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What would you like the Maple Leafs’ identity to be?

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One of the questions that confronted GM Dave Nonis and Head coach Randy Carlyle on Sunday, as training camp was set to officially open, was “does this team have an identity?”.

This is an issue we have discussed for some time here at VLM.  Early last season, we had something of an identity—of being a fast, puck-moving team with an offensive bent.  That sort of evaporated into the mist once February approached and the team hit the proverbial skids and went south- very, very far south.

When responding on Sunday, Carlyle, for his part, spoke of the Leafs being a skating team, which means, he said, they’ll have to be good off the puck and in transition.  That sounds a lot like Wilson at the beginning of last season, but we all know Carlyle will also insist on a defensive approach to thinking—and playing—the game. 

Nonetheless, this “identity” issue is a question worth exploring.

Nonis spoke about the team “playing hard”, but surely that’s the least we can expect of NHL players, right?  That’s a kind of identity, I suppose, but most every NHL player works hard, in relative terms.  As unproven as so many of these Leaf players are (and as unsuccessful as the team has been for so many years), they should sure work hard, right?

From a pure talent standpoint, we have all bandied about the obvious (on paper) “lacks” in the current roster configuration.  (Now, if the Leafs win three in a row early this season—witness the last two seasons—some will think the roster will suddenly be just fine and a Cup final is in the offing, and then will want to trade everyone a week later when we lose a couple of games…) This includes:  lack of a true front-line center, questionable goaltending (I keep saying I like Reimer, but even the GM and coach seemed a bit skittish and more hopeful than certain on the weekend when discussing him), no real leadership, experience or team toughness.  I’ll stop there.

This is not to say the roster is not filled with decent players.  These are all NHL players.  In fact, we have more than a full roster of NHL-quality guys.  The issue is more how many of them are more than replaceable NHL parts?

But here is the real question for the day: I’m not asking you what you feel the team “identity” is right now because, well, I don't think we really have one.  We haven’t played a meaningful game in close to a year, since the 2011-’12 season fell off the cliff and we changed coaches.  So we are embarking on a brand new season, with that new coach, a new "system" of play and mostly holdover players, though not exclusively so (van Riemsdyk, McLement, etc.).

So I ask: would you like the Leafs to be known for something special?  Say for their strong team defense?  Or being a hard to beat at home? As a superb puck-moving squad?  As really tough, or a team with great goaltending?  For their solid special teams?

For most of the last eight years, I have not felt (with the possible exception of early last season, when we did have the fast skating, puck moving thing going for us) as though the club had a discernable identity.  I usually try to put myself in the shoes and mindset of the Leaf opponents.  What would they think about when preparing to play the Leafs? 

Sad to say, but my sense is that most teams like playing Toronto.  And it’s more than the fact that Canadian kids like playing in Toronto, or against the Leafs because the games are always on TV “back home”.  The Leafs weren’t soft, but they have not been a particularly tough team, either—and I don’t mean just fighting.  I mean the one-on-one battles, the play in the corners, along the boards and in front of both nets.  You know, all those things that give a team that unmistakeable "will to won" thing.  I wonder if any opposing team ever felt, “Damn, we have to play the Leafs tomorrow night.  They’re so good on the power play” or “my God, it’s hard to play at the ACC…” or even, “how are we going to beat that  (fill in the blank) goalie…?”.

At some point, winning teams—I mean really good, high-end championship caliber teams—have to be something and be known for something. When I was a kid in the late 1950s and early ‘60s, “The Flying Frenchman” nickname wasn’t just a tag line—the Montreal Canadiens were loaded with homegrown, French-Canadian players from Quebec who could flat out fly—and had an immense passion for playing hockey. (It wasn’t just one or two guys.  The two (Rocket and Henri) Richards’, Jean Beliveau, “Boom Boom” Geoffrion (right, in late '50s action against the Bruins and future Leaf Cup-winning goaltender Don Simmons) , and later Rousseau, Cournoyer, Lafleur, etc. are just a few of the names that helped create and prolong that legacy.)

In fact, until fairly recently, I’ve always thought of the Hab organization, right through the ‘80s, at least, as a team that simply hated to lose.  And I don't use the term 'hated' loosely.  So they were known as a supremely fast, talented team that could kill you with speed, but also that desperately hated to lose, perhaps even more than they loved to win.

So where are the Leafs right now?  Well, we’re clearly a ways away still.  Steps have been taken, for sure.  But years into the latest re-build, we are still building an identity.  I don't believe we have one.  My question for you today, as fellow Leaf observers, is this:  what identity do you want this team to develop?  What identity does it have to have, ultimately, to win the East some day, and have a shot at the elusive Stanley Cup?


