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Do Maple Leaf fans want grit, or skill?

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.

She further noted that Wendel Clark, for example, was a more cherished Leaf for many fans than, say, Mats Sundin (right).  Wendel was known for his willingness to play a physical game and, of course, drop the gloves.  Mats, while certainly a physically imposing presence, was more of a skill guy than someone who would run over you.  (To be clear, Clark had plenty of skill, too, and Sundin certainly used his size to his advantage in the offensive zone.)

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….


  1. Michael,

    I guess this is the biggest problem with being a Leaf supporter for so long. We have become conditioned to the question always being an either or. We as fans, should really be demanding that our teams have the requisite amount of skill and grit. Gritty players who can chip in goals occasionally, as well as top flight talent that will block shots, and show the determination to do the small things that win hockey games, and championships. Wendel was a perfect example of this, he could score, and would absolutely run you over if he could. Sundin, Gilmour, and Roberts too. They were all more than one dimensional.

    This franchise has had so precious little skill over the years. Never has the best player in the League worn the Blue and White. The Leagues best forward, defenceman, or goalkeeper hasn't played here in the post 67 era. As a fan, I have often felt that the only thing the team gives us to cheer for is the hard luck mucker, grinder type. The guy that has put in his time, paid his dues, and is now getting the chance to make good on it. There are so many examples in Toronto, Motor City Smitty, Tiger Williams, Tie Domi, Tim Brent, Joey Crabb. The list could go on, and on, really. The crowd favourite, never had a lot of skill, but tried really hard. A regular guy, hard working, lunch bucket type. This player more than any other type, has always resonated here, with the Jays as well as the Leafs. The John MacDonalds of the baseball world, are celebrated here. Sometimes I think that we have gotten biased towards these types of players, they look like us, they aren't very big, or fast, or even talented compared to others. Maybe we gravitate towards them, because they remind us of ourselves.

    When all is said and done, you can't teach talent. No matter how much Jay McClement would like to be Sidney Crosby, he isn't going to become him. If guys like Phil Kessel can become just a little more like Jay McClement, you end up with players like Toews, and Doughty. Personally, I would find it much easier to forgive a players faults, if they were competing for the Stanley Cup, instead of golfing and fishing in May and June. It sometimes feels as though the fans of this team are more invested in winning, than the organization is.

    1. There's no doubt winning teams need a full complement of players with that mix- skill and grit. And I agree it's been some time since the Leafs had the best forward, defenseman or goaltender in the game. We've had some very good players- but not the best, it's fair to say.

      That may be why Morgan Rielly will be a player to watch. I don't know what his ceiling is, but his skills and instincts are outstanding. Thanks Jim.

    2. Ive switched computers and the new browser has trouble saving entries on your site which is why I;ve been scarce here of late Michael...but in answer to your question,ideally fans want both, which is why everyone was so excited for a player like Lupul to come around...if only he could stay healthy..which was Clark's downfall as well

    3. I agree, Sean, in the times when Lupul is healthy, he has brought leadership and passion and an edge to his game, along with skill. And I think that's what most Leaf fans love to see.

  2. I'm glad you pursued this line of thinking initiated by Colleen and am appreciating Jim's comments as well. The 'either-or' / 'both-and' argument is the first thought that came to mind for me as well. I want to see both kinds of player, with just enough skill or grit added in to the type of role that they generally would fill on the roster.

    Kessel has been oft-mentioned for his blazing speed and ability to shoot on the fly, but I still think he could 'will himself' to a higher 'compete' level in other areas of his game. He doesn't have to become Wendel Clark or Gary Roberts to satisfy this hoped for 'add-on'... just a little more mental toughness and perhaps a modicum of a training regimen that would protect his best fast-twitch assets, yet 'harden him up' a bit to participate in other areas of the ice a bit more often.

    There has long been an observation regarding naturally skilled players who never seem to be able to add-in that 'work ethic' found in the lesser lights who capture our hearts (because they likely reflect what it takes for us to excel by hard work that raises us up to 'compete' with others who are truly more naturally skilled). What is always 'baffling' is how so many skilled players are satisfied to just 'use what they already have going for them'. Longevity seems to be lacking in these types of careers.

