It’s easy to look back on another seemingly lost season and suggest the Maple Leafs are still in hockey’s wilderness- rudderless and without direction. It’s even easier to follow that line of thought if we accept the utterings of Tim Leiweke and mainstream media suggestions that the Leafs need (here we go again) a "culture change". It’s difficult to feel too positive when even the club’s management and coaching staff talk in terms that give the sense that things are simply not as they should be in Leafland.
I really don’t know about the need for a culture change. I mean, we heard much the same from Ron Wilson when he arrived, and Brian Burke after that. I have no doubt that management in Toronto has long wanted to win (you can’t convince me that Cliff Fletcher, Ken Dryden, Pat Quinn and Brian Burke didn’t want to win), and many players, too, of course. Setting aside what took place five years ago or even three in terms of the Leafs falling short, is it possible that this particular group was too content to play river hockey? In other words, there are some offensively gifted players on this Maple Leaf roster. When the puck is going in and our goalie is stopping it at the other end, things no doubt felt pretty good. And the players likely believed that playing ‘their’ way was going to get them to the promised land.
But when things went south, there seemed to be no capacity to stop the bleeding and play the kind of button-down hockey teams pretty much have to play nowadays to have success. Playing gritty, hard-to-play-against hockey is something that has to be a part of a team’s identity, it seems, and can’t just be a deathbed repentance kind of thing.
It was interesting to hear the coach at his season ending press session. He identified essentially all the issues we have long talked about here at VLM (and I’m sure elsewhere) as stumbling blocks for the team, including the lack of a real team “identity”. Throw in not enough big-time playoff-proven experience, and an inability (unwillingness?) to grasp and play the system laid out in front of them and we all saw the result: a team that, on paper, should have made the playoffs yet didn’t.
This all brings us, I suppose, to the longstanding Leaf issue of leadership. If we have the talent in the middlish Eastern Conference to compete with just about anyone (and I still think we did this past season), why did we not have the ability to close the deal and make the playoffs? I have no idea but surely leadership in the dressing room and on the ice is a question mark. And this is not to throw darts at the captain or Phil Kessel. It would be hard to ask Dion Phaneuf to try to do more than he has for the Leafs since he came here. Whether we view him as a true top-line defenseman or not, he has embraced that role here and by and large given everything he has. He logs huge minutes and plays against the other team’s best forwards every night. He works in the community, tries to be accountable and take the high road when interacting with the media.
As for Kessel, when he is at his electrifying offensive best, he is a joy to watch and surely that must inspire his teammates, eh? But here’s where things get murky: could it be that the real issue in Leafworld is not just a bit of a leadership vacuum, but a lack of willingness to follow?
Mark Messier was acknowledged throughout much of the ‘80s and ‘90s as one of hockey’s undisputed leaders. But if his Oiler (and later Ranger, in that memorable ’94 season) teammates did not follow his lead, would we see him as a great leader? You may say, but wait, Michael, that’s the reason he was such a tremendous leader—people did follow him.
But what about those Vancouver years? He was the captain and leader then, too, and those years were a mess. And that’s my point: same guy, same leadership skill set…but few were following his lead in Vancouver.
Jonathan Toews in Chicago is the modern era version of what is recognized as an outstanding hockey leader. He has, at a young age, already led the Blackhawks to two Stanley Cups. (He’ll need those leadership skills and more to get Chicago out of the hole they now find themselves in against St. Louis.) And I have no reason to dispute that Toews is not only an impressive player but someone who somehow makes those around him want to be better and play even harder.
So what’s the issue in Toronto? I’m not suggesting we have the roster of the ‘80s Oilers or that of the current Blackhawks. I’m simply wondering if our issue may be more than just ‘leadership’. Could it be that the supporting cast, those who are there to play roles and support the stars and do their own jobs well, etc. just were not able, for whatever reason, to follow Phaneuf’s lead?
The bottom line, it seems to me, is that as good as your “leaders” might be, a successful team still needs the supporting cast to buy in and follow. It’s not just coaching, though clearly that was an issue this past season when it came to the team not fully embracing what Carlyle was asking them to do.
We, at the end of the day, perhaps had a duel problem in Toronto: the players did not follow the instructions of the coach, and did not follow the lead, it seems, of the team’s leadership group.
So maybe it’s not just about systems, coaching and leadership in the dressing room—maybe a lot of this franchise’s future success has to do with finding the players who will respond the right way to coaching and leadership in the room.
What say you?
Some recent VLM posts you might have missed:
Some recent VLM posts you might have missed:
- Checking in on your favourite (or least favourite) NHL play-by-play broadcasters, along with colour commentators and studio analysts
- Remembering the Leafs and their great playoff run in the spring of '93- Episode 19 of "The Vintage Leaf Memories Podcast"
- Why the first round of the NHL playoffs is, for me, the best hockey we see all year