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Habs’ example of toughness and discipline an example for Shanahan’s Maple Leafs?

I really didn’t think the Montreal Canadiens, in the end, would upset the Boston Bruins.  But at the end of the day, I have a difficult time saying the Habs did not deserve to win the series.

For me, they exemplified two traits that we have talked about here for some time, in the context of what we need to see from the Maple Leafs: toughness and discipline.

Now, I realize we can debate what we mean by the term “toughness”.  VLM readers will know that I often speak here about what I call “team toughness”, which for me is an attitude as much as it is about being a physical team.  It is the willingness, for example, to fight for pucks and to take a hit to make a play when the situation calls for it. It does not necessarily mean engaging in senseless fisticuffs.

Truthfully, I’ve long thought about the Canadiens as kind of a harmless (if still at times somewhat annoying) little brother.  They have speed and skill, and as important as those things are in today’s more “wide open” (supposedly) NHL, they are a pretty small team. I guess I’ve clung to the idea that teams need to be able to handle the rugged aspect of playoff hockey to survive—and I still believe that will be the case once the Eastern Conference team plays the Western Conference representative.  I thought the Bruins had the best combination of skill and grit to advance in the East, and yet I was proven quite wrong.

Montreal showed its own kind of team toughness—and the ability to handle the rough stuff.  They had the inner discipline to let the Bruins do what the Bruins do, but didn’t try to beat Boston by playing like the Bruins do. Because Montreal stayed true to their own identity, the fact that they were a small team did not matter in the end. They were left standing, and will advance to take on the Rangers in the Eastern Conference final.

How does this relate to the Maple Leafs?  Well, after reviewing Brendan Shanahan’s comments to various media outlets this week, it seems clear he will bring a degree of patience to whatever process the Leafs are now embarking upon.  Whether it’s a continuation of Nonis’ existing ‘plan’, a slow build on what is already in place or a mini re-build, Shanahan has made it abundantly clear that he wanted to continue with Carlyle, and wants to build around the key pieces (Phaneuf as captain, etc.) that are already in place.

Rather than change everything up, it seems he wants to show confidence in what is already here, and build from there.

He did throw out the thought that some Leafs will have something to prove and how they respond this summer will go a long way toward determining how long they remain a Maple Leaf. But culture change does not happen overnight, he acknowledged—and good that someone in charge here finally said it.

If I read the reports correctly, the new President of Hockey Operations believes, based on his own NHL experience, that leadership and mental toughness are attributes that can be developed over time.  I was interested in his point that teams (and individual players) are often criticized for “not being able to win”—until they do.

His former teammate Steve Yzerman is the poster boy for this phenomenon, as the perception around the longtime Red Wing captain grew increasingly negative in the early and mid 1990s until the Wings finally turned the corner and won their first Stanley Cup with him leading the way. (VLM readers of a certain vintage will well recall that Scotty Bowman tried to trade Yzerman to the fledgling Ottawa Senators in those days. He’s no doubt glad the trade never happened…)

Maybe the Yzerman “non trade” is at the root of Shanahan’s current thinking about not taking over and making sweeping changed at all levels of the organization.

One thing is sure: going forward, the Leafs don’t need to play like the Montreal Canadiens, but they do need to establish an identity.  They do need to follow a system, whatever Carlyle’s “system” will be come September.  They will need to be mentally tougher and be hard to play against, whether that is because of their physical play or because of the attitude they carry.

Is this roster good enough right now?  It’s better than it was a few years ago, but having watched the current playoffs, most of us would agree there is work for Nonis to do, especially in his “bottom six” and perhaps along the blueline. There is skill here, for sure. We can skate and have some defenseman who can skate with and move the puck.  And as we have seen with Carey price, if you have a good netminder and he gets hot at the right time, good things can happen in the playoffs.

Whether through trades, free-agent signings, the emergence of promising Marlies or just the confidence that comes from the stability that Shanahan will provide, the hope in Leafworld is that the blue and white will move forward with the kind of identity, discipline and toughness that will allow them to contend for something more than a playoff spot in the years ahead.


  1. I think a key element in the Habs' success, and one you alluded to, is that they didn't allow Boston to throw them off their game. And in the end, it was the Bruins who got thrown off their game. The Habs also didn't fear Chara - they kept coming at him. Yes, he didn't have Seidenberg, but he was definitely becoming less effective as the series went on. And the smaller guys like Gallagher and Briere weren't afraid to take some punishment to make a play. THAT's the kind of team toughness the Leafs have been lacking for the last decade or so, and the kind of toughness I expect to see show up next season, based on Shanahan's comments. He's very clear - all teams lose, get blown out, tank unthinkably... but the good teams get stronger from the experience. I love that!
    I like a lot of what he said today. The Leafs have some good parts, but some of them have been deployed in the wrong spots. The team is not as good as it seemed when we were winning lots, and not as bad as it seemed when we were losing lots. He identified a weakness in mobile D-men. And he agreed that something's wrong with your system when you give up 36+ shots per game. I don't know about you, but my anxiety level about next year dropped considerably after reading Shanahan's point of view. And I'm expecting a team that will be much tougher to play against than the group we saw this year.

