We all knew this was going to be a tough season, but not for this reason.
Little did we know that the Leafs would actually be able to put the puck in the net.
Little did we know that the team could dominate games with terrific team speed.
Little did we know that players like Stajan and Moore could have career seasons, and that Grabovski and Schenn would emerge better than advertised.
Little did we know that it would be character that is the missing ingredient to the Leafs success.
Character, that intangible thing that enables players to motivate each other to play at just a slightly higher level than their opponents.
We've seen it—when the Leafs are motivated in the right way, they win races to the puck, win the battles on the boards, cause turnovers, generate tremendous numbers of scoring chances, and believe it or not, win games.
And for some reason, these Leafs don't have what it takes to get motivated to play this way every night.
The problem facing Coach Wilson is that the players that should have this kind of character—the ones who have tasted some kind of success—simply don't have it.
Kubina, winner of a Stanley Cup; Kaberle, regular All-Star; Blake, former 40-goal man—they simply don't have it in their nature to inspire their teammates.
The rest are too young and inexperienced (Grabovski, Schenn) or have too long played for a losing team (Poni, Antropov, Stajan) to have it in them either.
This team has no Gary Roberts who can stand up in the dressing room and say what is needed to be said, and then lead by example. Blake, while showing signs of life in his own play, is not the answer.
Burke has brought in Brad May to start to rectify this situation—but as he himself admits, its a baby step. its the top-dollar players that need to bring more than skill to a team, and Burke's next order of business will be to engineer trades for Kaberle, Kubina and Blake—the three best-paid players on the team.
Fortunately, there is no panic. Burke can wait for the right offer. And you know there will be some juicy offers for Kaberle as the trade deadline nears.
Another piece of good news is that the Leafs have some excellent building blocks in Schenn, Grabovski, Hagman, and Stajan. Antropov and Ponikarovski are proving their worth. Moore is a keeper. Finger, Van Ryn, Frogren, and White are solid.
And finally, its important to remember that character is the hardest ingredient to find. It is completely intangible. Sometimes it has more to do with how a certain group of players respond to one another.
Sometimes it emerges as part of a player's maturation process. You've got to think that its there in Schenn just waiting to bust out as he gains experience.
Burke and Wilson seem to understand this. Wilson has deftly pushed the right buttons with players to see what kind of character he's got on his team.
And really, with half the season done, the results are in.
Kaberle, Kubina, and Blake, while skilled, do not bring the extra dimension that their paychecks demand.
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