Saturday, January 02, 2010
Can New Year Bring New Hope for Leafs?
The New Year is all about fresh starts. Tonight can give the Toronto Maple Leafs just that. They can put aside the terrible start and finally show fans exactly what kind of team we have. Realizing their identity will be the key. This past off-season, Brian Burke told us we will have a truculent, tough, hard nosed team with a strong commitment to defense. He said teams would fear coming to play in our house. Burke told fans this new gritty team would enhance the skill of our existing forwards, enabling them to play their game without having to constantly look over their shoulders. If only this had come to pass.
After 41 games the Leafs still sit second last in the conference and third last in the entire league. They have a losing record at home, have allowed the second most goals, are 12th in scoring, even with Phil Kessel, and 14th in penalty minutes. The Leafs have the worst penalty kill and their once potent power play has dropped to 14th in the league. These stats don't exactly reflect the type of team Burkie promised us, far from it actually. With only 7 homes wins, only Florida and St. Louis have won fewer in their own house. Teams will fear playing in Toronto, they may actually look forward to it. As far as skilled players not having to look over their shoulders, ask Kessel, Stajan, and Stalberg how they feel about that.
There are some bright spots however. Phil Kessel hasn't been wearing out the goal light recently, but he has brought fans out of their seats like no one since Matts Sundin. Niklas Hagman has had his share of highlights and Nikolai Kulemin is even showing some star potential. Unfortunately team defense and goaltending continue to struggle. Perhaps the most encouraging aspect of this team so far is the coaching staff. Ron Wilson and company have proven they can get this team to play well, and even win on occasion. Their biggest challenging is convincing the players of this.
The Toronto Maple Leafs true identity lies in their ability to realize their true skill level. This team has two gifted scorers (Kessel and Hagman), one true offensive defenseman (Kaberle) with another emerging (Ian White), a good not great goalie (Gustavsson obviously), and a very tough enforcer who can actually put time in on the third and fourth lines. After that we're looking at a bunch of very hard working, very fast, mix of veterans and young players. It's here where they should be looking for their identity.
Speed and work ethic should define this team, leave the fancy play and nifty stretch passes to the elite teams for now. When this team wins they do so by out skating their opponents and wearing them down with relentless forchecking. They put lots of pucks on net and lots of players in front. They move the puck with quick short passes and the defense uses it's size to keep the middle of the ice clear in their own end. In short they play a basic, simple style that matches perfectly to their skill level.
If 2010 is going to bring any success to the Toronto Maple Leafs, they'll have to put aside the rally caps and rely more on their listening ears. They must force opponents to play their game. They do have an identity. It's a tough, fast hard working group, with lots of heart and a enough skill to keep fans cheering. Once players truly believe this they will become the TEAM Brian Burke blustered about last summer.