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The Maple Leafs and leadership: who is the real leader of the band here?

I don’t pretend to be an expert on leadership, either in the corporate world or in the sports field.  But generally speaking, organizations that grow and thrive have had strong, smart “leadership” somewhere along the way.  And when it comes to professional sports teams, well, most successful franchises have someone leading their teammates to the promised land.

We all know that in sports, leadership can be defined in different ways.   There are vocal leaders and quiet leaders.  There are guys who lead by example, who demonstrate leadership by how the play.  There are the Mark Messier-types who can seemingly intimidate teammates into a more determined effort. In Leaf lore, there is a Darryl Sittler, who led by his on-ice presence and willingness to fight his own battles.  There was Dave Keon, who said little but led by working harder than just about everyone else and playing hurt- without spending all his time in the therapy room.  George Armstrong was “The Chief”, a practical-joker who kept things light in the iron-fisted Punch Imlach era but was also a constant voice of reason as the go-between when it came to his  frustrated colleagues and the Leaf boss.  (That's Keon and Armstrong on the right, just after the blue and white had captured their second Stanley Cup in a row at Maple Leaf Gardens against Gordie Howe and the Detroit Red Wings in the spring of 1963.)

In more recent times in Toronto, we’ve seen folks like Wendel Clark, Doug Gilmour and  Mats Sundin hold down the job of not only wearing the “C”, but also inspiring their teammates when something extra was needed.  None of them, by most accounts, were terribly loud or vocal, but led primarily through sheer (and quite obvious) extra effort and their will to win.  None of that latter trio led us to a Cup, but each brought up pretty darn close close. And each was unquestionably a leader in their own way.

Which all leads me to the present and a question I have to ask, which is also kind of an observation, I guess:  I wonder, on the current Leaf roster, exactly who is the team’s inspirational leader?  More to the point perhaps, is there one? Do we have anyone who remotely seems to be on the verge of being an Armstrong, Sittler, Gilmour or Sundin (left)?

Phaneuf is the captain, of course, and with that goes certain public and organizational responsibilities.  But is he the real team leader?  I saw many times last season when he was hammered by the opposition and nary a teammate raised an eyebrow, much less actually came to Dion’s defense.  That doesn’t mean he is not well-liked or isn’t a good leader.  It may simply mean that the Leaf team, as it is currently assembled, doesn’t have all that much in the way of hockey backbone.

We’ve talked here a number of times about the things that the Leafs still lack when and if we ever get back to playing hockey again.  They have questions in goal, up the middle (the much-discussed first-line center issue) and in terms of overall team toughness.  And yes, there is the matter of veteran experience, as in players who have won something somewhere or at least have extensive experience playing when it matters—in the spring at playoff time.

But one of the biggest issues, to me, is leadership.  Our goalies aren’t leaders, nor would these youngsters in goal be expected to be.  (Most goalies aren’t on any NHL team.)  We have so many third and fourth-line guys I’m not sure any of them are real team “leaders” though some, like Mike Brown, certainly play hard.

Kessel is a wonderfully talented offensive winger, but we’d hardly call him a leader by almost any definition.  The Lupul sample-size has been brief.  Before he was injured last season, he looked like he may be bringing some of those important “intangibles” (e.g. hating to lose) to the table that we often associate with leadership, in addition to the more noticeable things he provides, like scoring ability.  But is he a true team leader?

Again Phaneuf is the actual captain and the de facto, presumed “leader” of this troupe.  But is he a guy that others follow?  Does his voice resonate with his teammates?  How much are others inspired by either his talk—or his on-ice efforts?

I don’t know.  I just don’t know.  The brass claims they are happy with his leadership, but what else would they say?   So I’m left wondering:  do we really have a go-to guy, a player that others look up to and who can pull everyone up together when times call for the ability to do just that?

I realize it took Sundin a while to grow into the role, but he had undeniable skill- the best player on the team (often on the ice) most nights, by quite a bit.

Am I missing a current Leaf who provides that sometimes-elusive leadership that I still believe all good teams need?

What do you think?

(And for those VLM readers like myself who live in or have connections to Canada, warm wishes for a Happy Thanksgiving Monday.)


  1. I think Phaneuf is the captain, because he is the closest thing to a leader within the current roster. That being said, there's no inspirational leadership to be found within the current roster. Not a single blip on the radar.

    In hindsight, maybe that is was Burke tried to accomplish with the ill-fated Colby Armstrong signing, as was known as a hard-working guy who was well-regarded as a teammate by pretty much everyone he ever played with. But overpaying a bottom-six winger didn't magically turn him into an inspirational leader, even if he once captained (a disappointing) Team Canada in the World Championships, which should have been obvious off the bat.

    Kessel has the skills, for sure, but he doesn't have the resolve to dig in deep when it's needed. Most likely he disappears in those situations. Phaneuf might have the resolve, but he's not the smartest defenceman around, and I'm not too sure he has the words to inspire in the locker room. Grabovski has both skills and resolve, but yeah, he's just not the leader type, more of a savant.

    So there certainly is a vacuum of "power" within the roster. Maybe it gets filled naturally, should a structured playing system fall into place some sunny day, or maybe Burke doesn't like having strong personalities as underlings on any level of the franchise. And yes, that was the necessary (for me) quip against the current face of the organization, who should optimally be a player, and in any case never anyone farther removed from the ice than the coach. Our face is just too far away right now.

  2. You've said it very well, CGLN. We have some guys with a letter, some with heart, others with talent, but not a true leader, it seems. And until we have one, it will be tough, I sense. Thanks.

