One of the fine regular posters here (Colleen, better known as “C.N.”) at VLM made a comment on one of my earlier columns recently that merits further discussion. I’m paraphrasing but the question/comment was straightforward: do Leaf fans prefer skill or grit in their players?
The poster made reference to Phaneuf, and how many Leaf fans want more from him, including a willingness to drop the gloves. This, despite the fact that he draws the toughest forwards and logs the most ice time on a nightly basis on a team that badly needs what he provides.
That Leaf fans are rarely satisfied with their hockey “heroes” is an interesting topic in itself, to be sure, and that can be a discussion for another day. But for today, let’s think in terms of the initial question: what do most Leaf fans seem to appreciate in a player—a Sydney Crosby-type skill forward (albeit one who plays with a ton of passion, too) or, say, a Gary Roberts run-over-the-opposition at all costs guy?
My favourite Leaf of all time as I have disclosed here before was longtime ‘60s/’70s Leaf center Dave Keon. He was hardly a physical player in the classic sense, though no one eliminated his man from the play on those Leaf teams more than Keon. Keon just did it differently. He was a master at playing angles and his speed and anticipation allowed him to be a tough guy to get by. But some Leaf fans no doubt preferred the style of play of, say, Darryl Sittler, who was much more of a physical player than Keon ever was. Sittler would be called a power forward today.
In Keon’s early years with the blue and white back in the 1960s, teammate Bob Pulford was a key Leaf. He scored a ton of big goals and was a fine all-around player. Whereas Keon would skate you off the puck, Pulford would run right over you—and through you. Again, both generated results, but with a different style of play.
Today’s Leafs provide similar examples. Phil Kessel is a wonderfully gifted offensive player, with world-class speed and the ability to make plays with pace and make his linemates better. But he may never satisfy some Leaf supporters who want the team’s best players to also have, well, let’s call it a mean streak. For his part, Jake Gardiner is not a conventional hard-nosed defenseman, but he can sure skate and move the puck. Would we trade that for a tough-as-nails, stay-home defenseman?
I guess it all comes down to what we like as fans. I try to appreciate the different styles of play that are required to help a team win. You need speed and skill, and you certainly need the willingness to fight for the puck and take a hit to make a play. Some guys have both of those traits; some don’t but still make a valuable contribution. You probably need a Keon and a Pulford, and a Clark and a Sundin, to have success.
I’m not sure there is an “answer”, but I thought it would be a useful conversation to have. I look forward to hearing from you….