    I'd love the work/training ethic of a Stamkos or Crosby in my fantasy Leaf line-up!

    Looking back I, too, loved Davey Keon as my first 'favourite' player, but I was quite young and only really found myself understanding the game when Sittler rose up to capture my imagination. He was skilled and gritty as needed, so hard not to love in my youthful era. Yet, Keon is still a close second for me (even above Clark or Sundin), therefore, I must acknowledge the value of his effort level and the practical hockey smarts that you mentioned.

    I don't think Phaneuf has found the balance that will satisfy the fans, yet I wonder if his career would be shortened/ physically impacted (like Wendel's), if he tried to engage in more fights... or would we be lamenting the goals that would be scored when he's off the ice and the premier players are filling the net!

    I certainly hope the management will find the right mix and that each of the players will find the right balance in their own game, instead of satisfying some desire to re-live the glory days of Wendel, while forgetting the injury and down times that such a style of play brought to the man and was lacking in his many absences. I wonder if we idealize the best memories and set ourselves up for disappointment in the present as a result.

    1. I appreciate your post, InTimeFor62. We do indeed idealize our memories. And it's true that we forget that Clark missed significant time because of injuries and the then owner (Ballard) and we fans were often frustrated that he could not play. But it was the style of play that we all loved that led to his missing time.

      If a team's best players have the work ethic of a Crosby or a Stamkos, that sets an example for the rest of their teammates. The combination of skill and grit with desire is the ticket.

    2. I sometimes have the Impression that Dion has the order not to fight.
      I think Carlyle aproached him and told him not to fight (forgot to mention it in the other comment regarding leadership)

    3. I wonder, too, if Phaneuf has been told not to fight, Marcus.

  3. Skilled players who care game in and game out. Grit is whatever, who cares. Show up every night, no games off, try as hard as you can in every puck battle. It really isn't about 'grit', it is about professional integrity. Grit is an effect not a cause. Professional integrity is a cause.

    I have worked with some brilliant people who 'take off' too many days or do not apply themselves consistently. They lacked professional integrity. Anybody who tries to tell you that "hey they're all pros of course they have the pride to show up 82 times a year" has likely spent too much time in their mom's basement.

    The NHL is mainly composed of relatively equally talented players , it is also composed of players who just cash a cheque and players who show up.

    I want players with talent who show up. That might terrify quants-heads as it is presently beyond their capacities to quantify who 'shows up' but some players are there every night , some players be it because of entitlement, disinterest, lack of professional pride , lack of emotional capacities, self obsession might be on the ice for 82 games but don't play 82 games. "Dion will pick up my slack" or "Lupol's back tonight he can take care of things" 'hey its just one game" "I scored the game winner last night" etc

    Do NHL teams put the effort into psychological and behavioral assessments that NFL teams do? HA!

    Is it a coincidence that the NHL's current best and most successful coach has done post graduate studies in sports psychology?

    Old timers like Don Cherry scoff at the notion of the importance of psychological make up. Quants guys scoff at the notion that performance integrity and the 'grit' displayed as evidence of it is important. Mike Babcock and the Red Wings get it. You are what your record says you are and the NHL's only coach with post graduate sports psychology education has a remarkable record of success. His team consistently finds 'the right player' further down the draft board than almost any other team.

    Ultimately it isn't about having one or two leaders. Yes example setting is valuable but each and every player needs to bring professional pride, commitment and caring 82 times a year. If you leave it up to just the guys with the C and A's on you'll fail..

    My own leadership experience with high performance professionals has taught me similar lessons about attitude and the importance of psychological make up. The best research into the field of leadership tells us that 'anyone can be leader' and 'you don't need authority to be a leader' Find guys for whom quality performance is a 24/7 preoccupation. Find players who exhibit leadership (forget this grit label) and fill your team with them.. If only somebody could put it on a spreadsheet the notion might be trendier..........

    1. That's a great post, Bmaximus- I was nodding along throughout. Good to hear from you. Thanks.

    2. I would concur, Michael, this is an excellent post by Bmaximus. I think B captured what we are all trying to say with the grit word... we want INTEGRITY and a full buy-in by whoever is privileged to play on this team... there's the CULTURE we're looking for!

