What is the old saying, hope springs eternal? A phrase more commonly associated with baseball at the beginning of spring training, the term still has meaning for the beginning of any pro sports league. With that said following the Toronto Maple Leafs tight 1-goal victory over the Montreal Canadiens (god that feels good to say doesn’t it?) it brings me to an ongoing worry as a paranoid and hopeful fan of the ‘Buds – what happens if we actually do win that beautiful Stanley Cup one of these years? Law of averages and basic odds say we can’t continue to defy mathematics like this and the Leafs are simply overdue for a championship season.
However, I wanted to talk about the other end of the spectrum and what really worries me as a dedicated and hardcore Maple Leafs fan. Call it paranoia but this concern has got me thinking about making a list (and checking it twice) and I plan to have that list (whether mental or literally on paper) readily available in the event the Leafs do one day climb that playoff mountain and take home the greatest trophy in sports. The list will contain the known identities of a certain group of degenerate hockey fans.
I’m looking at you Leaf bashers, in all of your forms but not limited to:
- Message board pirates wasting their lives filling cyberspace with nonsensical and hate filled Leaf bashes yet not identifying which team they root for,
- Office and work email junkies with your constant forwarding of sarcastic jokes, bashes, ridiculous superimposed pictures and supposedly clever puns,
- Crazed fans from other teams taunting us with the constant reference to a year we are obviously all familiar with – 1967,
- Even non-sports fans (oh the worst kind) that couldn’t differentiate between a goaltender and a bartender get in on the act and “pile-on”, you know whom I speak of, your great aunt Betsy who hasn’t watched a single sporting event is suddenly a hockey expert when it comes to the Leafs futility over the past 40 odd years
Oh, there are other forms of these vile, time wasting losers out there and some even wait in the wings just to get in a jab or two from time to time without being labelled full out “Leafs Bashers”. We know who you are and enjoy it, soak it all in, relish in it because I want the record to plainly show when the time comes, the glorious time when the Maple Leafs will finally sip from Lord Stanley’s mug exactly who you are.
You might ask why I want all of this, haven’t we had enough of the pain, suffering and misery not to mention the butt of too many jokes? Well I’ll tell you why, because when that day finally comes I don’t want these same despicable people with their years (decades) of countless jokes, barbs, shots and low blows doing something even worse – jumping on the bandwagon.
The city of Toronto and let’s be honest the entire country will be abuzz the same way the city of Boston (and the United States) was when the Boston Red Sox defeated the New York Yankees after being down 3-0 and going on to win the World Series after 86 (eighty-six!!) years of playoff futility and heartache not even a Maple Leaf fan can fully comprehend and appreciate.
Don’t kid yourselves, the Leafs will suddenly pick up about a million or so of these ‘fair weather’ fans when this happens, oh they will claim they have been there since day one and they suffered through the same drought as you and I and that is why I encourage you to take notes now so when the unthinkable happens and the Leafs win the Cup we know who the real fans are.
Why? Simply so we aren’t sipping champagne with the same antagonistic, ignorant and annoying Leaf Bashers that have simply decided to hop on what will undoubtedly be the greatest bandwagon in the history of bandwagons.
Take note Leaf Bashers, because we’re taking notes too!
With the upcoming Toronto Maple Leafs and NHL season now upon us, the pundits and experts are out taking their best shots at making some educated predictions as to where the teams will finish in the standings. Most publications, TV stations and media outlets all concur on one particular fact: the Toronto Maple Leafs will not be a playoff bound team in 2010/11.
Here is the projected opening night lineup:
Making the playoffs is normally thought of as a successful season and the dividing line between playoff and non-playoff teams is often a very fine one. I thought I would take a look at a few key factors in a playoff and non-playoff season for our beloved Toronto Maple Leafs. Now, this is based on Ron Wilson being the coach and the team utilizing his particular style and brand of hockey which is a more up-tempo, high pressure fore-check in all three zones. Whether this is the appropriate strategy given the current makeup of the Maple Leafs remains to be seen and is an issue to be discussed on another day.
