With October's diverse fall colours finally upon us, and thus as we head into another hockey season, it's interesting to note the Toronto Maple Leafs are a much different team than was handed over to Ron Wilson when he first arrived. In fact, only four players remain from his original group two years ago. This is clearly Brian Burke's team, and a defined blue and white team that will drive for the playoffs based on integrity.
By now, they each know the Leafs' storied history. They surely recognize and know the now-mythical names. They understand the opportunity is theirs to lose.
In terms of a tipping point, there are three items of significance that will signal the arrival of Toronto as a playoff contender: the ability of Ron Wilson to truly coach his inherited team into and through the playoffs, the ability of every player to understand and accept his role on the team, and the ability of star players to rise above fate and truly dominate games.
Perhaps integrity is a word under-used in hockey, but hockey players really need only one rule: unsportsmanlike conduct. Every player knows the difference between a cheap shot and a valid tactic to ensure a goal. To win, players must play the game on the edge. They must push and take a chance, an extra step, find an extra ounce of energy, and trust their instincts—every shift.
They play with a win-at-all-cost attitude to ensure a goal, to win the battles that matter, and expect to not only bleed but also lose teeth. A price gladly offered for a bona fide chance to hoist The Cup. This year's Maple Leafs have shown tenacity and determination in the preseason. The young players, the so-called prospects, knew their role and accepted their fate and will play to be promoted, sooner than later.
Indeed, a manager creates the team but first in his mind. He then passes on his team, as defined by his own attributes required to win during his hiring process and with a mandate to win clearly understood and stated at the board level, to a group of integrated professionals: managers, coaches, and trainers, including those with sub-specialties in business, accounting, philanthropy, and public relations.
Every head coach is given an excellent group of talent at the outset of each season and must simply work with that collective. It seems Wilson has determined that several of his young players have migrated to his approved NHL caliber, and Wilson must now take over their development. He must know that moment when an MLSE asset has "seen the light" or made the play that separates the men from the boys. Having finally crossed that line among the many players vying for that same position, the game becomes a game of not making mistakes and thus is a game of poise, patience, and positioning.
The ultimate goal is perfection: the perfect pass, the perfect shot, and, of course, the perfect goal. There is no perfect battle, however. Each victory is a result of a not just a good bounce here and there, but a crucially balanced team effort and of each player demonstrating and perfecting each shift. It's a physical game, demanding poise with the puck, patience in all manners of the game, and positioning as every player has been taught since a bantam.
Boldly, it seems we are heading into this new hockey season with our heads high. There are no false expectations—we know we have a young team, one that will take chances, and we expect that some will fail in a desperate attempt to single-handedly succeed, but of course without those chances we will never reach the goal of hoisting the Cup.
There are a few more tweaks coming, to be sure, but out with the bad air and in with the good, I was taught, and Burke is achieving his goal to deliver a Cup-winning team. But it's a process, and we have seen good things over the past month. I think we have every reason to believe the Leafs will make the playoffs in 2011, ahead of Montreal and Buffalo. Bold, but it's a good risk to take.