There has been and will continue to be all kinds of words written and tossed about regarding the future fortunes of the Maple Leafs. Some Leaf fans are of the view that the organization needs to start all over—a complete overhaul, as in keep Rielly and Nylander and a few promising kids and start anew. Others see a mid-term makeover ahead of us, while others still think this latest version of a rebuild need not take as long as many anticipate.
Never having built a hockey team, I have no idea of what the “best” approach will be in the months and years ahead. But I do believe that there will be one requirement that Shanahan will surely take into account: whatever future Leaf rosters under his oversight will look like, they need to be filled with players who have what I call “will”. That is, they have to be willing to do all the difficult little things that help good NHL teams win hockey games against top opposition.
I saw a “Tweet” a couple of days ago that reinforced this thought. It quoted a basketball legend, coach Tex Winter. Winter was quoted as saying that, “good defensive play is as much a matter of hustle, desire and pride as it is anything else.” Winter evidently made that simple statement, essentially saying that playing defense in sports is all about the willingness to do it. That sentiment echoed what I’ve written in this space many times before.
It takes hard work, determination (and yes, skill can help) to be a good defender in hockey, whether you are a forward or a defenseman. Great offensive players can be very adept when it comes to their defensive responsibilities; so can role players.
My belief is this: regardless of the “system” an NHL team employs, if the roster has guys who work their tail off, it can succeed. If there had been one system developed at some point that was perfect and unbeatable, every NHL coach would have copied it by now.
Yes, coaches of course have to take their personnel into account to a large extent when building their approach to playing the game. But that said, I still maintain that regardless of the system of play a coach adopts, it’s still the players who make the difference.
Coaches matter, for sure. A good coach is a teacher, a motivator and has to be tactically brilliant behind the bench on game night in the modern era NHL. (Having excellent gut instincts may not hurt, either.) And a winning coach needs to have skill across his roster, too. As Wayne Gretzky said years ago: “You know what beats hard work? Skill and hard work…”.
But at the end of the day, you need a team pretty much full of guys with character. Now, I realize character means different things to different people, but I sense most of us would agree that, in hockey terms, it includes putting the interests of the team at least on a par with your own personal ambitions. It means following the coach’s plan, working to improve your game constantly, mentoring the youngsters on the roster and setting an example. And again, on game night it can mean blocking shots, making that extra effort—and wanting the puck even more than the guy you are playing against.
For me, it’s about having a team that hates to lose, as some have posted here, as much as they want to win.
There has been much discussion in Leafworld in recent weeks (heck, for ten years now, I guess) about what has gone wrong yet again. Is it the coaching? Has there been a problem with the “core”? Did the Leafs have enough leadership? Were they lacking chemistry?
My view is there have been good coaches here, and good GM’s as well. There have been plenty of good players. (Not enough to contend for a Stanley Cup, no, but some skilled individuals, absolutely.)
The thing is, I cannot pinpoint who are the individuals who gave absolutely everything they had in their time here. Name any player—Kessel, Lupul, Bozak, Phaneuf, van Riemsdyk, Gardiner, etc—and any of the players who have departed. Did they do everything they possibly could to win games for the Leafs?
On the one hand we say, of course. Those guys all played hard. Phaneuf played huge minutes against the league’s best forwards. There were times Kessel was one of the most explosive wingers in the game. Lupul played through almost constant injuries. We can defend every player, it seems, on he basis of their surface work ethic.
Yet, collectively, the team has always fallen short. Oh, there have been times every season, it seems, when the team was winning games (sometimes against all odds, but winning nonetheless) and seemed a lock to make the playoffs and maybe win a round or two. But it has never happened, even when the goaltending was pretty good.
So was it the coaching? Was it “the system”? Is it the local Toronto media that, over time, wears the players down because of the constant scrutiny?
Or is it simply the reality that the Leafs these last few seasons have been made up of a lot of players, some very talented, some just everyday NHLers, that simply did not have the final ingredient needed to maintain a consistent level of success: will.
As we look around the NHL, who has had that elusive extra quality that separates those teams that had a legitimate shot at championship success in recent years? In my mind, I would include Boston in the East, along with Detroit, of course, and maybe Pittsburgh (not many people want to win more than Crosby…). In the West, St. Louis, LA and Chicago have obviously played with the kind of edge needed to compete at the highest levels.
To be clear, there are other teams that also play hard pretty consistently. (I often think of the Predators all those years under Barry Trotz…not many big names but tons of heart and “will”…). But the teams I mentioned have seemed to display the combination of coaching, talent, adherence to a system and a team first attitude that pushes everyone on the roster to play with maximum effort almost every night.
That’s where the Leafs need to get. It will mean wise drafting, shrewd player trades and most significantly, perhaps, an approach to player development that will create a roster full of players who can play with the kind of passion the aforementioned teams already do.
Are we a year away? Five years away. I don’t know. But if the Leafs can ice a roster that plays with passion right across the board starting in October, I sense a lot of Leaf fans will take that as a good next step.