The Leafs will have to improve approximately twenty points in the Eastern Conference standings all things considered equal and with a few breaks here and there it can be possible. Here are a few things to keep an eye as the season progresses and that fine dividing line we spoke about earlier between a successful or disappointing NHL season.
THE LEAFS WILL MAKE THE PLAYOFFS IF:
THE LEAFS WILL MISS THE PLAYOFFS IF:
-A few forwards show great internal year over year improvement and development, specifically Kulemin, Grabovski and Bozak
-The much needed secondary scoring is not found and teams focus all attention and energy on the Leafs top line
-Phil Kessel remains healthy and productive
-Phil Kessel gets injured
-Tyler Bozak can maintain and productive point pace throughout 82 games
-Tyler Bozak doesn’t possess the skill or ability to anchor the top line for an entire season
-The goaltending improves and we get a complete season of steady and solid play between the pipes
-We get Vesa Toskala type goaltending again, for any stretch of the season
-Mike Komisarek and Francois Beauchemin play the way they are capable of playing
-Our relatively deep defense core doesn’t shore up enough to lower scoring chances against
-Luke Schenn continues his development, forcing Ron Wilson to play him 20+ minutes a night
-Luke Schenn’s development stagnates, at all
-Our special teams play is markedly improved
-Power play and penalty killing rank in the bottom third of the league again
-Dion Phaneuf is rejuvenated and gives the Leafs a physical and offensive spark from the backend
-Dion Phaneuf’s declining numbers continue
-Our bottom six forwards continue their strong play, bringing a defensive and physical edge
-Our newly formed checking line (Sjostrom-Brent-Armstrong) doesn’t provide a reliable, consistent and sustainable defensive presence
-We go .500 or better in shootouts and OT games
-We continue to struggle gaining the extra point in OT/shootouts
The Maple Leafs will be improved and I doubt few could argue that much considering the Leafs might have won a few more games if Vesa Toskala simply left his stick and glove lying on the ice in front of his net as opposed to actually attempting to play goal. He was one of the worst goalies statistically speaking of the last 10-15 years and for a team that was dead last on the penalty kill it’s not hard to see why the team improved so much when JS Giguere came aboard via trade. The Leafs had absolutely no confidence in Vesa Toskala last season and it showed when they completely melted down late in games on numerous occasions and almost looked shaken when having to kill a penalty off.
I think one fact the ‘experts’ or pundits are overlooking is the internal improvement from a number of Maple Leafs, most notably Nik Kulemin and Luke Schenn. Kulemin has the opportunity to blossom into an impact two- way forward capable of scoring upwards of 30 goals if he gets a few bounces, he possesses a lethal shot with a quick release and is starting to utilize his impressive size and strength to his advantage.
Luke Schenn was the 5th overall selection in the draft for a reason. For such a young defenseman with limited experience Schenn is calm and cool with the puck possessing solid instincts to go along with a huge frame capable of absolutely dominating opposing forwards physically. Most defenseman aren’t fully developed until around age 25-27 give or take a year and Schenn is well on his way to becoming an Adam Foote type shutdown defender teams crave and simply do not grow on trees.
Patience is needed with young defenseman more than any other position and I applaud Brian Burke for not using Schenn as a trade chip to acquire a borderline top six forward to appease the fan base starving for another solid scoring threat. I guarantee teams would be lining up around the block to get a piece of a defenseman clearly ready to take a big step forward. After a relatively slow start last season Schenn quickly rebounded and was among our best players down the stretch, and still posted 5 goals and 12 assists and was a positive plus 2 on a poor defensive squad. I think this is the year Schenn takes his place among the games better young defensive defenseman.
So do the Leafs have what it takes to survive an 82 game season and put up enough points to seriously contend for a long overdue playoff spot?
