One of the outstanding posters at Vintage Leaf Memories (Gerund O’), made what I thought was a particularly apt comment on the heels of one of my recent columns here. He said, and I quote, “what we’re (the Leafs) missing at the moment is someone with their unrelenting competitiveness.”
For me, that’s it—or at least a big part of where the Leafs are "at".
We all keep acknowledging and saying, this team is better. And it is. But better, of course, is a relative term. Better than what we have had in the last five or so seasons? Sure.
Better as in, we’re now good enough to challenge for something serious? I’m not so certain about that.
And Gerund O’ touched on—and said better than I can—the one thing that we may be missing is a player with that kind of drive....with....unrelenting competitiveness. But I’ll take it even a step further. (I’m guessing Gerund would, too.) We could use a team mentality that pushes it—everyone on the team— to play with “unrelenting competitiveness”.
I remember closely watching (when I spent a lot of time at the Gardens watching the Leaf in those days) his 1970s battles with Lanny McDonald. And they were indeed battles. Two proud, determined players, neither of whom wanted to give an inch. Those were great nights to be a hockey fan, watching two future Hall-of-Famers in action, going toe to toe.
In more recent times, we saw it in the way the Devils checked ferociously, led by players such as the always easy-to-hate Claude Lemiux and John MacLean, among many others. And of course there was Scott Stevens and friends on the back line, who kept the opposition alert. Same with the Avalanche. Forsberg wasn’t just good, he wasn’t afraid to leave a piece of his wooden stick on you in you?) to create a bit of space for himself. Ditto Adam Foote. And it was also exemplified by a "third line" like Draper, Maltby and McCarthy in Detroit. That was like playing against a buzz-saw. You had to be ready and if you weren’t, you were going to lose.
In short, it's about a guy (or guys) who played every shift with passion, like they were on fire and the only way to put it out was to play with every ounce of energy that they had and sweat it out.
That’s what I’m talking about- and looking for.
Kessel and Lupul? Wonderfully gifted offensive players. And we keep hearing that Kessel is becoming a better all-around player, more defensively conscious. And from what I am seeing, I think that’s true, to an extent. He is, as Don Cherry pointed out the other night, also taking a fair bit of abuse from the opposition, and not surprisingly so. They know that he can’t/won’t do anything about it except complain to the refs. And, he doesn’t have many teammates who will do much about it, either.
As for Lupul, we’ll need to see more of his offensive skills and intensity on display in his own zone. As we all know, what you do there is just as important as what you do at the other end of the ice. It’s not much good if you score (or set up) a beautiful goal every night but you are standing around while the guy you’re covering pots two.
So that’s my soliloquy for the day. No thorough assessment of the good and the bad. Simply expressing my sense, that, if the Leafs are going to go anywhere and keep building on the team that Burke has assembled (one with, as we all keep saying, speed, youth and depth) they will also need to either add—or develop—the character/”winner” quotient. Whether they already have it in the dressing room and it just needs to develop or they need to acquire it, I’m not so sure.
And what will have happened is that a team with the same amount of, or perhaps even less talent, but who wanted it a lot more, will have just taken our guys out.