The frustration was evident in Max Domi’s face and in his actions.
Evident in his hands, in the grasp on his stick, in his final minutes of the ninth game of this still scoreless Maple Leafs season.
This has not been the homecoming, the return to the dressing room he felt comfortable in as a kid, that he wanted or expected or believed to be possible. And he is just one player on a Maple Leafs team so hard to define as the first ninth of the NHL season passes by. One player looking for, hoping for, believing that better times will come.
Because that’s who Domi was in Dallas last year and in Montreal in earlier years and in Scottsdale before that. And that’s what the Leafs need him to be on a roster so top heavy and so much in need of further balance as this season carries on.
The Leafs won-loss record is all right after nine games. That’s the part worth smiling about. The reality, though, is there are difficulties up and down the Leafs roster, from production to depth, from goaltending consistency to areas that need to be cleaned up, to a place where the newcomers, so promising in the summer, have yet to be difference makers on most nights of this young season.
Domi hasn’t scored a goal and hasn’t generated enough offence – he wound up taking 14 penalty minutes in the final 14 minutes – and the one thing he has always been able to do is pass the puck, find the open man, show the skill that made him a first-round draft pick years ago. The puck bounces off his stick far too often. He rarely gets off a shot of consequence. Instead of doing what his father might have done, which might have been to fight someone, he is, instead, fighting himself. And when he went looking for a bout or two late Tuesday night in the Leafs 4-1 loss to the Los Angeles, no one on the Kings would drop the gloves: Instead, they kind of giggled at the brand new Maple Leaf.
And that just made the night seem all the more frustrating.
In fairness, it isn’t just Domi who is searching to find his ways. It is almost all of the first-year Leaf signed as free agents trying to define who they are and where they fit in with this team. Domi is tied with zero goals with John Klingberg and Ryan Reaves, and Tyler Bertuzzi has just two goals and one assist in nine games – hardly the kind of production general manager Brad Treliving believed was possible when he handed out one-year contracts to the trio in the summer.
Domi hasn’t really found a line that works for him yet and hasn’t made enough of a difference to force coach Sheldon Keefe to play him much more than the 13 minutes, 23 seconds he is playing most nights.
Bertuzzi doesn’t appear to fit with any of the Leafs top lines: He looks like he plays at a different speed than either Auston Matthews or Mitch Marner, who are having their own problems finding themselves after Matthews opened the season with back-to-back hat tricks.
Since then, Matthews has one goal in seven games, Marner has two and neither totals are anywhere near what is expected of them. It’s no secret the Leafs rely on the Core Four and Five if you want to count Morgan Rielly. John Tavares scored again Tuesday night. Somehow William Nylander was given an assist that seemed like charity from those who wanted to keep his streak alive. But when the big guys don’t get the job done, which happens in a long NHL season, the Leafs need more from Domi, more from Bertuzzi, more from Ryan Reaves and Klingberg, more from holdovers David Kamph and Calle Jarnkrok.
The future Hall of Famer Drew Doughty, who plays more than any player in the NHL and puts on a clinic almost every night, has scored four times this season from defence in Los Angeles.
Domi, Bertuzzi, Jarnkrok, Kamph, all part of the Leafs top three lines, have scored three times. Combined. What coach Keefe and his newcomers need to do is find a way to get more out of the rest of the roster – the way Los Angeles managed Tuesday night in the near silence of the Scotiabank Arena, with goals coming from Leaf killer Phillip Danault, from Arthur Kaliyev, from regular sniper Adrian Kempe, off to a slow start himself, even a goal from a defenceman named Andreas Englund, who isn’t even a household name is his own home.
The Kings are no fun to play against. Neither was Nashville last Saturday night. Neither will Boston be on Thursday night. Freelance teams can get overwhelmed playing against deep structured teams. That’s when the middle of the roster matters. That when the Domis and the Bertuzzis and the Kamphs and everyone who isn’t named Matthew Knies have to outplay or outwork the opposition. Especially if Matthews and Marner aren’t great, which they haven’t been for a while now.
“We just didn’t do it,” said Marner. He couldn’t be more clear than that.
They just didn’t do it in the ninth game of the season, coming home after a sound road trip, coming home to the best market in hockey with the quietest mid-week crowds. It was hard to tell which was worse Tuesday night against Los Angeles, the crowd or the players. Both sides underperformed.
Max Domi has been around Toronto long enough in his life to understand the noise, real and imagined. Now is the time for the middle of the roster to say little, stay out of the penalty box, and get something done.