Today, I wanted to take a closer look at the Toronto sports scene as a whole and attempt to determine which Toronto team is the likeliest or is best positioned to win a championship. The teams that will be included in the discussion/argument will be the three majors, the Toronto Maple Leafs, Toronto Blue Jays and Toronto Raptors. Apologies go out to the Toronto Argos and Toronto MLS as my knowledge of those two leagues isn’t what it should be.
We will rank the three teams based on key factors and issues including:
-financial sustainability (willingness and ability to spend when the need arises),
-current roster and prospects going forward
-level of competition (i.e. – division/conference/league played in)
-season and playoff structures of each sport, travel requirements
-competence of management
-Intangibles – history/pedigree/precedent, has the team had prior success and/or titles, has there been a recent example of a team in a similar situation rise from the ashes?
1. Toronto Maple Leafs
- The Maple Leafs are an absolute cash cow, they generate insane revenues and money will never be an impediment to the Leafs success going forward. The NHL is a salary cap world and does not allow the Leafs to really flex their financial muscles as it would like to.
2. Toronto Raptors
- The Raptors are owned by the same teacher’s pension fund that operates the Maple Leafs and have also shown the willingness to spend up the salary cap. The NBA has a soft cap and luxury tax system, and so far the Raptors have not gone into the luxury tax although there have been overtones that the team would be willing depending on the situation.
3. Toronto Blue Jays
- The Blue Jays are owned by media mogul and massive Rogers Corporation – a company double the size of “Steinbrenner Inc”. The Blue Jays have opened the coffers over the past few years and have spent upwards of 85-90 million on payroll. They have also gone on record that they are willing to spend on a Boston, Los Angeles or Chicago level if the team is in a position to seriously compete.
Analysis: Contrary to popular belief (aka Americans) all of the three major Toronto sports franchises are in outstanding shape financially and all have shown the willingness to be competitive in their respective sports. I was tempted to rank the Maple Leafs 1 and Raptors 1a as with a salary cap system firmly in place, neither can really be considered superior to the other. The Jays still have to prove their willingness to spend to rank any higher than last.
LEVEL OF COMPETITION
1. Toronto Raptors
- The competition has stiffened in the Eastern Conference now that the Triami Heat pulled off the biggest coup in free agent history adding the best player in the game Lebron James to Dwayne Wade and Chris Bosh. However, the Raptors still play in a division with the aging Boston Celtic, perennial losers in New York Knicks (Stoudemire be damned), 12-70 New Jersey Nets (Russian billionaire be damned) and the 27-55 Philadelphia 76ers.
2. Toronto Maple Leafs
- The Eastern Conference is the weaker of the two NHL conferences so that helps the Leafs slightly, however the division is one of the tougher in the game featuring solid teams and tough matchups in Boston and Buffalo and emotional rivalries in Ottawa and Montreal. Aside from Buffalo and Montreal, all of the teams in this division have improved in the off-season.
3. Toronto Blue Jays
- The AL East is simply the Cadillac of sports divisions, the best and toughest division in all of sports. Making the Jays relative success in the past 4-5 seasons even more impressive, in any other division they are perennial contenders. The New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox spend a combined $350+ million on payroll, and are not scared to sign ‘above slot’ in the amateur drafts, ensuring their future success for generations to come. The Tampa Bay Rays have become a model organization in terms of scouting and development and only financial concerns can stop them from becoming a powerhouse. The Baltimore Orioles are in transition but also possess some pretty impressive young assets (Wieters, Jones, Matusz, Tillman, and Markakis).
Analysis: As I assume you have figured out already, being ranked last means you have the toughest challenge and stiffest competition. The poor Blue Jays are in tough and will have to continue to aggressively scour the planet for top young talent, but under new GM AA have already shown a willingness to do just that. The Raptors and Leafs are again pretty even in terms of the level of competition they will have to defeat in order to eventually win a championship – neither has a cakewalk, but definitely an easier climb than the Blue Jays.
