Through 41 games this season, the Toronto Maple Leafs sit comfortably in third place in the Atlantic Division, nine points ahead of the Florida Panthers. Toronto Maple Leafs center Patrick Marleau (12) celebrates after scoring against the Vegas Golden Knights during the second period of an NHL hockey game in Las Vegas, Sunday, Dec. 31, 2017. THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP-John Locher

Slow starts, injuries among issues preventing the Leafs from becoming elite

TORONTO — Defence, slow starts and injuries are some of issues that have challenged the Toronto Maple Leafs in their quest to become an elite team.

Through 41 games the Leafs (23-16-2) sit comfortably in third place in the Atlantic Division, nine points ahead of the Florida Panthers. That would be considered a good position for Toronto in previous seasons.

But expectations for this season rose significantly after the Leafs’ breakout 2016-17 campaign in which they qualified for the post-season for the first time in four years. They went out and acquired veterans — including signing 38-year-old forward Patrick Marleau to a three-year, US$18.75 million contract — to help support a young nucleus which features superstar centre Auston Matthews and talented wingers Mitch Marner and William Nylander.

Heading into the second half of the season, however, Toronto is still short of its goal of being an elite contender for a Stanley Cup. A 2-0 loss Tuesday to league-leading Tampa Bay and a recent 6-3 road loss to the Western Conference-leading Vegas Golden Knights showed the Leafs aren’t at the same level as the NHL’s best.

Slow starts in both those losses point to a larger problem. Toronto has given up 40 first period goals, putting them in a tie for fourth-worst in the league.

“It’s definitely something we need to sit down as a team and kind of figure out because seems like every time we start slow we get our legs in the second and third period, end up playing pretty well,” Matthews said on Sunday in Las Vegas. “But when we start well and we’re skating through the neutral zone we seem to win all those games.”

In the loss to the Lightning, Tampa Bay’s weapon of choice was defence, and the Leafs had no response when their offensive stars were left off the scoresheet.

“They’re a veteran team that knows how to play, they play well and they can really score, but they can defend as well,” Leafs coach Mike Babcock said. “I didn’t think there was tons of space.”

The Leafs have run into more injury trouble than they did last year. Matthews played in all 82 games last season but has missed ten games with two different upper-body injuries, the most recent later revealed by Matthews to be a concussion. The Leafs have also been without sophomore defenceman Nikita Zaitsev for the last seven games with a broken foot.

“Defence is a five-man unit,” Babcock said of Zaitsev’s absence. “Zaits isn’t back for a while, when he gets back he’s a good player.”

After starting the season with six wins in their first seven games, the Leafs have slid and dropped seven of their last 10 contests.

Still, there are positives for the Leafs. They spent 24 of their first 41 games away from Air Canada Centre, and a more favourable home schedule in the second half could help them gain an advantage over the next few months.

“The last month has been pretty gruelling for us and tough, to say the least,” said Leafs centre Nazem Kadri. “I think we got through it with a positive mindset.”

The Leafs have exhausted all of their long road trips with over 70 per cent of their road kilometres already realized for the entire season. The longest trips remaining on the schedule are visits to Dallas later this month and Florida in February and March.

Other positives include the play of goaltender Frederik Andersen. After a mediocre October in which he posted a .896 save percentage, he has improved that number to .921, which is ninth among NHL goalies who have played in at least 20 games.

Defenceman Morgan Rielly has found his offensive game. With four goals and 24 assists in 41 games, he’s well on pace to shatter his career high of 36 points in 82 games during the 2015-16 season. James van Riemsdyk is having a career year in goals with 17 through 40 games. His career high is 30 goals scored during the 2013-14 season.

The Leafs begin the second half of their season on Thursday with at home against the San Jose Sharks. It will be the second game of a season-high six-game homestand.

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