  3. Long Suffering Blue BoyOctober 8, 2012 at 11:07 AM

    Intuitively, the leadership group on this team is Lupul, Lilles and Phaneuf.
    I think Lilles is the diplomat, Lupul is courageous, talented and funny and Phaneuf brings the braun. I think Orr plays a role as well, quietly.

    It's a thin group for sure and none of these players will be around if the Leafs become a serious hockey club. It's the NEXT generation that will have what it takes - Scrivens, McKegg, Blacker, Gardiner, ORielly, Biggs, Kadri, Frattin, etc. We are slowly developing a core group that will bring it and stick together, but they are 3-4 years away from seriousness. Yes, we could cross our fingers and pray to airlift in Getzlaf, Luongo etc. today...but it's a short term bandaid. We will not get players in their prime, we'll get left overs Sorry, but we lost this team for a decade - 2003 to 2013.

    We have to look towards the next generation for real leadership and real results from an emerging core that reaches their prime in blue & white.

  4. Very interesting post, Long Suffering Blue Boy. I just wonder if any of the three you cite (Liles, Lupul, Dion) are the kinds of players that others rally around in some fashion?

    You may be right- it may take the "next generation" of Leafs to pick up the leadership mantle...

    Well said, thanks Long Suffering Blue Boy.

  5. "Am I missing a current Leaf who provides that sometimes-elusive leadership that I still believe all good teams need?"

    I think Joffrey Lupul might fit that definition.

    He's a little bit older at 29 and has 39 playoff games. He has decent size at 206 lbs. He will stand up for his only has to remember his challenge to P.K. Subban.

    Unlike guys like Mike Brown, Lupul has enough skill that he can actually go out and lead by example, score some goals and change the fate of a game.

    Here's the test and data for this hypothesis. Last year the team seemed to drop off the map when Lupul was injured.

  6. Lupul is one of the guys who could fit the bill. He was missed, as you said, after his injury. I guess we'll see this season if he has that kind of impact on his teammates....

  7. I think the first 3 posters comments all have merit and I was agreeing with them as I read. The future versions of Phaneuf, Grabbo, Lupul and Liles may well become greater than the present versions when they have a better supporting cast, so it is the upcoming group that has my interest at the moment.

    I'm pleased to hear about the sense of comraderie, respect, responsibility and friendship that has developed on the Marlies squad under Eakins' guidance. It may be that a large part of the team we hope for is being built 'down there' while we languish in the 'not 5-year-rebuild' that we had hoped to experience.

    Clearly, there are some 'pieces' we'd all be happy to keep on the Leafs team (Kessel, Lupul, Grabovski, JVR, Gardiner, some like at least one of Reimer/Scrivens and would be happy to keep some of the others), however, the pipeline gives me the most hope for guys that will fill in spots when they are developed properly.

    It seems that having a Biggs, Ashton, Fraser or Devane on the ice when Phaneuf gets "hammered" (as you noted Mike), might be the character guys to 'step up' for their captain, who, with like-minded support (and supporters) may become a better captain than we see now.

    Players with a bit more size and grit (mentioned above, plus Frattin, Holzer and D'Amigo); sandpaper (Komarov, Ross); and skill (Kadri, Colborne, McKegg, Rielly, Ranger), who might work their way into the lineup (and our hearts) are already teammates who are growing together a little further out of the spotlight than previous generations of hopeful Leaf prospects.

    I'm hoping that we have suffered through most of the time that was left in this rebuild and am looking forward to a sprinkling of Marlies establishing themselves in our lineup over the next 2-3 years. There will still be growing pains, but I like the healthier situation in Marlies world than the apparent disfunction (exacerbated by inconsistent loyalties to Wilson/Allaire) that have plagued the Leafs during this rebuild.

    I am hoping that the future team, that has a greater complement of players who have developed together, may be more cohesive than the stop-gap teammates that surround our favourite current Leafs... therein lies my hope for the future where we will see the true leaders of the team emerging.

    For now, I'm happy to follow the Marlies (plus ECHL-bound and junior prospects) to get a glimpse of our future... it sure looks better 'down there' than I can recall knowing or caring about in my 40+ years as a Leaf fan!

  8. I like your point about potential future cohesion with the emerging group of young players, InTimeFor62.

    Unfortunately, right now, we're just wishing and hoping when it comes to what "might" be some day. We though Schenn would be a future captain.

    I don't see the leadership in place right now. And we need it now, too.

    I'm probably just impatient!

  9. Long Suffering Blue Boy againOctober 8, 2012 at 7:29 PM

    You have a mediocre team with mediocre leadership being led into mediocrity. That's it. That's all there is man. We're talking about the kids and the future because if you're talking about leadership to success or heaven's to betsy VICTORY! then...forget this group. You have no #1 goalie, no #1 centre and maybe no #2 centre either and no superstar D.
    We're living in a land of mediocrity - and patience is the only thing you must have, cause trading away futures will just insure another decade of this pap. How many times do you need to hear the names Paul Maurice, JFJ, Ron Wilson and Brian Burke to conjure up MORE images of mediocrity. It is what it is. Go Marlies Go! Or should I say 'Grow Marlies Grow!' :-)

  10. I tend to agree with most of what's been posted already. But I do feel the Leafs lack a true leader right now. It too bad we don't have an elite world talent who is all class, like Jonathan Toews. Who can forget when the Hawks were down 3-0 to the Canucks two years ago in the playoffs, and Toews came out and said all the right things after a game three loss. The Hawks came back to tie the series after that and came within one goal of advancing in game seven. Makes you wonder what would have been if Vancouver never made it past Chicago in 2011.

    - Mike

  11. Well said, Mike (Cartsy). The Hawks relied on Toews for sure. Thanks for posting on this one.