Forging The Toronto Maple Leaf Identity

On his blog, Michael Langlois, a well-known voice in LeafNation, recently asked his readers what, in their opinion, should the identity of the Maple Leafs be?

It’s better than a fair question.

In the past, the Maple Leafs have had a number of identities.

  • The dynasty of the 1960s was a cohesive defensive unit – a collection of aging players (10 players were 30 or older on the 1967 Stanley Cup winning roster), many of them all-stars. The team won 4 Stanley Cups during the decade, and never had a player challenge for the Art Ross Trophy, though John Bower and Terry Sawchuk were perennially in the running for the Vezina.
  • The team of the late 1970s combined skill and toughness. In the expanded 17 team NHL, future Hall of Fame inductees Darryl Sittler, Lanny McDonald and Borje Salming were all-stars. All were skilled players who could mix it up with the toughest of that era. Joined by the NHL’s eventual career penalty-minute leader in Tiger Williams as well as a surprise in goal named Mike Palmateer, the Leafs were a respectable competitor.
  • Cliff Fletcher and Pat Burns had a team of well-known veterans led by Doug Gilmour, Wendel Clark, Dave Andreychuk and Glenn Anderson backed up by a solid no-name defense, a number of hard-working grinders and tough guys and a rock-solid Curtis Joseph in net.
  • Pat Quinn’s Leafs were similar to Burnsie’s team – all-stars Mats Sundin, Gary Roberts and Alex Mogilny, offensive blueliners Tomas Kaberle and Bryan McCabe, and a cast of hard-working grinders and fighters in front of Eddie Belfour’s goaltending.

When Brian Burke was hired, we heard more than a few statements about the identity the Maple Leafs should have. Truculent, belligerent, pugnacious, hard-working, where there would be no ‘sense of entitlement’. That’s how the Leafs would be known – only that identity never really materialized. In fact, it turns out Burke was employing a coach in Ron Wilson who hadn’t bought in to that team identity, preferring a more freewheeling, offensive, run-and-gun style. It showed on the ice and in the standings that whatever the Toronto team’s identity was, it wasn’t working well.

Randy Carlyle coach

Randy Carlyle will change the style, and hopefully the fortunes, of the Leafs. (John E. Sokolowski-US PRESSWIRE)

New Management’s Challenges

Randy Carlyle is still ‘the new coach’, goaltending consultant François Allaire was replaced with former Leaf Rick St. Croix and Dave Nonis is the new general manager. And things are supposedly going to be much different.

Carlyle is supposed to be a much tougher coach, more demanding of his players, and a better defensive tactician. While he was not able to turn things around and save the 2011-12 season, and he won’t be helped by a short training camp, it will be expected Carlyle will try to tighten up an overall team defense concept that was woeful more often than not. There’s some feeling the goaltending will be better too, now that Allaire and his strict adherence to the blocking style are out. St. Croix has a reputation for adapting his coaching to the student, finding ways to enhance natural skill and talent rather than trying to make the goalie conform to a specific style.

Nonis takes over after being Burke’s assistant, as he did in Vancouver. Despite having worked closely with the former GM, Nonis is seen as being distinctly different than his long-time friend. Nonis was quoted in a James Mirtle article:

“I think if there’s one difference [between himself and Burke] it’s I would say I’m a little more patient in how I approach things… I evaluate things a little bit longer.”

Nonis made his own mark in Vancouver following Burke’s departure there by swinging the big deal that put Roberto Luongo in Vancouver and sent Todd Bertuzzi to Florida. Rumours persist that Luongo to Toronto is possible, maybe moreso now that Nonis is in charge. Ironically, St. Croix coached Cory Schneider and Eddie Lack, the two emerging goalies who would supplant Bobby Lu with the Canucks. But it’s important to note that Dave Nonis is not simply ‘Burkie-light’, he’s got credentials and experience. He also has first-hand experience with the guys currently on the roster, which should help forge the direction he’ll go with this team.

Can Personnel Adapt to The Guys in Charge?