  1. MIchael,

    Once again, it is great to be talking about hockey. Wonderful, in fact, to be talking Maple Leafs. In 7 days I will be watching game 2 of the truncated season. I am so happy.

    You touched on some points in your fine article that I would love to expand upon a little bit, if you would permit the indulgence.

    I think the Leafs do have an identity. So does the ACC, and by extension the city of Toronto.

    The Leafs right now are a very easy team to play against. There are no Darcy Tuckers on this team, no Gary Roberts. Who on this team lives and dies so to speak, after a loss? Is there anyone? I am having trouble finding the guy that inspires. You are right, they win very few battles for the puck, or position on the ice. The compete level of this team, night in, night out, has been lacking. There have been plenty of interviews on TV today. Players, specifically Phaneuf, talking about how it was a new start, that the guys are really paying attention, and this time is going to be different. You know the drill, every year the same promises. Its funny really, that is all they have to say. The same old, same old.

    The ACC, by the fact that it is generally quiet, and reserved, is a great place for visitors to come and play. Very little energy to get the players excited about the goings on. Lots of wine and sushi being consumed, kind of makes me sad when I am there in person. There is a little club so to speak for the platinum ticket holders. Lots of them are missing for the first 5 to 10 minutes of the second and third period. They are down there chatting and tasting wine, watching TV. The sound level is even more muted when you are there, in person, you can hear the players on the ice.

    The fact that Canadians are still the largest percentage of players in the league, means that most teams have a lot of guys who grew up watching HNIC every Saturday. Being on this broadcast nationwide from the ACC, is still a very big deal to most of these players. Their friends and family, get to see their boy play, sometimes the family is live in person. Nice for the players, it always seems to bring out their best effort, in my opinion. It must be easier for Columbus to play home games. Or Nashville, wherever really, other than Montreal. What a disadvantage to the Leafs.

    Watched TSN's top 50 player rankings tonight. Toronto had one (Kessel), Montreal had none. Pittsburgh would have had 5 of the top 50 players in the League if they hadn't traded Jordan Staal. They had to settle for 4. Not too shabby, or really awful, depending on your perspective.

    The identity I would like for the Leafs is to be a good, someday soon, a great hockey team. One that cares, or at least seems to care more about winning than they seem to. Sometimes, I feel that the only people associated with the Leafs that truly care whether they win or lose are the fans. They could start by embodying the tired cliches that they are always spouting off about. Less talk, more action. And more Mike Brown.

  2. Well said, Jim. I don't doubt that all the Leafs "care". Just as I assume all NHL players try, and "work hard".

    I guess there is a distinction, though, not only involving talent, but true grit, for lack of a better term off the top of my head. Players that, together, want to win so badly, they hate to lose so much, that they do in fact win those little battles that matter in a close game more often than not. They win the battles in the corner often enough; stay in front of the opposition net long enough, to make a difference.

    If we could develop that kind of "identity", I'd be OK with that, even without a Cup.

  3. I like this topic, Mike, first because on a personal level it gels nicely with what I do for a living day to day and second because I believe that the sense of identity, to which you refer, is vital for any champion team whether it is created by intent or it evolves as a team finds itself.
    I have two elements that I'd like to see in our Leafs' identity which may at first seem a little contradictory.
    First up, I love a team which has an inexorable force in it somewhere. In hockey, that typically instantiates itself as either a front line that you just always expect to score (I remember watching the Avalanche line of Sakic, Hejduk and Forsberg at the ACC and just thinking "oh, no, can we survive the next minute or two without coughing one up?") or as a powerplay unit that is similarly lethal. To this end, I guess I quite like the idea (though it may not make me popular here) of trying JvR at centre between Lupul and Kessel. If it works - if all three fire in tandem - that would be a line that other teams' fans are going to see jump the boards and go "oh, oh, here we go again."
    The second element I'd love to see become a part of our identity, is that feeling that you give another team that you will never give them an easy shift. While that may seem at odds with the notion of stacking a top line, I'd love see us try and make sure that our lines 2 through 4 are all well-balanced and contain a mix of players. Never let the opposition have the feel that if they only matched their lines just right, they've got an easy run. Never let them feel comfort that at any given time we're capable of only x or only y. For me, maybe that means McLement gets a flyer on his wing and Grabovski gets Frattin. Other guests here will know the personalities much better than I but you get what I mean.
    We aren't going to have a team that starts the season scary, but I'd love to see us build something where our opposition's fans are thinking "oh, no, not THOSE guys again" and "when do we get an easy shift?"

