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The missing ingredient in Leafland

The sports world is filled with clichés.  The one that’s jumping out to me right now is, “It’s not how you start, it’s how you finish”.

If you actually dissect that statement, I’m not sure it makes much sense. Like a speech, every part should be good—the beginning, the middle and the end.  If you wait to be “good” until the end of your speech, your audience may be asleep—or already long gone out the door.

In sports, a team should be good throughout the season.  Recognizing that down times are inevitable, a team strives, or should at least, for consistency.  That means starting the season well, working through the expected mid-season doldrums, and then finishing strong at the end of the season and into the playoffs.

In terms of individual games, coaches always say that a good start is important and the first goal is huge.  Statistically and psychologically, those things usually are important.  But a good start can be wasted if a team doesn’t complete the task.  (The Leaf loss, at home, to a severely struggling Sabres squad is an obvious and very recent example of that.)

The Leafs started this season on a high, with four wins in a row.  No one expected that to continue, of course. Their current difficulties may be forgotten once the team gets back (if it does) to winning more than it loses.  13 points in 13 games is, well, fine— for now.  (If you exclude overtime/SO, their real record is 4-5-4.)

It’s early, still, to fret too much about the actual standings.  With so few games played, things can change significantly in a matter of a few days.

But I have this nagging thought that something is missing with these Leafs.  And this is not an “Oh my God, the sky is falling” feeling.  It’s more a reflective, “hey, they’ve made strides, but something important is still missing here…” sentiment.

Here’s what is interesting to me.  If you ask most Leaf fans about individual players, you’d likely hear that they love the goaltending so far.  Giguere and Gustavsson have been steady, spectacular at times, rarely awful.  The defense has not allowed a ton of goals.  Phaneuf was not at an All-Star level but was playing hard before he was hurt.  Beauchemin has been way more comfortable this year and is logging tons of ice time.  With his usual defensive mistakes here and there, most people believe Kaberle is playing very well.  Komisarek has been stronger of late.  Schenn just may be their most physically imposing and tough rearguard and is emerging the way Cliff Fletcher had hoped when he drafted Schenn three years ago.

So what’s the problem there, we can ask?  Well, the elephant in the room is the forward contingent, but that’s not the whole story.

Up front, Wilson (click on his name to read my earlier post on Wilson) keeps putting Mitchell out there and says he likes what he is seeing lately.  Brent is getting some minutes in his checking role.  Wilson claims publicly to love what Grabovski is doing (+8 on the season) though he has scored infrequently, so far.  MacArthur was never expected to produce this much.  Kulemin is scoring now, too, and may be their best all-around forward of late.  Brown plays tough, as advertised.

So is the “problem” the first line of Bozak, Kessel and Versteeg?  Well, everyone was in love with Phil at the beginning of the season.  He couldn’t miss, it seemed, with that quick release.  And he bounced back well after he was briefly benched one night by the coach.  Versteeg brought the Stanley Cup pedigree from Chicago.  He hasn’t scored much, but that was a beauty against the Caps, and he has certainly worked pretty hard, despite minor ailments.

We can all be accused of hoping Bozak would just naturally pick up in his second season where he left off last spring, but we also all know that’s easier said than done.  He still may progress as the season moves along.

It’s clear Wilson wants more from that line.  But is that whole “problem”?  A trio of talented offensive forwards all under 25 is the problem?  Really?

What, in the end, is missing, if anything?

I’ve said for months now, dating back to last season, and I’m hardly alone, that this team just doesn’t have strength up the middle.  We can love Bozak’s potential, and yes, Grabbo is a plus player and Tim Brent works so hard.  Now Mitchell has (temporarily?) stepped up.

But at the end of the day, will those four centers compete well enough over a long NHL season, even in the parity-riddled East?

And yes, you need wingers, too.  Some checkers (like Sjostrom), some grinders (like Brown) some scorers (like Kessel) and some classic “power forwards” (do we have any, really?).  The Leafs simply don’t have a lot of elite talent up the middle or on the wings, either.

That’s not new information.

I always remember what Wayne Gretzky said years ago (and I paraphrase):  “You know what beats hard work?  Talent and hard work….”

But there are a lot of teams (check the rosters) in the East who also don’t have powerhouse line-ups.  Rosters are filled with maybe two or three players who might be considered elite, some guys who were good a few years ago or may be good some day, and others, because of cap realities, who could just as easily be playing in the AHL.  That’s what most rosters look like nowadays.

