Sunday, 6 November 2011

Leafs Awful, But Let's Wait


TORONTO (Nov. 6) - If you think the hockey Gods were cruel to the Maple Leafs on Saturday, you may have a point. Not only did the Boston Bruins humiliate them in front of their home fans (led by one Tyler Seguin), the Toronto players were provided an extra hour to chew on the embarrassment overnight. "Fall back... Spring ahead." It may be a good motto for the Leafs, though they can't lapse into the former if they're going to be around for the latter.

Eastern Standard Time indeed arrived at a brutal moment for the Blue & White. But, let's not get carried away. Sometimes, a good waxing can prove beneficial for a team in unfamiliar territory, and if any territory can be more unfamiliar than where the Leafs resided before Saturday, I'd like to know about it. First place in a 30-team league after one month of the season for a franchise that hasn't sniffed a playoff moment since May 4, 2004. That's the equivalent of being plunked naked into a foreign land on a national holiday. People are staring at you in amazement... you are begging, in your native tongue, for directions to the nearest clothing store, yet no one understands what you are saying, and no such place is open for you to visit even if they did (how's that for unfamiliar?). So, let's give the Leafs a chance to cover up. Yes, they were exposed every which way by the Bruins, but they aren't in a foreign land and clothing stores do business in this city even on Sundays. A nice, snug pair of briefs might hide the embarrassment.

Ron Wilson nailed this one when he suggested the devil-me-care effort in Columbus on Thursday led to the Boston rout. Your local beer-league team would stand up well against the Blue Jackets, so maybe we all got carried away with Scrivens-mania after the 4-1 triumph at Nationwide Arena. Many, including yours truly, warned that the Leafs had assembled their league-best mark against mostly inferior opposition, but that's okay too. When in recent years, for example, have the Leafs, a) been superior to any group of teams, and b) liberally availed themselves of points against such opposition? For my money, the state of affairs would feel much more counterfeit this morning if the Leafs had gone into Saturday's game with a 3-9-1 record and beaten the Bruins 7-0. False hope would be spreading like wild-fire in this town.

Conversely, with a 9-3-1 mark before Saturday, the Leafs had put some cash in their savings account and could afford - at least, in theory - one night of undisciplined spending. We'll find out in due order whether they depleted their accumulation, but let's keep in mind the working parts that led the team, albeit briefly, to the NHL summit.

Brian Burke has assembled - to the best of my detection - a speedy, youthful club with loads of confidence up front. Given that you have to score one more goal than the opposition in order to prevail, that's a handy resource. Of course, preventing goals also comes into play now and then. The Leafs haven't been particularly adept at that discipline since Johnny Bower stood between the pipes, and the most-beloved Leaf of all-time turns 87 on Tuesday - a good indication of the interval since defensive hockey prevailed in this town. Fortunately for the Leafs, defending is a skill that can be acquired; scoring is not. So, maybe the task facing Wilson and his staff isn't as complicated as it appeared during Saturday's butt-whipping. Concerted discipline in support of a lead is more of a mind-set than a skill. Properly nurturing that mind-set is a challenge many coaches face given that it's a hell of a lot more fun to go on the attack - especially when there exists some polish around the opponent's net.

As the season progresses, however, the act of prevention become increasingly crucial. Not since the Edmonton dynasty of 1984-90 (five Stanley Cup titles) - and perhaps at no time beforehand - has a club been capable of winning championships by out-gunning the opposition. Considering the unlikelihood of another team comprised of Wayne Gretzky, Mark Messier, Jari Kurri, Paul Coffey and Glenn Anderson coming down the pike anytime soon, it's safe to assume that discipline and determination behind centre-ice will remain the hallmark of a Cup contender. In that regard, the Leafs are very much a question-mark - again, as they have been for much of the post-1967 era.

Wilson is nobody's fool. He knows winning defensive hockey and has coached winning defensive hockey at the NHL level. It therefore must be confounding why his teams here in Toronto have eternally been out of whack while playing shorthanded. Penalty killing and defensive posture are intrinsically woven. One cannot happen without the other. Both, however, are within the learned capacity of most NHL players. Does it really compel coaching genius to develop such a scheme, or is it incumbent upon today's lavishly-compensated athletes to propel their own asses into gear when required? I find myself increasingly in the latter camp, especially as it pertains to an otherwise-gifted team like the Leafs. If you know you can score goals - hardly a common-denominator among current NHL teams - why not doubly commit to the willpower and strength-of-mind essential to achievement without the puck?

This, to me, is the prime challenge facing the 2011-12 Maple Leafs, and the overwhelming factor that will determine the end - or the continuation of - the club's record playoff famine.

Therefore, a good whack upside the head - such as that provided by the defending champions on Saturday - could prove an invaluable lesson.

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