There are a lot of theories as to exactly when and why the Toronto Maple Leafs started to play a better and more inspired brand of hockey last season. Some point to when the Leafs were basically out of the playoff race, or when Brian Burke fleeced the Calgary Flames out of our new Captain Dion Phaneuf but for me the moment we started to look more like a major league hockey team was when we decided the team finally gave up on its quest to show the NHL just how tough we were.
Brian Burke wants to play the game tough, and I couldn’t agree more with his philosophy of building from the net out when trying to put together a competitive and hopefully championship contending team. As a long time Maple Leaf fan, some of my favourite players have been the heart and soul guys, the Wendel Clark’s, Tie Domi’s, Ken Baumgartner’s and Darcy Tucker’s. The best hockey games are the ones that are filled with big hits, fights and intense battles for the puck – if this is the style that Toronto wants to play, I am all for it, the meaner the better as there is nothing worse than watching your team get bullied or pushed around on a nightly basis.
However, I think the Leafs got caught up in some of the Burkie hyperbole in terms of aggression and his insistence of a clear definition of “top six” and “bottom six” forward grouping. The Leafs did everything they could in the pre-season and early stages of the regular season to show they were not going to be pushed around, from Mike Komisarek or Francois Beauchemin consistently going out of his way (sometimes ill advised) to put a lick on an opposing player, or Colton Orr and Jamal Mayers trying to play the part of bully. The Leafs went out of their way to either impress Brian Burke or set an early tone and it ended up backfiring in the end.
Nobody predicted the Leafs to finish second from the bottom at the beginning of the season, and in fact a lot of pundits felt they would be much improved with the additions they made in the summer. But a lot of the players played outside of themselves in order to play the Burkie way, when they weren’t built to play that way for the most part.
The team looked confused early on, the “Top Six” forwards thought all they had to do was score and the “Bottom Six” forwards looked like they were afraid to score as per the definition of how Burke’s team were built. Guys like Lee Stempniak and Jason Blake were essentially turned into checking line wingers as they assumed the role of “sand paper”. I am not sure if Ron Wilson finally had a talk with the team and said “Ok, enough. The league knows we aren’t wimps, now play the game you know how to play.” but there seemed to be a marked improvement in team play about half-way through the season, relatively speaking.
Ron Wilson and Brian Burke are definitely buddies outside the rink and I am sure they share many views on how the game of hockey is supposed to be played, but I think there are differences there that may hamper the team’s success going forward and could result in Burke having to find a suitable replacement for Ron Wilson.
Wilson loves the up-tempo, high pressure fore-check system, one that values solid speedy skaters and an endless motor. Burke also values the pressure style, but with a difference, he wants his skaters to be able to paste the defensemen into the end boards. Wilson wants three lines of skill, speed and scoring ability, I am sure he would love to have more size than the Leafs current roster provides and that is how the Leafs finally started to play better hockey, rolling three lines and basically letting the “sandpaper” out of the cage when needed.
This is where the issues could begin to surface with the philosophies of two notoriously stubborn men could start to wreak havoc on their relationship. Burke insists on two highly skilled top two lines with the bottom two lines filled with sandpaper, grit and toughness. The Maple Leafs roster as it currently stands cannot afford to ‘waste’ their third line’s minutes with only grinders and “pick and axe” players. We are not talented nor deep enough on our first two lines to get away with this type of strategy and Wilson recognized this (albeit a little too late) in his club and started playing a more speed oriented, puck pursuit style while toning down the overall physicality of his forward lines.
Tyler Bozak, Viktor Stallberg, Lee Stempniak, Jason Blake, Matt Stajan, Phil Kessel and Nik Kulemin are not a big scary physical bunch, they were never built to play the “Burkie” way, they needed to know their roles earlier in the season but instead played confused and lost for the first half of the season before the team was essentially blown up.
I am not saying that any of the players that were moved should have been kept, far from it, I like the new roster and where Burke is taking this team, but until the Leafs are assembled entirely as a “Burke” style team it will be difficult to win employing the strategy and style we have currently taken unless Ron Wilson goes in his own direction, and well that could be tough as Brian Burke is Ron Wilson’s boss, period.