CURRENT ROSTER/FUTURE PROSPECTS
1. Toronto Blue Jays
- The Blue Jays have the best current assortment of talent to work with among the three teams. They possess good young (cost controlled) pitchers in Shaun Marcum, Brandon Morrow, Brett Cecil and Marc Rzcepsynski as well as promising youngsters in Kyle Drabek, Chad Jenkins, Deck Maguire and Zach Stewart. They have some pretty solid regulars in Aaron Hill, Adam Lind, Vernon Wells and Yunel Escobar and are anxiously awaiting the arrival of highly touted 1B Brett Wallace, C JP Arencibia, C Travis D’arnaud amid some other interesting pieces.
2. Toronto Maple Leafs
- The Leafs have a major league defence core, one of the deepest in the NHL and if all can play to their normal career levels has a chance to be outstanding. Assuming Tomas Kaberle isn’t dealt the Leafs will line up with Kaberle/Phaneuf, Komisarek/Beauchemin, and Gunnarsson/Schenn – that is simply deep and talented. The Leafs also have an NHL calibre backup in Jeff Finger, as well as budding youngster Keith Aullie (among other decent promising pieces). The forward group is another story, with only Phil Kessel returning as a legitimate NHL scorer the Leafs will be depending on huge internal improvement from Tyler Bozak, Nazem Kadri, Christian Hanson and Nik Kulemin as well as immediate impacts from Kris Versteeg and Colby Armstrong. If the trade chip known as Kaberle can net a top six forward, things will be looking up for this group. The Leafs also possess two quality goaltenders in JS Giguere and Jonas Gustavsson – both of whom are expected to help improve the absolute sieve-like effort that was given last season.
3. Toronto Raptors
- Losing Chris Bosh was a serious blow to the current roster, however I do not think the cupboard is as bare as people are making it out to be, and in the NBA talent comes and goes very quickly allowing teams to reload in a heartbeat. They still have a 20-point scorer in 7 foot Andre Bargnani who has his warts but is pretty widely panned as one of the more intriguing front court player in the league. Demar Derozan was picked #7 overall in the 2009 NBA draft and has already shown increase physical strength and an improve physique in the summer league, people do not give him enough credit for what type of ceiling he could have, we could be looking at a Tracy McGrady type improvement. We have solid professionals in Amir Johnson, Leandro Barbosa, Jose Calderon, Jarrett Jack, Linus Kleiza and Reggie Evans along with budding youngsters Ed Davis (a steal for the Raptors at #13), Solomin Alobi and Sonny Weems. It also appears Bryan Colangelo is not finished in his roster makeover and I am not that pessimistic with the roster now or going forward.
Analysis: None of these teams are properly built to win in either their current or next seasons but I have to give the Jays the overall edge in current and prospective talent, although the Leafs possess a major league defence and an experience goalie and are not far off the Jays. The Raptors are not going to be a great team in the next 1-2 seasons depending upon what moves Colangelo can manoeuvre but in the NBA lightning can strike quick and talent is there for the taking via the draft/free agency that can help step in immediately, unlike the NHL and MLB in which players are brought along rather slowly.
1. Toronto Maple Leafs
- Say what you want about Brian Burke and company, but there is a proven track record of winning and success, and even one Stanley Cup ring to show for. Burke is surrounded by a plethora of good hockey men and the Leafs spend heavily in the front office, scouting and development areas. The Leafs are in good hands as Brian Burke has a vision, a pedigree for success and the ability to put that plan into action.
2. Toronto Raptors
- Again, see above, although he has his nay-Sayers Brian Colangelo is a brilliant basketball mind, capable of turning around an organization and able to admit mistakes. I still have faith in BC and being able to shed the horrible Turkuglu contract shows a willingness to admit he was wrong and rectify the situation by adding a very intriguing combo guard in Leandro Barbosa. He had a steal lined up with Charlotte (adding Chandler and Diaw for Jose Calderon) but Michael Jordan reneged at the last minute (players were told they were traded) and the deal was stopped. He has done as well as any GM could have with the roster he inherited and is a mover and a shaker, always looking for ways to make the team more competitive.
