Leafs: The Winning Formula

Building a winning franchise: What's the blueprint?

-Build from net out
-Draft top 10 prospect (or two)
-Aquire 'stud' defender
-Get 150 points from back end
-Acquire top playmaking centre
-Acquire pure sniper
-Top 6 focuses on offence
-Bottom 6 does heavy lifting
-Sign shift-disturbing 'energy' guy
-Load up on prospects with upside

Simple, right? The order might change in terms of priority from franchise to franchise, but there you have it: a guaranteed perennial playoff /championship team...just like your NHL 11game roster...how hard can it be?

Sarcasm aside, while the actual makeup in terms of roles may vary ( ie: top 6 vs. top 9), the majority of these items appear on every GM's to-do list, and Toronto is no exception. In the midst of the Burke Era, our Leafs have realized a number of these key pieces:

Good goaltender (Reimer)
Stud defender (Phaneuf)
Pure sniper (Kessel)
Top prospects (Schenn, Kadri, Colborne, Gardiner)
Shift-disturber (Armstrong, *Frattin)
Prospect depth (Ross, McKegg, Blacker, D'Amigo, etc.)
Top 6/bottom 6 model

The two items obviously missing are the all-important playmaking centre, and back-end point production. The online Leaf community has discussed the centre issue ad-nauseum. Enough and more has been blogged about this for the time being. We'll re-visit again as we get nearer to the rookie draft and the July 1st free agency period. Before we leave the subject, let's all pretend for a minute that it's July 2nd, Burke jumped into the top ten in the draft and landed one of the bigger fishes in a relatively shallow pond, successfully flipped a few assets for a legit PMD, and inked the crowning jewel of this year's UFA crop to a 7 year deal. Richards will retire a Leaf, meaning Kessel instantly becomes a point a game guy for the next three years, and the air here inside the Blue and white Bubble has become lighter than ever as Leaf Nation takes to the streets in a far less volatile display than the one seen in the beautiful city of Vancouver so very recently...so now what?

Vancouver had the majority of those key pieces going into the Stanley Cup Final. That's sort of a pre-requisite for winning the President's trophy. The goaltending, with the exception of a handful of games, was very good. The top end talent was there in spades, the agitators, the pick and shovel men, and the slick, mobile back end were all in place. Most experts predicted last October that this was Vancouver's year to win it all. But did you ever, for even a moment, get that feeling that they were all on the same page? Not me. Luongo's controversial comments regarding Tim Thomas were made all the worse by his follow-up remarks in which he claimed:

“ I am one win away from a Stanley Cup”.

Key word: 'I'. Eerily reminiscent of his proud proclamation post-gold medal. Be honest now, the first time you heard either remark, did it not irk you? There was a certain smugness to those comments. The Canucks' collective attitude and demeanour was for many, what subsequently led to many Canadian fans pledgingtheir allegiance to the enemy from the Northeast. I was one of them. It was that sense of entitlement, and a slight air of narcism that emanated from the 'Nucks, who went to great lengths to remain aloof, coy, and too-cool-for-school. As a result, they got schooled in the end by a team less gifted. When Sedin (forget which one) stood there getting bitch-slapped by a rookie, where were his teammates to take the heat and back him up? Clearly, Marchand was trying to get a retaliation penalty. Can you imagine Darcy Tucker watching Sundin taking shots to the face without going bananas? HARDLY. Where was the passion, the push-back, the character? When Bergeron was bitten early in the series, his whole team backed him up and let the Canucks bench know what they thought until the league stepped in. They were all-in, ready to fight for the pride of the club they played for. It had nothing to do with personal accolades and milestones. It's this fatal flaw in the Canucks' collective DNA that might suggest that the lesser-talented, yet exponentially more unified Boston group was going to prevail when all was said and done.

And therein lies the rub, as the saying goes. As much as the B's beat the Canucks, the Canucks beat themselves. Talent aside, it was the Bruins' commitment to battling for each other, their team honour their coach and fans that impresses more than anything. Token gestures like the whole silk jacket thing...Horton bringing a piece of 'home ice' to game seven... post-game admissions to the media of what they meant to each other, and the respect shown to the old guard by the younger guys. The camaraderie, and the genuine caring that the big bad Bruins showed off the ice carried over to their performance on the ice. They supported one another. They collapsed in front of their goalie. They sacrificed their own well-being by taking the big hit to make a play or by blocking a shot. That's teamwork defined.

At this stage in the season, the skill set and all the other tangibles are a given. Two thousand, four hundred and sixty regular-season games, and three rounds of playoffs have determined who the last men standing will be. It's the intangibles that the B's showed by going to the wall for each other that separated them from the pack. And that is what this young Leaf team will need to learn to embrace. The way Mikhail Grabovski (formerly my least-favourite Leaf) evolved from brooding pariah to a team-first professional, and consequently, a budding star. The way Clarke MacArthur embodied the team spirit when he sent a text to new Leaf Joffrey Lupul about how he'd need off-season shoulder surgery from all the one-timers he was going to feed him, even though it meant the chemistry he found with Grabs and Kuley would be sacrificed. Or the way the enigma that is Phil Kessel finally started to buy in and play like a member of a team instead of an inconsistent one-man show.

The new attitude is coming. Guys like Colby with his swagger and contagious enthusiasm, Timmy Brent with his shot-blocking heroics, and Daryl Boyce with his unfaltering commitment to doing whatever it takes are all making a difference –they are leading the charge. I think that's what Brian Burke meant when he talked about the importance of character. The talent has to be there, of course, but without the attitude and the character of a champion, you can only fake it for so long. There is still much to prove, and a lot of ground to cover before the Leafs become a unified force like the Bruins were this year. When they do, they'll be a real handful...


Patrick Storto's picture

In order for it to work, when you put it all together, it has to work together.

Owen Durkin's picture

Well put, Patrick. Its not all connect-the-dots and PRESTO! a champion is born. Tons of examples of 'engineeered dynasty calibre franchises coming up short because the focus was not on commitment to winning as a team.