"If I had the answer to that," said coach Randy Carlyle. "I wish I did have the answer to that."
The Leafs were outshot 16-5 in the first period of Friday night's 5-2 loss to the Columbus Blue Jackets and worked up hill the rest of the game. It has become an all-too-alarming trend.
"Just seems to be one of those things, every game we come out and get outshot 16-3 in the first period and then start to play a little bit better," forward James van Riemsdyk said. "Usually when you do that you don't leave yourself much breathing room to find ways to win games."
At 7-4-0, the Leafs have some breathing room in the standings, but they'd like to figure out why slow starts are an unfortunate part of their identity. David Clarkson, in his first game of the season after serving a suspension, didn't know what was causing them.
"We've got to find a way to get more pucks to the net and keep the puck in the other team's zone more," Clarkson said. "I think that's something we've got to be better at. I think that's maybe part of the game we can work on."
Goaltender Jonathan Bernier believes the work must start before the puck drops in order to curtail these rough starts.
"It's basically just our preparation," Bernier said. "Just got to be better."
Penalties played a big role in the Leafs' loss, and they were a product of being outskated by a hard-working Blue Jackets team. Columbus coach Todd Richards liked how his team showed speed, and that caught up with the Leafs, who took six stick infractions over the course of the night.
But beyond that, the Leafs know they must get back to what made them successful last year.
"With any good team in this league you've got to be a good skating team, play physical, be tough to play against and just make smart plays with the puck," Van Riemsdyk said. "I think we were kind of lacking in all those areas."
It could take some time to establish an identity, but a good step would be eliminating bad starts, beginning Saturday night against the Pittsburgh Penguins at Air Canada Centre.
"I think we're 11 games in now, we're nowhere near the peak (of) playing our best hockey," Van Riemsdyk said. "Obviously we know we have a lot of work to do, but it's a matter of going out and doing that work and just getting better every day."
Follow Stephen Whyno on Twitter at @SWhyno