Toronto

'A perfect storm of disappointment': Analyzing the mental state of the flailing Maple Leafs

What is going on with the Leafs? CBC Toronto reached out to a group of sport psychologists and mental performance consultants Monday to get their perspective on the NHL's most underachieving team.

Latest Leaf loss to practice goalie and Zamboni driver David Ayres has fans fuming

Picked by many pundits as a Stanley Cup contender at the start of the season, the Toronto Maple Leafs are barely clinging to a playoff spot. (Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press)

The Toronto Maple Leafs suffered an astounding humiliation Saturday night, when the team managed to somehow implode on Hockey Night in Canada with a former Zamboni driver in net for half the game at the opposite end of the rink.

It was a baffling outcome for a franchise supposedly built to contend on the back of its offensive prowess, and an amazing story for emergency backup goaltender David Ayres, who has been a practice goalie for both the Leafs' American Hockey League affiliate and the big club.

He was pressed into service halfway through the game after both of the visiting Carolina Hurricanes goaltenders were hurt.

Many fans are incensed, and convinced the Leafs lack the will to win. So CBC Toronto reached out to a group of experts in sport psychology and mental performance consultants to get their perspective on the NHL's most underachieving team.

Some said they see a squad that's still trying to find its identity after roster turnover, injuries and a mid-season coaching change. Others see a team that doesn't believe in itself, bogged down by the weight of repeated collapses in key games over the last several years.

One thing is for sure — for these players, there'll be no living this one down any time soon.

Carolina Hurricanes emergency goaltender David Ayres skates a lap after being named the game's first star following the Toronto Maple Leafs' 6-3 loss in Toronto on Saturday. (Frank Gunn/Canadian Press)

"It's going to be a part of hockey folklore now," said Dr. Todd Loughead, a University of Windsor professor who studies sport and exercise psychology.

"I'm sure it weighed on them after the game, no doubt. Now it's up to the coaching staff and team leaders to move past this."

Loughead told CBC Toronto that the Leafs seem like a team that hasn't figured out how to become a cohesive unit.

Individual stats largely aren't a problem: centre Auston Matthews has a legitimate shot at winning the Rocket Richard trophy as the league's top goal scorer this year, William Nylander is living up to his much-maligned contract, and winger Mitch Marner is similarly putting up points.

Yet as a whole, the Leafs are maddeningly inconsistent, which has only been exacerbated by a host of injuries and a terrible stretch of goaltending. Couple that with the coaching change when Mike Babcock was fired and Sheldon Keefe took his place, and this appears to be a team that has no idea exactly what it is supposed to be.

"I really think they're still searching for that identity," Loughead said.

WATCH: David Ayres talks living his dream:

42-year-old Zamboni driver David Ayres stole the show after drawing into his first NHL game as an emergency backup goalie. 1:57

Mental performance consultant Wade Wilson told CBC News that the Leafs seem bogged down by a "perfect storm of disappointment." If it's not a Game 7 playoff collapse against the Boston Bruins, it's inexplicably losing to a 42-year-old practice goalie — and a defensively sound Hurricanes team that rose to the occasion and handily outplayed them.

"If it's going to happen to anybody, it would happen to these guys," he said.

Wilson says that whenever he is working with an athlete or a team, he always starts by zeroing in on their "power of belief," as he calls it.

"Do these [Leaf] players actually believe? Their body language would suggest otherwise," he said.

Wilson also raised the idea of an "emotional contagion" within the Leafs' dressing room that's holding them back.

"All it takes is one or two guys not to foster that feeling of belief, and then it affects the rest of the group," he said.

But mental performance consultant Natascha Wesch told CBC News that outsiders need to be careful when chastising Toronto's will to win — because save for a select few, no one really knows what's going on in that dressing room.

"You don't know the whole story. You don't know the details. You don't know what they go through," she said.

"Being a professional athlete involves much more than we really know. If you haven't been in their shoes, it's pretty hard to comment."

Mark Eys, a professor in the departments of kinesiology and physical education and psychology at Wilfrid Laurier University, echoed that sentiment.

"I think it's a dangerous thing to assume. I would find it very difficult to believe these guys don't want to win," he said.

Thanks to the NHL's wonky playoff format, even with this latest loss and a string of decidedly sub-par efforts, the Leafs remain in a playoff spot in the Atlantic Division with 19 games remaining.

The team's next shot at redemption comes Tuesday night when they face the surging Tampa Bay Lightning — a possible opponent should they squeak into the postseason.

adam.carter@cbc.ca

About the Author

Adam Carter

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Adam Carter is a Newfoundlander who now calls Toronto home. He enjoys a good story and playing loud music. You can follow him on Twitter @AdamCarterCBC or drop him an email at adam.carter@cbc.ca.

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