If Luongo was brought to the Leafs, having St. Croix in place could create another situation where questions surround a player and his relationship with the coach. Last season’s sensations in Leafland were the first line duo of Phil Kessel and Joffrey Lupul. But, there’s worry that where Kessel and Lupul got a hot start in Wilson’s run-and-gun system, Carlyle’s defensive mindset will stifle the sniper. Further, many worry that the issues between Lupul and Carlyle will upset one of the few good things Toronto has going for it. And what of Jake Gardiner and Nazem Kadri? Under a defensive coach like Carlyle, would Gardiner wilt? Young defenders, especially those who seem offensively gifted, sometimes take a number of seasons to bring the defensive side up to par. And Kadri has publicly struggled to meet the expectations, especially on the defensive side of the rink. Will he adapt to a coach that is more demanding and preaches defense?

Nazem Kadri

With almost half an AHL season under his belt and a new NHL coach, is this the clean slate Kadri needs? (Kevin Hoffman-US PRESSWIRE)

Only a few days before the shortened regular season, there’s a mixed bag for this team. Kadri burst out in a intrasquad game for 3 goals, maybe he will do well with Carlyle. GM Nonis sent Matthew Lombardi to the Coyotes for a draft pick, trying to thin out the bloated number of NHL forwards in camp, while Tim Connolly has been put on waivers.

So, how will all this affect the Leafs? The new general manager was the assistant, had a hand in bringing in the current roaster, but differs in style from his predecessor. Does that mean he likes much of the roster or not? The head coach has a reputation as something of a taskmaster with a definite defensive bent, and was brought in to change the system. But, the team still tends to the previous coach’s free skating, speed system. The new goalie coach will adapt to the goalie’s style, but will a couple years playing the old coach’s style have the goalies confused as to what their natural styles are?

What Should the New Identity Be?

Successful teams tend to have an identity, some easily identifiable and admirable traits. Often, it begins with the team captain or head coach, and a few other recognized team leaders, and those traits get emulated by the rest of the team. Some even go so far as to have nicknames… The Flying Frenchmen, The Big Bad Bruins, The Broad Street Bullies and so on.

Right now, the Leafs are team without much of an identity. Burke’s ‘truculence etc.’ speech is mostly chuckled at now. There’s speed and skill, and the coach will look to bring a more defensively-responsible system to the team.

With all due respect, how about ‘competency’? Look, LeafNation may be fractured in places. Some folks love the goalies we have, others want to see a deal for a top-name guy. Some fans long for a bruising team with a couple of lovable knuckle-chuckers, others wish for ten 25-goal scorers in Blue-and-White. But one thing the Maple Leafs have lacked, and LeafNation has been longing for, is a team that goes to the rink and night in, night out, plays relatively mistake-free hockey.

This is a team that’s missed the playoffs every year since the spring of 2004. For all the grief Leaf fans take, they’re knowledgeable enough to know this is not the most talented team in the league. Some of these guys are indeed very good, and can compete with the best on other teams, but there will be nights where the Leafs, despite their best efforts and their top roster, will get beaten by the NHL’s good teams.

Mike Komisarek Maple Leafs

A guy like Mike Komisarek has a chance to contribute, if he can limit the mistakes. (Rich Kane/Icon SMI)

But if there’s a complaint, it’s that more often than not, the Leafs have been victimized by dumb mistakes and bad hockey decisions. We’re not talking young players who are finding their way. It’s been veterans, burned again and again by making what appear to be lazy plays, or seemingly losing focus, or by repeatedly doing what obviously does not work. It’s a penalty kill that’s guaranteed to give up a goal, and a powerplay that struggles to contribute. And it’s Leaf players looking at each other with that “was that my guy?” expression after the puck finds the back of their net.

If there is to be any ‘Leaf Identity’, it must start there. For all the talk of accountability that’s been bandied about, it’s time to actually put it in place. And perhaps that has begun. Lombardi and Connolly are good guys and all, but their contributions don’t stack up to their salary cap hits and the expectations of this roster. There will be others who will find themselves in the same situation, especially if (when?) the team gets better and climbs the standings.

High-flying, twine-bulging offensive force? Stifling, stand-em-up at the blueline defense? Acrobatics in net? If Dave Nonis, Randy Carlyle and the rest of management can set a roster that picks up their checks, makes safe plays off the glass, and can learn to effectively break the puck out of their own zone, it will be a better start to creating the only identity Leaf fans are looking for – playoff-bound team.


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