group went astray. Amid a slide that is veering dangerously in the wrong direction – the Leafs have 32 points, tied with the Jets and Devils for the final three playoff positions – he had no choice but to snap, even for a moment. "We're only human and if things aren't going the way you'd like them to go at times that's part of your personality," Carlyle said. "They have to know that. I moved on from it. It's one part of practice, one drill I didn't like, go forward."
Find the proper course, he seemed to suggest, and get back on it.
"He's understood that this is where we've strayed or where we've gone wrong and this is how we need to get back there," said Liles. "That's what successful coaches do is [say] 'Alright where did we go wrong here?'"