  4. I really like your post, KiwiLeaf. That's what I'm talking about- not necessarily the particular team traits you outline (elite first line as a constant threat; gritty, balanced lines two through 4; hard to play against, nothing easy against the Leafs, etc.) but the notion that really good teams need something- whatever it is.

    If Leaf fans can identify "it", then opposing teams and fans sure can.

    I remember, when I was a young Leaf fan back in the '60s, I was fearful every time Howe, Hull, Beliveau and of course Orr were on the ice. I knew that, at any time, they could change the entire complexion of the game. I could exhale for a few minutes while they were off.

    I know that one superstar player is not a team identity, but it can be part of that first line thing you talked about, KiwiLeaf. Keeps everyone on their toes, knowing this will be a tough game.

    Good stuff, thanks.

  5. "Would you like the Leafs to be known for something special?"

    Yes, and I think we already have half the of the answer.

    "Early last season, we had something of an identity—of being a fast, puck-moving team with an offensive bent."

    I want us to become a team with tons of speed on offense...and defense!

    I actually think this possible. With not much size and Biggs, Broll and Devane a few years away, it's not possible for us to really play a tough-skilled game like Boston.

    However, our smaller speedy forwards could play a fast two-way game. Speed on offence and defence.

    Grabovski already does it, so we have someone to emulate. We have even seen him do it against Boston. Mike Brown also does it, but doesn't have much of a scoring touch.

    Last year I saw a perfect example from Gardiner when I saw the Leafs live in Winnipeg. During warm up I told my Jets fan buddy, "watch this kid skate."

    During the game, Gardiner fumbled the puck on the offensive blue line. A Jet forward took the puck off Jake and headed down the ice. With a quick turn Gardiner chased down the Jets player and took the puck back off him from behind as the Jet entered the Leafs zone... and then Gardiner headed back up the ice with big fast turn losing almost no speed. It was very much like Scott Neidermyer...enough speed to fix a mistake.

    I want Kessel, Lombardi, and Kadri chasing guys down and checking them like Grabo does.

    When I see Kessel stripping the puck from guys and heading up ice on a regular basis, I will know we have a chance.

  6. I'm with you, DP. The Gardiner-Niedermayer 'comparison' may well be apt, and I like the puck pursuit aspect of what you're saying. Guys with speed who become pests, create turnovers- and therefore, scoring opportunities.

    At worst, they would at least be annoying to play against.

    Maybe Komarov, as we've discussed here before, will fit in this regard and help promote some element of that type of identity.

  7. Some interesting notes from camp today by

    "Defensive Standouts: Kostka...He skates well (solid conditioning), his head is ALWAYS up looking to make a play and in turn his first pass is always on the tape."

    Maybe we have something here.

  8. Quick comment-
    I'd like this to be a team that creates chaos and mad scrambles on the forecheck or when the puck is loose; and, who get the puck out of the zone ASAP on defence. I suppose that means I'd like this team to be hard-nosed and aggressive everywhere but the defensive zone, where I'd like them to be extremely conservative and careful.

    Rationale: This team can score, but it's pretty weak in transition because of not enough playmaking defencemen or centres (hopefully JML comes back from his not-concussion). Creating mad scrambles along the boards or playing a ferocious forecheck off a dump in can be a dangerous way to play, but for this team, not more so than looking for outlet passes or quick-strike turnarounds when the puck changes hands in the Leafs end.

    As for defence, the Leafs should prioritize getting the puck away from their leaky defensive zone, and use their speed up front to chase down pucks. This isn't a team that should be advancing with long, smooth passes and patience. This is a team that needs to learn to shift gears: from tenacious, patient, no-nonsense defensive tactics, to hell-bent blitzing transitions, and when necessary (PP, for example) using slow, careful advances, even if that means trying zone entries multiple times until everyone is in the right place.

  9. I had to read over your post a couple of teams to fully understand the nuanced approach you are calling for, Adam.

    Do we have the talent to do this, or, in fact, is this approach simply a question of systems and discipline?

    I like the reckless abandon attitude when it comes to the forecheck (at least that's what this identity conjures in my mind). You need players, though, who will work their tails off and create that "chaos". That requires some speed - and a legitimate desire to create space - and loose pucks.

    Interesting thoughts. Thanks for chiming in, Adam.

  10. The Leafs haven't had an identity since the Quinn era. Which as Michael pointed out was the era of Tucker/Domi/Roberts, a team that at worst still made their opponents grind the games out.

