I really didn’t think the Montreal Canadiens, in the end, would upset the Boston Bruins. But at the end of the day, I have a difficult time saying the Habs did not deserve to win the series.
For me, they exemplified two traits that we have talked about here for some time, in the context of what we need to see from the Maple Leafs: toughness and discipline.
Now, I realize we can debate what we mean by the term “toughness”. VLM readers will know that I often speak here about what I call “team toughness”, which for me is an attitude as much as it is about being a physical team. It is the willingness, for example, to fight for pucks and to take a hit to make a play when the situation calls for it. It does not necessarily mean engaging in senseless fisticuffs.
Truthfully, I’ve long thought about the Canadiens as kind of a harmless (if still at times somewhat annoying) little brother. They have speed and skill, and as important as those things are in today’s more “wide open” (supposedly) NHL, they are a pretty small team. I guess I’ve clung to the idea that teams need to be able to handle the rugged aspect of playoff hockey to survive—and I still believe that will be the case once the Eastern Conference team plays the Western Conference representative. I thought the Bruins had the best combination of skill and grit to advance in the East, and yet I was proven quite wrong.
Montreal showed its own kind of team toughness—and the ability to handle the rough stuff. They had the inner discipline to let the Bruins do what the Bruins do, but didn’t try to beat Boston by playing like the Bruins do. Because Montreal stayed true to their own identity, the fact that they were a small team did not matter in the end. They were left standing, and will advance to take on the Rangers in the Eastern Conference final.
How does this relate to the Maple Leafs? Well, after reviewing Brendan Shanahan’s comments to various media outlets this week, it seems clear he will bring a degree of patience to whatever process the Leafs are now embarking upon. Whether it’s a continuation of Nonis’ existing ‘plan’, a slow build on what is already in place or a mini re-build, Shanahan has made it abundantly clear that he wanted to continue with Carlyle, and wants to build around the key pieces (Phaneuf as captain, etc.) that are already in place.
Rather than change everything up, it seems he wants to show confidence in what is already here, and build from there.
He did throw out the thought that some Leafs will have something to prove and how they respond this summer will go a long way toward determining how long they remain a Maple Leaf. But culture change does not happen overnight, he acknowledged—and good that someone in charge here finally said it.
If I read the reports correctly, the new President of Hockey Operations believes, based on his own NHL experience, that leadership and mental toughness are attributes that can be developed over time. I was interested in his point that teams (and individual players) are often criticized for “not being able to win”—until they do.
His former teammate Steve Yzerman is the poster boy for this phenomenon, as the perception around the longtime Red Wing captain grew increasingly negative in the early and mid 1990s until the Wings finally turned the corner and won their first Stanley Cup with him leading the way. (VLM readers of a certain vintage will well recall that Scotty Bowman tried to trade Yzerman to the fledgling Ottawa Senators in those days. He’s no doubt glad the trade never happened…)
Maybe the Yzerman “non trade” is at the root of Shanahan’s current thinking about not taking over and making sweeping changed at all levels of the organization.
One thing is sure: going forward, the Leafs don’t need to play like the Montreal Canadiens, but they do need to establish an identity. They do need to follow a system, whatever Carlyle’s “system” will be come September. They will need to be mentally tougher and be hard to play against, whether that is because of their physical play or because of the attitude they carry.
Is this roster good enough right now? It’s better than it was a few years ago, but having watched the current playoffs, most of us would agree there is work for Nonis to do, especially in his “bottom six” and perhaps along the blueline. There is skill here, for sure. We can skate and have some defenseman who can skate with and move the puck. And as we have seen with Carey price, if you have a good netminder and he gets hot at the right time, good things can happen in the playoffs.
Whether through trades, free-agent signings, the emergence of promising Marlies or just the confidence that comes from the stability that Shanahan will provide, the hope in Leafworld is that the blue and white will move forward with the kind of identity, discipline and toughness that will allow them to contend for something more than a playoff spot in the years ahead.