What now for puzzling Maple Leafs?

Maple Leafs fans are frustrated, and empty seats and jerseys tossed on the ice make that clear. Steve Russell/Toronto Star/Getty Images

TORONTO -- Ron Wilson was at home in South Carolina watching the Toronto Maple Leafs' latest debacle -- a 9-2 home drubbing at the hands of the Nashville Predators -- unfold on TV, knowing just how the man behind the bench must have been feeling.

"I just feel so bad for Randy [Carlyle], and I actually feel bad for the players, too," the former Leafs head coach told ESPN.com on Wednesday. "Every team goes through bad spells. The Leafs are still over .500, and people there are thinking the Titanic is going down. I've lived it.''

When Wilson's Titanic was going down in March 2012, it cost him his job as the Leafs' head coach. His replacement, Carlyle, perhaps faces a similar scenario at some point over the next year, although the sense you got Wednesday from Leafs management is that it feels the current struggles are more on the players than the coach.

It's a sentiment Carlyle's own players were quick to jump on, too.

"You know what, it's not Randy's fault," star winger Phil Kessel said Wednesday after a tough 90-minute practice. "We're on the ice. We're the ones playing the games. I don't think people should be blaming him, right? We're out there making mistakes and not playing well the last two games.

"We'll improve, right? It can't get worse than that, can it? Next game we'll come out and battle hard and hopefully it's a better result.''

Well, it can't possibly get worse after being pasted by the Predators. Wednesday's ugly loss fueled two more sweater tosses onto the ice by fans, the ultimate slap in the face to Toronto players from their own supporters.

"And now with the throwing of the jerseys on the ice, does it get any worse than that? That's despicable,'' said Wilson. "I know a lot of people say Toronto is the best place to play, but that's only if it's going miraculously well.

"And the only way you're going to be cheered in Toronto is if you happen to be leading with five minutes to go. And you've got a significant lead, then they might happen to get off their hands and give you a cheer.''

The problem with some of the crowd at the Air Canada Centre is that they don't truly represent real Leafs supporters. A lot of those true fans can't afford the NHL's most expensive ticket, so they stay home while the corporate suits fill up the bottom bowl.

"I was watching last night and at the start of the second period, all the platinums [seats] are totally empty," said Wilson. "It looked on TV like nobody was in the building. Everybody in Toronto talks about how bad it is in Florida, but in Toronto everyone sitting in the platinums are down in the suite drinking and they're not even paying attention to the team. Hockey seems to be secondary, which is a shame."

"It's a morgue at the start of the game," added Wilson. "You score a couple of goals early on the Leafs and then the crowd wakes up and starts to give it to the Leafs instead of encouraging them.''

Fans are indeed angry, and one lone playoff appearance in a decade gives them that right. That historical baggage gets taken out these days on the current Leafs, fair or not. Kessel was uncharacteristically chatty on Wednesday, perhaps feeling the need to calm the waters. It wasn't quite Aaron Rodgers telling Green Bay media and fans to R-E-L-A-X, but it was Kessel's version of it.

"If you look at our record, we have 20 points, we're right in there in the playoff hunt," said Kessel of his 9-8-2 team. "Obviously, our last two games haven't been great, but it's not like we're a last-place team in this league or anything.''

No, but the Leafs did get trounced 6-2 by the last-place Sabres on Saturday night, which made the pounding by Nashville resonate more, if that's even possible.

"You can see they are a tight team and waiting for bad things to happen,'' one executive from a Western Conference team told ESPN.com on Wednesday. "Tough market in Toronto when you struggle. ... Can almost see guys running to get off the ice last night. ''

Added an Eastern Conference team executive: "When they're on, they're on, and when they're off, they're way off.''

My take: It's a mindset issue with this Leafs team. Too many players thinking offense, blowing the zone before they have the puck secured. Today's NHL is a league in which the better teams worry mostly about defending five-on-five and wait for their breaks. Look at the defending Stanley Cup champion Los Angeles Kings.

This Toronto team wants to win games 6-5. That doesn't work in today's NHL. The Leafs won't win consistently until they accept that. The fact they're still trying after a few years to get that figured out suggests a character issue within the dressing room.

It's a question I posed directly to Leafs GM Dave Nonis during his media scrum Wednesday: What does he make of his team's character and leadership?

"As a group, it's easy to put all the onus on certain people; I don't think that's fair," began Nonis. "As a group we haven't responded to certain situations as well as we need to. Some of that is the work ethic, some of that is maybe trying to do more than what they should be doing. Keeping it simpler often would benefit more than trying to do too much.

"But I don't think it's fair to put it on one or two people. I think as a group this team has to come together and understand that we're not going to be a team that can perform for 60 nights a year or 55 nights a year and expect to make the playoffs. We have to have a more consistent work ethic.''

First-year Leafs president Brendan Shanahan, who watched Wednesday's practice intently, knows the team's flaws. He will act when the time is right, no question, but he's also a patient guy whose demeanor doesn't suggest rash decisions. Asked about making trades now to shake up the team, Nonis also preached patience.

"As patient as we have to be. You can do a lot of damage to the long-term success of your team by overreacting,'' he said. "If there's a deal there to be made that helps us, then we'll do it. And if not, it's up to this group to get their play back to where it was.''

It's believed a guy like Joffrey Lupul could be had for the right price, but here's a news flash: I can't imagine there's any player on the roster that's untouchable.

Shanahan wasn't brought in to sit on his hands and simply tweak a roster that continues to fall short. I would bet on almost anything being possible, whether in terms of the coach, the GM or the star players. All bets are off over the next year or two.

"Last night was frustrating," said Nonis. "It's embarrassing as an organization to play that way at home. It's embarrassing to play that way on the road when you have people who pay to come and watch. It's difficult to swallow. But you can't lose sight of the fact it was one game, we have to move forward, you can't dwell on it forever.

"We have to address the things that we did last night, I think there were numerous failings, and prepare for tomorrow.''

The question is, who are these Leafs? Are they the team that went 6-1-1 in a recent stretch, including hammering Boston 6-1 last Wednesday? Or are they the team that's been outscored 15-4 in the past two games?

"We're not that team that lost those two games like that, I know that for sure,'' said Kessel. "I think you have games like that, every team gets beat bad a couple times of year. Obviously, they weren't good games and we have to change that.''

They'd better, because change of another kind will come at some point otherwise. And if the losses pile up, it'll come sooner rather than later.