      Thanks for sharing your thoughts, Bmaximus... I really appreciate everything you said, it really 'cut to the chase' for me!

  4. Thanks for this ,Michael. It's nice to receive answers to my often garbled questions.

    I want both grit and skill, of course. It's often hard to find both in good measure in the same player and I don't think "compete" and "grit are necessarily the same thing--- you mentioned Keon, who always competed to a very high level. I guess I want a smart player who knows what's needed at a given time and is willing to do it. Why the Leaf had less of everything this season, I can't figure out.

    I don't think Kessel needs to take big hits to make a play as I've seen him avoid a hit and make the play many times. I would like to see him use his strength more in certain situations. From what team-mates say, he may have the strongest legs in the room. I also think he's left alone for the most part and sent out on the ice to do what he usually does, where a little individual coaching time could bring him to the next level.

    Kessel has the heavier build of a sprinter. He can't change his body type and if he does the same workout routine as his team-mates, that's a mistake by the trainers. Some types need very little training, ( Salming never worked out at all in the summer yet was in top form) some need it consistently. We can all see Phil needs something different. After seeing the change in JVR's skating, I'd love to see what a few sessions with Barb could do for his stamina and can imagine an even faster Kessel with gas left in the tank. Wishful Thinking...Colleen

    1. Thank you, Colleen, for triggering the idea for this column.

  5. Three of the teams in the semi-finals are speedy, skill teams with some smaller players: Montreal, NY, Chicago.

    LA is the gritiest of the 4 and bigger and slower.

    I think the trend of success is towards speed and skill.

    So the Leafs already have much of what they need. They just need to commit to using their speed to play defence. Kessel needs to use his speed to round out and improve his defensive game, the same can be said of Lupul, Kadri and others.

    They also need some speedy defensive players from the Marlies. Jerry D'Amigo springs to mind...maybe Sam Carrick. The Leafs also need some defensive defensemen with mobility. Petter Granberg might provide that, but he is young. Maybe they need to add a veteran defensive defensemen. Robidias? Anton Stralman provides some of that for the Rangers at 22 minutes a game. He was a Leaf prospect...played 38 games in 2008/2009. Maybe we gave up too early.

    1. Defense is a matter of 'will', it seems to me, DP. Talented guys can be good defensive players, they just need to dedicate themselves to doing what it takes.

      I think the game is very much about speed and moving the puck now. You still need to fight for the puck and win battles, of course, but as you say, the Leafs have some of the tools already.

  6. Michael, your comparison of Crosby and Roberts is an apt one and several people have said that what they want is a high compete level. To me, that means having to play with grit, whether to take a hit to make a play or give a hit to stop the other team. In some situations it might mean dropping the gloves. Comparing Crosby and Roberts in terms of their "grit" or compete level, I'd have a hard time picking between them.

    Unfortunately, thinking about the Leaf's roster, I can think of too many players that did not have high consistently high compete levels.

    Tim Gleason, comes to mind, as an example of someone who displayed both higher and lower compete levels over a short period of time. When he arrived, his compete level was well remarked upon – blocking shots and being physical when needed. But by the end of the season, to me, he'd sunk to be closer to the compete level many of his teammates were showing. Sometimes a call up from the Marlies would come in and play with a higher compete level than the regular Leaf's roster, and I'd ask myself how come the rest of the team wasn't working as hard as the call up.

    What was hardest for me to stomach was in the final weeks of the season seeing the Leafs get outhustled and out "gritted" playing opposition that were no stronger on paper than the Leafs.

    Skill or grit (i.e., compete) isn't a choice. Skill without grit isn't going anywhere. The Leafs need more skill to compete with the top 6 teams in the league. But unless they can add skilled players with grit, skill won’t get them where we want them to go.

    1. Chicago seems to have the kind of mix you are talking about, Steve. Lots of skill, but those skill guys compete hard.

  7. Chicago is also very consistent in the way they play, aren't they? I don't know if the problem is a lack of structure but the Leafs change their game and compete level not only period to period, but within periods. You will have a better idea than me, Michael, why this might be happening the last few years. and why some teams are extremely consistent and others not. CN