Building a great franchise is difficult to do. In recent history the two great franchises that come to mind, when I think of continuing success over a sustained period of time,would be Detroit, and New Jersey. What makes them stand out is their continual ability to field teams that are competitive year in and year out—and as we all know they have both won their share of Cups.
The Leafs could, and more than that, should be one of those great franchises. The fans are knowledgeable and devoted, the building sold out every night, and the ancillary revenues from TV and Leaf souvenirs are enormous. But somehow this greatness has more than eluded the Leafs.
The Leafs over the last 40 odd years have managed to avoid doing what was necessary to really build the foundations that would lead to continual success. Of course, there were a few exceptional Leaf teams that gave us a breath of hope: The squads that come to mind are the 77-78 Leafs, the 92-93 and 93-94 Leafs, and then again in 98-99 and 01-02.
The hard part about watching those teams was the sense of impermanence that surrounded them. On each of those teams moments the brief moment of hope for Leaf fans was counterbalanced by fear—fear that a meddling owner would do something ridiculous, or the coach would get involved in a vendetta against his star players, or there would be power struggles at the management level.
And running through all of these scenarios there was the continuous and strange lack of ability of all parties to read the writing on the wall, and understand what it takes to build a winner.
Now the Burke era has begun, and all that is the past, and you know what they say about the past, "Ya gotta let go and move on" all the spiritual books preach it, and as Leaf fans, we have got to be some of the most spiritual fans in all of hockey. If faith could win Stanley Cups, we'd have a lot more than 11.
Here is my personal recipe for what I believe the Leafs need to do to build a truly strong, vital, continually successful franchise.
As we all know there is NO CAP on scouting, coaching, etc. So , what do you do when you have the oodles of cash that MLSE has- you build yourself a scouting team that is second to none. You have scouts in every league, every level, and everywhere around the globe.
This is how seventh round picks and free agent signings turn in to players that rip up the league, because someone has spotted their brilliance. Perhaps they are diamonds in the rough and perhaps nobody has bothered to look. However the bottom in line in today's cap market is scouting is more important than ever. Get em young, get'em cheap—and get the one's nobody even knows about.
Drafting is obviously one of the major ways teams will be built going forward in the NHL. This concept is a no brainer, but for some reason the Leafs have trouble with this idea for aeon's. To put it simply, THE LEAFS MUST HOLD ON TO THEIR PICKS IN THE DRAFT. The bad old days of Fletcher and his "Draft Scmaft" are ancient history. From now on , the Leafs should draft in the first round, and second and third, and fourth—regardless of the deals that other GM's dangle in front of them.
The only exception to this rule would be if they were damn sure this was the Cup run year and the only way to get that final piece of the puzzle was to give up an early round pick. But other than that this is not a grey area,one that should be continually re-evaluated, it is black and white, and simplyis the best way to keep the pipeline full of young talented players, year after year.
Developing and Retaining Young Players
The Leaf organization is littered with the corpses of young players who never were allowed to develop to their full potential with the Leafs. These players were traded for a variety of reasons.
Some were developing too slowly for management's taste. Some were clearly becoming stars, but the rationale was that somehow getting a veteran or a more established player would bring the team closer to the Cup. And some simply got on the wrong side of management for a variety reasons—salary request, attitude, etc. (not a hard thing to do in Toronto). This aspect of the Leaf culture must change for the team to be successful. We must retain and develop our young players.
Here is a partial list of players( in no particular chronological order) who were in their mid 20's or younger when somehow the Leafs could not or would not, hold on to them.
Some of them became legitimate stars, others journeymen, but all performed reasonably well elsewhere: Gary Unger, Randy Carlyle, Frederick Modin, Vinnie Damphouse, Steve Sullivan, Mike Johnson, Luke Richardson, Jason Smith, Steve Thomas, Alyn McCauley, Kenny Johnson, Bernie Parent, Danny Markov, Russ Courtnall, Rick Kehoe, Al Iafrate, Laurie Boschman, Yannic Perrault, and Mike Walton.
And though it happened pre Burke, the pattern continues today, with the release of Welwood, and the trading of Steen and Coliacovo. All young players with tons of upside, and in Welwood's case especially there was plenty of evidence he could perform . But somehow, he became an overweight out of shape bad boy and was run out of town....in my opinion that was a definite error in judgement by then GM Fletcher.
Goaltending is the foundation of great teams( not sure I get the Chris Osgood thing, but it works for Detroit!), the teams that follow this maxim religiously (New Jersey) usually succeed and those that don't (Philadelphia) always finish out of the money.
