A hard-working win over a good Boston team Saturday night no doubt alleviated at least some of the anxiety in Leafland. At the very least, the sense of despair that had seemingly been built up in Leaf country after the 5-0 loss to Edmonton has been dulled. Yet, those with a sense of history (and also of the obvious, I guess) know that even if the Leafs win again against the Capitals Monday night, all it will take is a couple of losses to once again trigger the calls for change, perhaps starting with a coaching change.
Since the “x’s and o’s” don’t really change that much from day to day, when a team struggles as the Leafs have at times, coaches such as Wilson likely spend an inordinate amount of their time trying to come up with ways to inspire and motivate their players. I mean, coaches can change lines, they may tweak the way they plan to run the power play or kill penalties, but how many different things can you really do to get your guys going? Changing routines, pep talks, all the usual things, I suppose.
GM’s, on the other hand, have to work the motivation angle a little differently. The obvious thing, when a team is close to being really good, is the old “making a statement” approach which involves trading a bit of the future (as opposed to a roster player) for a player who might put you over the top. It sends a message, we’re often told, to the players in the dressing room that management and/or ownership care enough to spend more to try to win right away.
A GM might also say, if rumours are swirling, that “so and so is not being traded”, in an effort to help a guy relax, focus and play his best hockey. Again, it’s a way to motivate certain players.
The other side of the motivation coin often comes when a team is struggling. Burke has already used one of the traditional public ‘chips’ by saying very clearly that the coach is not going anywhere. Players are supposed to read between the lines: “if he’s (the coach) not going anywhere, and we’re not winning, either we start to win or some of us may be going…”. In other words, the obvious motivational ploy by the GM is to basically imply, “if you want to stay and play here, start playing like you can or you’re gone…”
He has also tried talking with the team directly, though in this instance it was not Burke, but his assistant, Dave Nonis, who reportedly spoke with the team the day before the Bruin encounter.
Close to the last resort is when a frustrated General Manager utters the infamous words, “Nobody here is an untouchable…”
Now that’s the ticket. That’s the line that gets everyone thinking, or looking over their shoulder. I guess the intent to is light a fire under guys who may be able to give more than they are giving. But it’s usually uttered by a frustrated GM who feels backed into a corner with an underperforming team—and who really doesn’t want to fire his coach.
I’m not suggesting that’s where Burke is at just now. They are coming off a good win over the Bruins. And most of the time, these Leafs are giving what they have. We can complain that they aren’t good enough, talent-wise, but at the end of the day they generally compete. They win enough and play well enough, enough of the time, that fans can feel a legitimate sense of hope that things are indeed slowly getting better.
But it does get me thinking, does the GM have true untouchables on this team, guys he flat out will not move?
I have to believe Phaneuf is in that category. That’s the one deal Burke has made (unlike the Kessel move, which fans like one day and dislike the next) that has made Leaf supporters consistently enthusiastic, because they still believe Phaneuf can be a difference-maker on the blueline. He is the captain, proudly ordained as such in the summer, and Burke sent a lot of guys out of town to get him. So no, he’s not leaving.
The Monster? Again, a Burke signing. He outhustled, out “sold” and outspent other interested GM’s to nab Gustavsson. Given he is 26, and shows the potential to be a very good NHL goalie, Gustavsson is staying, too. The Leafs have a lot of goalie depth in the system, but good young goalies don't grow on trees.
Schenn is now, in the minds of most people (not everyone, I realize) the most consistent Leaf defenseman. If he had taken another step backwards this season all bets might have been off, but at 21, you just don’t deal young defensemen who look like they will be able to play a lot of minutes for the next ten or more years. He stays, too.
Beyond that, I have no idea. I have to believe anything is, potentially, on the table. Not that anything will happen, or that Burke is actively trying to move any of the other significant names (Kessel, Kadri, Kulemin, Versteeg, Bozak, Gunnarsson, etc.). Most of those guys are players he hand-picked.
If the team begins to win on a consistent basis, no names of significance are going anywhere. But, if the team were to struggle into the new year, I wonder if the speech gets trotted out…”No one here is an untouchable…” though we know that’s never really true.