If fans are honest, some of these rosters are filled with guys you’ve never heard of, or know little about.  That doesn’t mean they aren’t good players, but the cap has changed the way teams have to construct their rosters.

And let’s be really honest.  If you’re a hockey fan in most any NHL city, and you “know” hockey fairly well and you look at the Leaf roster, do you say, “I don’t want to play those guys”.  I don’t think so.

All that said, the Leafs should still be very competitive in the East, and may well be when all is said and done.  Maybe Washington and Pittsburgh will stand out, because of Crosby and Ovechkin, but I’m not even sure about that.

But I guess I’m still dancing around my real point.  I think there is something else missing in Leafland.  And it is this.  The players have something, I don’t know what, hanging over their heads, it seems.  They don’t look relaxed.  The atmosphere seems somehow off.  (I know, I know, the pressure in Toronto, the media scrutiny, etc…but it’s more than that…)  Oh, they are working hard, for sure, for the most part.  But there is something, when I watch the team, that makes me think they need a confidence jolt, and not just for a game or two.

Burke (click on his name to read an earlier post on Burke) can talk about players developing that “swagger”, but I don’t know if you can feel that if, after every game or practice, the GM or the coach is talking about how “every game is a try-out”.

This regime wanted to rid the team of the old entitlement culture, and that’s good.  But I don’t think you can play with a piano on your back, either. 

I remember when Pat Quinn was hired back in ’98.  The Leafs had been a defensive-oriented team under Mike Murphy, in part, if I recall correctly, because the coaching staff believed they didn’t have the talent to open up and compete with the best clubs.  Well, Quinn came in and right away, looked at the roster and said, “We have talent, we’re going to open up and play like we can” with pretty much the same group Murphy had the year before.

The Leafs that year went on to finish in the final four.  They played with jump, confidence, and probably over-achieved.

Since Quinn was let go (and I know many fans and media were happy to see a change in ’06, though I wasn’t), the team brought in Paul Maurice, who was so “media- friendly” that reporters fell over themselves getting his great quotes.  But the team (not to mention Paul) looked increasingly stressed and out of synch in his two years behind the bench.  He seemed to age 10 years.

Now it’s the same with Wilson.  Three years in and, after most game and practices, he still looks constantly annoyed, agitated, as though every question comes with a negative agenda.

The guy has been a good NHL coach. And he has some excellent assistant coaches who utilize the latest in technology to try and help the players.

What I don’t know is if the missing ingredient is in the attitude around the ACC.  If the coaching staff could genuinely—and consistently— show confidence in the players and “let them play”, I think we would see a happier, less uptight, more successful team.  Everything is so micro-managed these days.  Not just every game, but every shift is dissected.  I realize that’s the case on every NHL team but here, with this team, do the players need the fans, the media and the coaching staff on their back daily?

No, players shouldn’t have a sense of entitlement.  But they also need to know that they can play free—without fear of reprisal if they make mistakes. (It’s one thing for coaches and management to have ultra high expectations if you have a team that can realistically contend for a championship.  Then, you expect players to get benched or called out once in a while.  But the Leafs are a fragile team, with a recent history of waiting for the worst to happen.)

Players need to play hard and be accountable to one another, absolutely.  But it may just be that confidence is what this team, and these players, need.  Not a confidence that slides away at the first sight of struggling, or gets knocked out by a coach slamming players in public, but a deep confidence that comes from knowing that, while they aren’t perfect as individual players, as long as they are working hard together, they are the guys that are going to battle together, every night.

Maybe, at the end of the day, what I’m saying is that, in fact—unlike the Burke slogan— not every game should be a tryout.  If you have real trust in your players, then you don’t have to make them feel insecure every day.  There is a fine balance between crushing a sense of entitlement and making a talent-challenged team believe they can be better then maybe they really are.

It’s not just the fans that have to show patience—and believe.


  1. Agreed 100%. I don't think Ron Wilson is the reason the Leafs are losing but I do wonder if the players feel too pressured to perform. Great job on figuring out a feeling I've had a hard time putting into words.

  2. Thanks General Borschevsky. And thanks as well Karina. We're likely all struggling to understand exactly what is holding the team back (beyond the elite-level talent we all realize is somewhat missing) from being what it should be able to be.