3. Toronto Blue Jays
- AA has the chance to be ranked number one on this list in about 3-4 years if he keeps up this pace. The boy wonder has been an absolute marvel in his short stint, showing patience with his young pitching staff, tact with the media and the ability to pick a few diamonds in the rough (i.e. Jose Bautista, John Buck & Alex Gonzalez) and has totally beefed up the scouting and development, areas that had been lacking under the JP Ricciardi regime. This team is in very good hands for the foreseeable future.
Analysis: All three franchises are in good hands with capable front office people firmly in place. I was tempted to move the Blue Jays to number two with Paul Beeston also firmly entrenched in the Blue Jays culture, but Burke and Colangelo just have more past success to point to as an indicator of future success. Burke gets raked over the coals for the Phil Kessel trade and though it is nice to step to the podium and draft a young hot prospect, what did we expect to deal for a 22 year old 30 goal scorer – Lee Stempniak?
1. Toronto Blue Jays
- They have history on their side as the only champion in Toronto sports (among this group) over the past fifty years so this hopefully bodes well for the future as they have shown they can put it all together. Recent example would be the Tampa Bay Rays, they rose from a fairly similar roster situation and totally revamped their scouting and development program and are now amongst the top teams in the MLB – it shows it can be done, even in the AL East.
2. Toronto Raptors
- They have at least made the playoffs and won a division in the past 5-6 years so they have one up on the Maple Leafs and in the NBA you can strike lightning in a bottle in the draft, so that gives the Raptors some hope. Recent example would be the Milwaukee Bucks when they made a few roster tweaks after losing their franchise player (Michael Redd) to injury and looked very respectable last season, a team on the rise.
3. Toronto Maple Leafs
- A team that has not won the Stanley Cup since 1967 is plain worse than a Raptors team that has never won a title in their respective sport. A well talked about drought only adds to the pressure that is placed on the Maple Leafs in a completely hockey crazed market that is Toronto. Recent example would be the Chicago Blackhawks, they broke the longest streak in hockey after winning the cup in 2009/2010 – unfortunately they were also built heavily through the draft with young studs Toews, Kane, Keith and company.
Analysis: This was a pretty clear cut choice as the Jays have a success laden history and a team in Tampa Bay to model their hopeful future success on – Toronto Blue Jays clearly have the best intangibles/pedigree for future success.
Let’s see how they rank on a basic scoring system with lowest total score in the five categories obviously being the best: (highly scientific I know)
1. Toronto Maple Leafs – 9 pts
2. Toronto Raptors – 10 pts
3. Toronto Blue Jays – 11 pts
Before putting pen to proverbial paper my initial thought was the Leafs are probably the closest franchise in Toronto to winning the next championship, basically I think it is easier to turn around a hockey team than basketball or baseball. With the salary cap and the Leafs willing to eat contract or throw bad ones to the wolves or at the very least the AHL (see Finger, Jeff) they probably are the best bet – which is sort of sad but true at this point.
The Raptors and Jays are fairly even with neither really having much of an edge over the other, the NBA has more playoff participants and an easier road overall and the Jays play in the harder league (AL) and the toughest division (AL East) with two of the greatest and richest franchises in the world (New York and Boston) so it makes sense to rank the Raptors over them, for now.
Nobody would confuse this with the golden era of the Toronto sports scene, but there is at the very least a glimmer of hope for all three, right?
So what could $56 million buy you if you had an empty roster and could only add from the current free agent talent (a term used loosely now that Kovalchuk has signed) pool. Based on the fact that these players are still available we can safely assume the market isn’t exactly on fire and multiple offers are not being thrown at most of these guys as we speak.
For fun, let’s also assume we sign these players each to one-year contracts as to not be bogged down by multiple year deals for relatively lacklustre talent – again, another safe assumption in that most of these guys will likely sign for one year. We will sign 15 forwards, 8 defensemen and 2 goaltenders.
