TORONTO - Peter Horachek couldn't demote half his team, so the Toronto Maple Leafs' interim coach did the next best thing in sending a message by putting Phil Kessel on the fourth line.
Kessel skated with David Booth and Trevor Smith at practice Wednesday, the morning after being on for four goals against and having his ice time drastically reduced in a 5-4 loss to the New York Rangers. Horachek said he "wasn't very happy" with Kessel's play but repeated the problem isn't just with the star winger.
"It's about the whole team," Horachek said. "This isn't about just whether or not Phil does what he does or doesn't do.
"I think the whole team has to be better. It's not about one player. Everybody has to compete."
Horachek hopes the line changes get his players' attention after a performance he deemed "awful" up and down the lineup.
With Kessel on the fourth line, Richard Panik took his customary spot on right wing alongside James van Riemsdyk and Tyler Bozak. Judging from Tuesday night's game, that's actually the second line with Daniel Winnik, Nazem Kadri and Mike Santorelli making up the first.
Van Riemsdyk, Bozak and Kessel were on the ice for three Rangers goals, including one short-handed, before being broken up late in that game. Horachek originally claimed he took Kessel off to get him away from a tough defensive matchup, but it was abundantly clear the next day his demotion had much more of a purpose.
"Our line in specific didn't play well enough to deserve to be on the ice last night," said Bozak, the only one from that line to speak with reporters Wednesday. "Whenever we were out there we were giving up chances and we weren't creating much on our own, so obviously today (the coaching staff) changed things up with the lines and hopefully that gives us a boost."
Kessel, who did not talk after the loss, again refused to speak following practice. Van Riemsdyk was getting treatment, according to a team spokesman.
Horachek said he knows Kessel doesn't like addressing the media but added "everyone has some responsibility to deal with it."
Kessel's demotion isn't the only change to the Leafs' lineup. Winger Joffrey Lupul will miss the next three games and possibly longer after aggravating a lower-body injury that recently caused him to miss 11 contests.
Horachek said Lupul would probably miss road games Thursday and Saturday against the New York Islanders and Montreal Canadiens, respectively as well as Tuesday's home contest versus the Florida Panthers.
"He's at a point now where he's been playing through this and playing through it," Horachek said. "The doctors and trainers thought we needed to give him some time to get it to the next level."
Captain Dion Phaneuf is expected to miss his eighth straight game with a hand injury. Horachek said he didn't have any time frame on when the defenceman might return to practise, let alone resume playing.
Defenceman Cody Franson, who said he was banged up, missed practice but Horachek said it was just a maintenance day. Franson is a pending unrestricted free agent and the Leafs' most valuable trade chip ahead of the March 2 deadline.
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