    1. Well said, Gerund O'. Hopefully Shanahan will have a calming effect and steer the ship with a steady hand.

    2. "weren't afraid to take some punishment to make a play"

      Yes, I saw it over and over. The little Habs were the first to get the puck and would take the hit seconds after, but they would make the play.

      It feels like1993 all over again. Maybe they beat LA in the final just like 93 ?

    3. They've surprised a lot of us so far, DP. Who knows, they just might be able to replicate their '93 success!

  2. Michael,

    You know that I am intrigued by what Shanahan has said and done so far. While I don't agree with keeping the coach, or the GM for that matter, so far he is saying the right things. It is worthwhile to point out though, that talking the talk, is easier than walking the walk. Two years from now, or during a horrific losing streak next season, the pressure will be squarely on Shananhan to produce results, not just sound-bytes to the media. For now, he is doing the easy part. I am going to reserve judgement for the hard parts that are sure to come quickly.

    You and I talked about the Canadiens specifically this season. It is interesting to me that we both concluded that on paper, they weren't much to be worried about. I must reluctantly give them credit for being a much better team than Toronto. Maybe our Leafs can take a page from the Habs book, and play like a real team next season. They do need to be more of an all for one, one for all group going forward.

    Right now the roster isn't good enough. I'm not one to put stock in potential to improve, so I won't. They are exactly what their record in 82 games says they are. A 12th place hockey club, in a decidedly mediocre Eastern conference. Management needs to man up, and acknowledge that they have failed, and make the appropriate changes. Enough of the injury talk, enough of the bad break talk, no more schedule talk, do the hard work and improve. Yes, this means embracing statistical analysis, Chicago is big into this, and wait for it, they are a Cup champion. It is something the richest franchise in hockey should have been leading the charge to, not dragging its feet, kicking and screaming like an infant. They get paid a lot of money to be good at player evaluation, now is the time to earn that money. The decisions about who shall stay and who shall go, will be difficult. It should be difficult, a 12th place team needs to work hard to improve. This is true of the players that remain, the ones that are brought in, and the managers, coaches and executives.

    We have also spent a lot of time chatting about the Leafs inability to draft and develop talent. I see the same short comings in other areas as well. Why aren't the Leafs seeking out new ways of doing things instead of waiting for others to make an offering to the kings of hockey? The answer is arrogance, no more, no less. These guys have always acted like they are clearly the smartest guys in the room, an attitude that I hope changes. It's funny, arrogance usually follows success, just not in Toronto. If Shanahan can change that attitude, even if it's his only success here, it will be monumental. No one in Toronto ever tries to develop the next Dave Bolland, Owen Nolan, or Brian Leetch. The answer is always, get that player when another team is done with him. Certainly when that player's better days are behind him. If we are constantly throwing away draft picks, and prospects. We should not be surprised that the cupboard is so consistently bereft of talent.

    I have waited 42 years for this team to raise the Stanley Cup. A patient, well planned return to glory, seems like the right course of action. I do hope that Shanahan and whomever joins him in the management cabal, has the fortitude to do things the right way, for once. It would also be nice to have a goaltender of the same calibre as Price, or Lundqvist.

  3. I agree, the Habs seldom strayed from their game plan. They also ran four solid lines very effectively in waves. Price has been out-standing. I have been especially interested to see how far a team can go in the off-season when lacking the prerequisite very large, drafted franchise center.

    No platitudes from Shanahan, instead he answered questions. He speaks in positives, not negatives doesn't he? It's a nice change to feel we're being let-in on some of his thoughts and plans for the near future and to know that he will be hands-on and involved in every process. He truly believes he can change the way the organization thinks, and maybe he can.

    I hope youth in the line-up is part of the plan. Holland and D'Amigo are looking good right now. CN

    1. As Jim says, this is the easy part for Shanahan, but he has handled it well- and thoughtfully, I agree, Colleen. And we'll need some good young players to be real contributors next season- not watching from the press box.

  4. My guess is the NYR were pretty happy to see the Habs upset the Bruins because the Bruins were still the team to beat and the Rangers will stand a much better chance against the Habs. I think it was simply puck luck for the Habs and just bad luck for the Bruins than any toughness and discipline from the Habs. Sure the Habs played hard and were ale to hold the Bruins off but the Bruins hit 13 posts and crossbars in the series and quite a few wide open nets where they somehow managed to miss the net. If just one of those chances goes in then the Bruins start to roll and the Habs lose the series. But for whatever reason it didn't happen. Habs always seem to play well against the Bruins though and I still remember 2011 first round where the Habs took the Bruins to game 7 OT and Gionta got in alone with Thomas out of position and he missed the wide open net by six inches. If that goes in Bruins never win the Cup which probably means the Canuks do.

    1. I think it's fair to say the Bruins could have won the series, for sure, Alton. And as you say, they had some breaks on their way to the Cup a few years ago.

