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Everyone is sensitive around the ACC these days. Where next, for the Leafs?

Two wins in a row, and we’re not even having this discussion, I realize.

Still, Leaf ownership has to be thankful people (that for some reason) still care enough after all these years to bother to spend personal time discussing the pros and cons of this Maple Leaf squad.

Management is upset that a handful of fans boo Phaneuf?  Well, I’m not one to boo, but for some of us it’s 40+ years in the making.  Don’t take it personally.  Folks do get frustrated around here, and understandably so.  Hell, the Tampa Bay Lightning have won a Stanley Cup.  And the Carolina Hurricanes.  C’mon.

You are ticked that the media raises the issue of coaching?  Well, people have to talk about something.  We could focus on the fact that the Leafs, in present management’s now third year into the job (though not quite third full season, I realize) the team is still not good enough, full stop.

And if the team is not succeeding because the players don’t work hard enough (the latest coaching/management stance), who brought these players in?  And who is coaching these players to this kind of effort?

In fact, most fans are actually very patient, and I’m not talking about 40 years of patience through many years of poor results.  Fans are patient about this team, here and now.  No one is expecting a Cup, most don’t even think this team will make the playoffs. 

Mostly, fans and non-mainstream media are just blowing off steam.  There is no need for Burke or Wilson to react, really, or sound quite as sensitive as most folks do around the ACC these days.

But back to the team.

I posted yesterday that I really feel there is something missing, and it may have to do with unrealistic expectations and the attitude of management and coaching staff.

As I mentioned, it’s one thing to want to get rid of entitlement and to push players to be their best, but players also have to feel that the organization actually believes in them—not just until they can get someone a bit better.

Again, if the Leafs win two in Florida this week, all will be well.  For now.

But in the meantime, Leaf analysts— media, fans and bloggers alike— have to critique what they see.  Some suggest a coaching change, which Burke naturally laughs off.  (He never fires coaches, and certainly not in the middle of a season.)  Others say the team is simply not good enough.  Still others say they have plenty of talent, they just have to work harder, and go to those dirty areas to create more offense. (Other teams, like Nashville, are crying the same blues, that their players won't go to the front of the net.)

Here’s where I land, I guess:  the Leafs have enough pure “talent” to compete for a playoff spot in the East.  Ten years ago, maybe not.  But in today’s NHL/Eastern Conference?  Sure.

But are they a really good hockey team?  Well, my answer is: some nights they work pretty hard.

I mean, we’re grasping if we think they have strength up the middle, or frankly, on the wings. (C’mon, we all knew before the season started that they had one guy, Kessel, who was a legitimate first-line player on a good NHL team.) But when they compete hard, like most NHL’ers, on any given night they may win.  Some nights they’ll look really good, other nights not so much.

So at the end of the day, should management and the coaching staff push them to be the best they can be?  Sure.  Of course.  Every coaching staff does that.

But in the same breath, they are asking guys, for example, to go to the front of the net who just don’t play that way.  You can teach them all you want “how” to stand in front of the net, but if that’s the kind of team you want, go out and find the next Tomas Holmstrom.  That’s what those kinds of players do, including but not exclusively on the power play.

So what I tried to explain in my last post is that the skill required from this management team, and this coaching staff, is not TV slogans about “every game being a tryout”.  What they likely need is finding a way to reach each and every guy on this team, to get them to do what they do well—and as well as they can on a consistent basis.  You can talk truculence, but there’s more to winning than that, clearly—in any era.

This is where a truly great management team, and/or coaching staff, make the difference.  If you can’t fit a square peg into a round hole (and you generally can’t, with athletes), you have to find other ways to make this work.  Maybe it’s building a genuine team bond, a kind of unity few teams possess.  Maybe it’s the “us against the world” card.  Maybe it’s management constantly being positive in public.  (And I don’t simply mean defending your Captain when a few folks boo.)  Perhaps it’s, a little late albeit, setting lower expectations.  I don’t know.  I’m not a GM or coach.

But the organization, the coaching staff, and the team has to find that “edge”, that something that will make these guys a team, in good times and bad, despite their inadequacies.

I was just reading an article by Peter King, the long-time football writer from Sports Illustrated.  He was quoting a fellow writer from St. Louis, talking about why the Rams didn’t pick up Randy Moss on waivers.  The Rams are a team that, like the Leafs, were very good a few years ago, but awful in recent years.  They needed a complete re-build, or almost.

While Ram coach Steve Spagnuollo wouldn’t go on the record, what was clear from the reporter's piece is that Spagnuollo is building a team.  They are building with a good rookie quarterback, a few good young players and tons of guys with strong character.  They’re still not a great team, but they are building something, perhaps something special.  They want guys who won’t blame each other, will support one another in good times and bad.  It’s about team, accountability, work ethic.

Sounds good to me.  But that same attitude has to be in place in the coaches office, and in the GM’s office.  Management can say that’s what they want, but you have to live all those great sayings when things get difficult for your team, even in a market like this one.

(It’s like the Kaberle situation the last two years under Wilson that led to the summertime almost-trade, again.  You’re not going to change Kaberle.  He is what he is.  Appreciate the good that he brings; build him up.  Live with the rest.  But don’t make him miserable every day he’s here because he’s not your idea of the perfect defenseman.  Move him, or make him feel like a million bucks.)

One of Burke’s mantras is “no complaints, no excuses”.  OK, the next step is, when the team struggles, don’t blame it on one line, or say certain guys just aren’t working hard enough.

This is a team.  They should be all in. Together.  Win and lose.  And there will be a lot more losing.

They are not a great team.  I will be shocked if they, with their current roster, become a great team.  But they can be better than what they have shown of late.  It’s not only up to the players, it’s up to the others in the organization to build on the good characteristics this team has and help them succeed, despite their flaws, in a weak conference.


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