Without further ado, here is your Free Agent roster: (salary in parenthesis)
Alex Frolov (3.5) – Brendan Morrison (2.5) – Teemu Selanne (3.0)
Reserves: Mike Modano (2.0), Owen Nolan (2.0), Bill Guerin (1.5)
Our top line features the enigma that is Alexander Frolov, a potential 35+ goal scorer too often disappears during stretches of games but if motivated could be a big time scorer and on this squad he will be heavily used in all situations including the power-play. We are pretty weak at the centre position for our top two lines and Brendan Morrison will be counted upon to recapture his old playmaking form, riding shotgun is the ageless wonder Teemu Selanne.
Our second line features the underrated Glen Metropolit, I have always been a pretty big fan of his game and he never seems to get a fair opportunity to showcase his talents, he will be given a lot of ice-time with this team and has two veteran wingers in Paul Kariya and Maxim Afinogenov looking to contribute some much needed offense.
I could not resist forming the third line (hey, this is a Toronto based blog) but this could be our best line if all three click and work hard. Dominic Moore has speed to burn and maybe being reunited with former Maple Leafs will bring out the best (and only time) Moore was successful. Poni provides size and strength on one side and Lee Stempniak will bring his normal energy and strong puck pursuit and relentless hustle, hopefully he also brings his lucky late season scoring touch from Phoenix.
The fourth line is also pretty decent (not surprised our third and fourth lines are strong, as that is what dominates the remaining free agent crop) with the steady and smart John Madden playing the middle between another underachiever Raffi Torres and the sparkplug and underrated Arron Asham. This is our energy line that could also pop the occasional goal or two.
Our reserves will have three elder statesmen in Modano, Guerin and Nolan in case Kariya goes down and we need our compliment of past their prime forwards.
This isn’t the most inspiring group of forwards, but it is pretty decent mixture of speed, size and veteran savvy, the power-play will be pretty weak, while the penalty kill should be strong.
Willie Mitchell (2.5) – Kim Johnsson (2.5)
Andreas Lilja (2.0) – Mike Mottau (2.0)
Andy Sutton (2.0) – Aaron Ward (2.0)
Not much to brag about here other than a bit of size and shutdown ability in the bottom two pairings, Mitchell and Johnsson both have question marks with regards to injuries but if healthy would have to log major minutes for this defensively inept squad. I believe Lilja/Mottau would be an underrated pairing, both play a smart and sound defensive game and do not make many mistakes. Sutton/Ward would be a brutal pairing to face as an opposing and if the minutes can be limited and matchups selective their lack of foot speed shouldn’t be exposed too often.
Reserves: Paul Mara (1.5), Marc-Andre Bergeron (1.0)
Evgeni Nabokov (5) – Ray Emery (2)
Ok, so I cheated just slightly, but we all know Nabokov would prefer to be in the NHL (as opposed to the KHL) all things being equal and he would just jump at the chance to play for this winning group. Nabokov has been a steady performer and one of the better goaltenders in the league and we will need him to be very sharp to give us a chance at the playoffs. Hopefully he and Ray Emery will get along swimmingly, with Emery’s recent (and impending) exposure to the KHL and Russia, maybe they will find some common ground.
CAP HIT: Forwards (33.5 million), Defence (15.5 million), Goalies (7 million) TOTAL = $56 million
For a different twist, with this of course all being fantasy and hypothetical, that much free cash could have helped net us a few more quality players on teams in desperate need of some cap relief. So we potentially could have added (amongst players dumped) Simon Gagne, Kris Versteeg, Jeff Finger and likely Brian Campbell and Marc Savard.
Every team needs a coach and who better to get the absolute most out of this group but our old buddy Pat Quinn would be the man to coach this team, he gets the nod after being unceremoniously dumped by the Edmonton Oilers.
Where would this team finish if they played in the Eastern Conference in 2010/2011?
Who would you have replaced on this fantasy roster if you built it?
Could they beat the 2010/2011 version of the Toronto Maple Leafs?
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.