  5. I'm not nearly as thrilled as my last post sounds. Though I'm feeling more positive right now than I was a few days ago, the fact remains that Randy is still there. The Leafs say they are still going to attempt to build Randy's team this off-season and I expect a power struggle behind the bench if Randy is not happy with the new assistants. If Reimer remains, that will be yet another distraction. I believe Shanahan may have reasons for what he's decided which won't become clear to us for a while but a clean sweep of at least the coaching staff would have been better IMO. CN

  6. For me, and from a systems perspective, it appears The Swarm is officially dead. Shanahan even name-checked it during the interview. Watching the Leafs attempt to play defense this year was maddening and mind-numbing. Aside from all the other good and interesting things Shanny said, this one change -- accompanied by new assistants with (hopefully) a more sound approach to team defense -- provides the single biggest reason for optimism.

  7. Hi Michael! I have a question. Do Leaf fans value grit and intangibles over skill, speed and natural scoring talent?

    It seems we can't wait to trade away our best or most promising players to obtain toughness. Of course we need that too, but don't we over-value it in Toronto? We have one of the most exciting snipers in the NHL and complain constantly about what he doesn't do. Phaneuf will never be able to do enough for this team to be appreciated, we want him to fight too. We value Wendel over and above Sundin, a player unmatched in Toronto history for goals, points and game winning goals, because Wendel could fight. I have never see a fan post attacking Orr or any other fourth-liner for not scoring enough. We may question their having a roster spot here, but we don't place blame on them for being incapable. They can fight, they have a great work ethic, they're great at chipping out the puck, or ( I'm guilty of this one) they always show up and try really hard. Many fans love these players. The team can't win with them, so it's up to our 1st line to make up for them. To say that certain players like Kessel and Phaneuf carry this team on their back is an understatement. I can't imagine the Pens wanting rid of Sid because he doesn't fight enough. Would we like him in Toronto? I doubt it. Our good players will never be good enough, our worst never bad enough. CN

    1. Hi Colleen, if I may, I have some thoughts on the things you are asking. For myself, a lot of what you are getting at comes down to managing expectations. For example, it's not Colton Orr's fault that he is a goon, with almost no comparative hockey ability. The fact that the organization has always valued these kinds of try hard guys, goes back a long way. I personally, blame the organization for having low talent players, not the players themselves or the fans. Fans, primarily are cheering for nothing more than the sweater the players wear. It doesn't seem to make much difference who the players are in many cases.

      Some fans cheer for the goons, because they see themselves in these types of players. Perhaps if only they had gotten a break here or there, or a coach had believed a little more in them, it could be them on the ice. They are absolutely wrong by the way, even guys like McLaren have an immense skill set, compared to the average man on the street. If you ever have a chance to go watch practice, do so, even guys like this scored big numbers at some level. Kypreos, for example was a 60 goal player in junior.

      Clearly my opinion, but I see Kessel as a player who could be more than he currently is. For that reason, he disappoints me. He could try harder to get the puck back, or play defense, yet he doesn't. To lots of us, his lack of will, or effort is indefensible. The contrast between him and Gleason for example, is glaring, one has all the natural skill in the world, yet comes across as lackadaisical, the other busts his ass to be where he is. Gleason, can hardly change his physical limitations, but Phil can change his level of effort and dedication, to the team.

      The Maple Leafs have never had one of the truly great players in its lineup in the modern era. I'm pretty sure that Toronto fans would embrace Crosby and all that he does with open arms. A truly elite player, perhaps a generational one, I would be thrilled to have that calibre of player suit up in Toronto. Gobs of talent, a willingness to improve year after year, tons of competitive fire. I think he would be the most popular player ever here.

      As someone who witnessed the Wendel and Sundin eras, at my Leafworld pinnacle. The fact that I loved Clark, and respected Sundin, is the difference. I never saw Mats the way Pat Quinn did. I never saw Mats as a league best kind of guy. We were always talking about who we were going to get to play with Mats, to get him to that level of play. Remember this was a time when Lemieux was saddled with Rob Brown, turning him into a 49 goal scorer. I saw Mats as a fine player, but one who wasn't as good as others in the League at making the players around him better. Part of that was the expectation level when we traded for him, he put up his best points totals as a Nordique, never got 100 pts as a Leaf, and was only close once. Part of the love for Wendel came from the fact that the team was awful, truly awful when he was drafted. He gave the fans hope for success. Right before Mats got here the Leafs were considered a championship contender, with Gilmour at the helm. Tough shoes to fill, and he didn't quite put us over the top.

    2. Thanks Jim. I always look for your posts.

  8. Two years ago the canadiens were dead last in the east. Then Bergevin took over and managed somehow to make the playoffs two times in a row and advanced to the conference final this year.

    There sure must be some pages to take out of his book.

    Yes the Leafs have to build an identity but the canadiens overtook them in a short notice.
    Inspite of getting lots of criticism for bad coachin(Therrien) and bad payers and missusing payers and so on. Sounds familiar. Does it?