LOS ANGELES — Tyler Toffoli stood in the middle of the Montreal Canadiens’ bench, taking in the video tribute to his greatest accomplishments — all of them with the Los Angeles Kings, whom he was playing against for the first time since being traded in February of 2020.
He had downplayed what this might mean to him in the lead up to Saturday’s game, but it had been something he had been looking forward to for a very long time. This was the organization that gave him the chance to become an NHL player with the 47th pick in the 2012 Draft, the team he spent his formative years with and the one he’ll forever be linked to after helping them win the Stanley Cup in 2014, and this was supposed to be a memorable occasion.
Toffoli was supposed to have this reunion as a member of the Vancouver Canucks on March 12, 2020, but that was the day the NHL first shut down due to the pandemic. He couldn’t have known he’d go through an unexpected playoff run with the Canucks in the Toronto bubble months later, sign a four-year, $17-million contract with the Canadiens thereafter, score 28 goals in 56 regular-season games and play a big role in getting Montreal back to the Final for the first time since 1993 before having a chance to be saluted for everything that happened prior to all of that.
But there Toffoli finally was on Saturday, glancing up at the big screen, taking in the highlights of his life as a Los Angeles King and being celebrated with a boisterous ovation from the crowd, his wife Cat, and celebrity friends Justin Turner (of the Los Angeles Dodgers) and George Lopez (comedian), who were holding Canadiens jerseys with his name on the back of them.
It was 0-0 at that point of the game. Josh Anderson made it 1-0 Canadiens shortly after.
And then the Kings scored five unanswered goals and turned this into a day Toffoli won’t want to think about ever again.
“It was really nice,” Toffoli said of the tribute after the game. “It’s just unfortunate it was washed away by a bad effort.”
On Saturday, these Canadiens bore no resemblance to the ones Toffoli thought he was joining when he signed in Montreal.
They haven’t looked like that team since the puck dropped on this season; like the team that willed its way past the Toronto Maple Leafs, the Winnipeg Jets and the Vegas Golden Knights last summer; like the team that was completely bought in to its system and its culture of sacrificing for one another.
With shutdown centre Phillip Danault joining the Kings as a free agent after the playoffs, with superstar goaltender Carey Price in the NHL/NHLPA’s player assistance program, with captain Shea Weber too injured to continue his career and Joel Edmundson nursing an undisclosed injury from the onset of training camp through the first nine games of the season, the DNA had unquestionably been altered.
But it was unimaginable it would be to this extent.
Saturday’s loss was Montreal’s seventh in its first nine games, a fourth by as many as three goals, and it was embarrassing to the point that the Canadiens held a players-only meeting for 15 minutes after it concluded.
“I’ve gone through things like this throughout my career, and it’s definitely tough to get out of,” Toffoli said. “It’s a funk where so many negative things are happening and you’re not getting the bounces on the ice, and then the breakdowns are hurting you in the game and that’s where you start getting in trouble.”
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On three occasions thus far, the Canadiens could blame their lack of execution for losses.
But this was a fourth time in this early part of the season that something far more troubling happened.
Ben Chiarot, who scored for Montreal in garbage time to make this a 5-2 loss, emerged from the meeting and said, “It takes a certain level of compete and a certain level of work to win in this league every night and right now we’re not willing to give that on a consistent basis.”
“Our results show that,” he added.
We’d imagine he and Toffoli were central figures in the discussion that took place in the visiting room at Staples Center. Two guys among those rotating as alternate captains this season, two proud players who generally don’t fall short in the effort department.
The hope is that everyone else had a say, too, because everyone else played their part in how this game dissolved for the Canadiens.
They started the second period up by a goal and finished it trailing by one. And then they started the third by taking a terrible penalty in the offensive zone.
Rasmus Kupari scored on the ensuing power play, and the Canadiens completely folded right then and there.
“I didn’t like our effort when they pushed on the other side,” said coach Dominique Ducharme. “I didn’t like the way we reacted. We were on our heels and we had no execution…”
It undid whatever progress the Canadiens had seemingly made in a 4-0 win over the San Jose Sharks on Thursday.
And this was against a Kings team that was 1-5-1 on the season and struggling just as much if not more than them. A Kings team missing its top two defencemen on the right side and two of its most skilled forwards.
It was inexcusable, and after the game was as good a time as any to air it out.
“We have to be accountable,” said Toffoli. “We have to find ways to man up with ourselves and with each other and be grownups in the locker room and understand that, if you’re not playing well, you need to figure it out. There has to be the accountability aspect (to one another).”
If it isn’t there by Sunday, against the Ducks in Anaheim, he and his teammates will go through another experience they hope to forget.