I’m not thinking in terms of (as we talked about here not long ago) whether they are a playoff-caliber team. I’m more thinking along the lines of who will they be, what kind of team will they be? Will they have any kind of discernable identity?
Identity. I can’t prove this point by going through every professional sports league of the past 50 years and looking at the end-of-season “champion” player by player, but my long-held sense is that most really good teams do have some kind of identity. I don’t mean that they only do one thing well, simply that there is often an over-riding reason why opposing teams generally don’t like having to play against that really good team. Virtually all championship teams throughout history are filled with “talent”, for sure. But that special ingredient, that “identity”, shows itself in some over-arching characteristic, or at least it quite often does.
In hockey, it may be that a team is almost impossible to beat in their own building. They may overwhelm you with their speed. It could be their superb discipline. It might be that over-used term, swagger, which really speaks to confidence. But it’s something.
When speed comes to mind I think back to the Montreal Canadiens in the mid and later 1960s. They truly were the “Flying Frenchmen”, with players like Bobby Rousseau, Henri Richard and Yvan Cournoyer. (Cournoyer, seen at left in a mid-1960's early-career photo, wasn't called "The Roadrunner" for nothing...he could fly, like so many of his Hab teammates in the '60s and '70s.) In the ‘70s you had the “Big, Bad Bruins” of Cashman and McKenzie and later Wensink, Stan Jonathan and Terry O’Reilly and then the “Broad Street Bullies” of Saleski, Dupont, Schultz and later Holmgren. Those were two rough and tumble teams who took you out to the woodshed and also could outplay you. Later in the ‘70s, Montreal emerged as the team that was just as tough as the Flyers, but even more skilled.
By the ‘80s, the Islanders showed that relentless determination, real drive and dedication, combined, yes, with skill, depth and good coaching (and of course, outstanding goaltending) was a ticket to success. The Oilers were just better than everyone else in the mid and later ‘80s, and probably should have won the Cup every year, given their talent and amazing ability to play the game at such high speed. Everyone who played for the Oilers had a confidence about them that made the Oilers what they were.
In more recent times there has been the “Devils” way, under Lou Lamoriello. They had (still have?) an identity for years, boring as it was. But it sure worked. The Red Wings favour elite skill and system play over, say, "goon" hockey, though they have had their share of gritty guys over the past 15 plus years that they have been really talented, too.
But when I look at the Leafs right now, I ask myself, what is their modus operandi, their "MO"? What is their identity?
I mean, heck, the Predators have an identity under Barry Trotz and David Poile. They are relentless in their puck pursuit, finish checks and are hard to play against. I don’t know that fighting is their thing, though they can drop the gloves if they have to. But you usually don’t want to play the Predators. And I’m just using them as an example.
For a while, the Bruins were a feared team. They had talent, solid goaltending but mostly, they could run you over. Some nights, they still can.
But does any team look at their schedule and say, “Damn, we’re playing the Leafs next week. That one’s gonna be tough, because…..” fill in the blanks. What would they fill in the blanks with?
In fact, does anyone care to venture an opinion as to the last time they believe the Leafs really and truly had a special or particular team “identity”?
For a while under Wilson, we seemed to be a fast-skating team. But with Carlyle, I’m pretty sure we won’t exactly be a firewagon hockey team, eh? The missing "identity" link, if I can call it that, sure hasn’t been team toughness, at least not in my eyes.
So who are we? And what will we be under Carlyle? Will we have an identity?
You tell me….