    What do they have now? Its hard to say. Carlye is a defence first coach, which for Leafs god-willing will improve the penalty kill. But I think thats the real cornerstone of the issue with identity, Teams have an identity because its why they win....consistently. Toronto's speedy goal scorers have not been able to keep the puck out of the net. Just trying to think of a list of teams now with identity:

    Boston/New Jersey(not so much anymore)/Phoenix. Teams which year in, year out have hard defensive systems.
    Red Wings/Pittsburgh/Vancouver: Skilled puck possession teams.
    Buffalo(Ruff has a consistently good system team despite mediocre talent)Flyers...our well the Flyers.

    A team with an identity has to win with consistently.

  11. For sure the Devils had an identity for years, Sensfan90, along with the teams you cited above. The Leafs aren't there yet. Some of it will have to do with coaching, yes, some with the willingness of players to create that overall identity by the way they play.

    And you're right- unless you win, it's difficult to be seen to have a real team identity.

  12. God threw out a bone for us today. (Sorry for the pun) Colton Orr has dislocated his finger.

  13. I know people have been talking about a resurgence from Orr, DP. It's difficult, though, to see where he fits with so many extra forwards....

  14. Who are our core players that will likely be around for awhile? On defense its Gardiner, Rielly, Gunnarsson, Phaneuf...perhaps Percy.

    How would you describe these guys? For me its strong skating, mobile, offensive minded, quick transitions....Far more Niedermayer than Stevens.

    On forward its more of the same with our core guys being known more for their speed and offensive ability.

    So, if our talent dictates that we play more of a quick, offensive, skating game we also will need to be described as "positionally sound", "tenacious", "heady", and possessing "high IQ" if we hope to be successful.

    A far different team then the Quinn era Leafs but one that fits the modern game.
    We can be successful but we will need to add smarts and tenacity to our game. We won't be able to overpower or physically intimidate the other team so we will need to always be one step ahead on the ice and between the ears.

  15. Solid post, fimperio. What you describe (initially) is very much what the Leafs were under Wilson. A skating, mobile group with the ability to move the puck quickly and "win" the transition game.

    Now if we can add the Carlyle elements- the smart, tenacious yet positionally sound part of how we play - then yes, there is hope. I like your hockey IQ reference: that would make a huge difference. I think we have some guys with that. Without a lot of physicality in our game (unless that changes) do we have enough players with the IQ you reference?

  16. Michael:
    A very good question, but from a Leaf perspective, a painful answer.

    Many of us old-timers have seen what made the dynasties of years ago click. I will choose the New York Islanders as the example I would like the Leafs to follow. These teams had the foundation (a top quality playmaker (Trottier), a gunner (Bossy), a stud defenceman (Potvin) and a game-stopping goalie (Smith). They had a quality coach in Arbour and I am sure a strong GM. In those days, their lineups were 18 players, with extra players being for the Penalty Kill and sometime power play. Second lines were balance defence/offence and the third line was a checking line. With the lack of a salary cap and free agency, teams could build a dynasty with a minimum of "replaceable parts".

    Unfortunately, the Leafs are far from this criteria but with parity they have a chance.
    In all probability, the cap and free agency will prevent these dynasty teams in the future.

    The Islanders were not high flying like the Habs and Oilers, nor nasty like the Flyers. What they were was solid offensively and defensively. I had a coach at college level, who was not looking for knocking the opposition into the second row, but to knock off stride, not stick check or skate in wide circles. The Islanders did this.

    I believe that after the stars (minimum of four), the middle tier (as many as you can get), are the Pulford, Goring, Provost, Ullman, Linseman, Peca, Gainey. The strong skating terriers that are a pain to play against (Dustin Brown, Steve Ott) of today's players.

    Today, I read an article about Holland and the Red Wings that answers your question . He has built a culture, another word for identity. This should be what Leafs try to achieve through their whole organization.

    It will be interesting to see how they do without Lidstrom.

  17. I appreciate your Islanders reference point, Ralph (RLMcC) and agree whole-heartedly. That team was built almost perfectly, I would say- just as you outlined.

    The examples of "secondary" contributors over the years that you later cite (after the "core four") were all players I admired, including Ullman, Pully and of course, Gainey.

    No question over the last twenty years the Wings have been "that" organization- with a culture that breeds success. Holland is a big part of it, for sure, as was Bowman and the owner, Illitch. They survived Yzerman leaving. They may just be OK even without Lidstrom.

    Thanks RLMcC.