You will notice I say usually succeed, because as we all know, a goaltender alone cannot win you the cup or even get you near the playoffs—witness Luongo's years in Florida. That being said, the Leafs must be vigilant in net—if Toskala plays like he did for most of last year, he must sit much earlier in the season.
Look at the Caps with Theodore, and the Ducks with Giguere. Both high-priced, supposedly star goalies are on the bench while the rookie back ups are carrying the team. Leaf fans will argue that there was and still is no one that can possibly carry team if Toskala fails. That is not the point...trades can be made, free agents can be signed.
There are options and Leafs must be relentless in their pursuit of a top quality starting goalie. Otherwise everything else they do will be meaningless. It is my humble opinion that Toskala personally lost the Leafs a chance at the playoffs this year with some very shoddy play. The rest of the team actually performed above and beyond expectations.
Culture of Winning
This has truly been Leafs Achilles heel for the last 40 years. From the minute Harold (the wacko) Ballard became sole owner and Leaf Emperor in the late 60's, excellence became almost a dirty word. All we had was close to 25 years of Ballard's insanity.
Yet even with his blessed passing, Harold's ghost seemed to haunt the Leafs. The endless ownership and power struggles within the organization. The continual default to the short term knee jerk fix. The unwillingness to use the money generated by the Leafs to build a quality organization.
However, year by year, and inch by inch this has been changing.Until now, when for the first time in my memory we truly have a "real deal" GM, a man with authority, hockey smarts, vision and a hunger to win. Now the culture of winning can be built. The stable management that Burke brings is already starting to pay dividends.
I think we all know that that Hanson and Bozak never would have signed with the Leafs in years past. They have been swept up by the new atmosphere around the Leafs because of Burke's signing and mandate. They are eager to be part of one of the league's most storied franchises, and of course, Burke has them dreaming of multiple Stanley Cup Banners lining the rafters of the Air Canada Center.
We also have a coach , who despite a few odd character traits, does believe in winning at a very deep level. And as he has put it, "ended the culture of entitlement" that has surrounded the Leafs for years. The door is finally open for players who perform to get their chance. And finally players who float will be shown the door.
This "culture of winning" will attract all sorts of talent to Toronto. You will see free agents signing here that would have stayed away in the past from the Leaf circus . You will see players blossoming year by year as they develop into truly important parts of the team.
And most importantly you will see real pride returning to the organization. The type of pride and entitlement that Detroit and Jersey have both developed in the last 15 years. An attitude that is earned by solid management and coaching, a clear chain of command, and players who know their roles and deliver what is expected of them.
Captain is a simile for leader. Sometimes the leader on the team is not the Captain, but on many great teams the two are synonymous. I am a strong supporter of having a great leader as Captain.
A player that can change the course of the game on his own, and will try to do so, if his team is losing. Again, the great teams almost all have inspiring, Captains, Yzerman, Stevens, Messier, superb individual players certainly, but their ability to motivate and lift others to a higher level was legendary. Maybe at this exact moment there is no real Captain on the Leafs, but as soon as it is appropriate I think Burke should appoint one.
With a nod in tribute to the superb defensive first squads that New Jersey has iced, I want to cast my vote for the Leafs to play up tempo, attack hockey—a la this year's Chicago, Pittsburgh, Detroit, or Washington. I believe that to win it all a team must consistently out shoot their opponents. Now this may seem like the most obvious point I could make, however, the Leafs have rarely understood this simple yet essential concept.
How many nights during our so called glory years at the beginning of new millennium did I watch Joseph and then Belfour stand on their proverbial heads and some how pull a win out for the Leafs—with little to no help from their lethargic team mates. This ridiculous over reliance on the goalie has been going on for a long time, I think it really took root in the 67 Cup run when Bower and Sawchuck basically won the Cup for the Leafs.
To make matters worse, combined with this goalie fixation, the Leafs somehow have in their DNA that they have to have lots of so called veterans, character players (old slow guys)—this is definitely something that Punch Imlach really started- the veteran fixation. And of course these old guys( see 1967 Leafs) although they don't do much during the regular season will help the team sneak into the playoffs and then a a miracle will occur and they will win the Cup (see 1967 Leafs again). Wild concept—worked once really well, and never has again!
I sure hope that type of thinking has vanished forever from Leafland. What I do know is great hockey teams attack, and they keep the puck in the opposititon's end, and as any true hockey buff will tell you , constant pressure, lots of quality shots, that's the way to win hockey games.