When Toronto Maple Leafs general manager Brian Burke took over the reigns from elder statesman Cliff Fletcher, he proudly boasted that his Toronto Maple Leafs would be a mirror image of himself, a team that would play with “pugnacity, testosterone and truculence.”
Burke made that statement way back in November of 2008 and, to date, we (Leaf fans) are yet to see much of those traits from any of his players.
Sure, pugilist Colton Orr can drop the gloves with the best of them, but does anyone really think any of the opposing players are shaking in their boots at the prospect of lining up against Orr?
Fact is, outside of Dion Phaneuf—who only seems to be truculent when it suits him—nobody on the Maple Leafs current roster sends a message to the opposition.
Take another look at the Maple Leafs roster—I dare you to find a player that illustrates the pugnacity, testosterone and truculence that Burke has promised.
On the backend the Maple Leafs feature the likes of Phaneuf, Tomas Kaberle, Mike Komisarek, Francois Beauchemin, Luke Schenn (who is another guy that only plays with vigor when he feels like it), Carl Gunnarsson, Brett Lebda and part-timers Korbinian Holzer and Keith Aulie—none of whom puts the fear of God into anyone.
Sure, Phaneuf is capable of “bringing the pain” and Schenn has, on occasion, knocked an opponent into next week, but these moments are few and far between.
Kaberle, Beauchemin, Komisarek (who was thought to be one of those “truculent” players Burke loves so much), Gunnarsson and Lebda simply do not play that physical style, while Holzer and Aulie have not played enough to make a true determination.
Up front, the Maple Leafs top six is amongst the smallest in the NHL and, not surprisingly, one of the least physical.
Phil Kessel, Tyler Bozak, Kris Versteeg (who does have some jam to his game), Nikolai Kulemin, Mikhail Grabovski and even the recently called up Nazem Kadri, are not the kind of players that are comfortable dishing out a check, never mind winning the tough battles in the corners.
Riddle me this: When’s the last time a Maple Leaf player laid a guy out—I mean really caught a guy? When is the last time you attended a game and said, “Gotta watch No. 10 tonight (or any number); he’s gonna be all over the opposition?”
It hasn’t happened and, unless things change quickly, it’s not going to happen with this group of players.
There is a fine line between toughness and stupidity; there is also a fine line between toughness and skill. Right now the Leafs are lacking in scoring prowess and skill and they are not playing a physical game. This is a team with no identity, and it shows.
Add it all up and you’ve got yourself a team that has yet to really find itself and, despite being less than 20 games into the season, there is cause for concern.
Now, in all fairness, the Maple Leafs do employ a decent collection of “lunch pail” players, you know, the guys that play in the trenches and are often called upon to draw the tough assignments.
Mike Brown (who will drop the gloves when called upon), Colby Armstrong (who played a relatively physical game before he got injured) and Fredrik Sjostrom (who scares nobody) have all done a decent job defensively, but again, they are not taking the body, pounding the opposition and laying out the big hits as often as they should be.
Burke often talks about Dion Phaneuf and how he has changed the culture of the team in the dressing room for the better. Trouble is, that “change in culture” Burke speaks about has yet to spill over onto the ice, which is disappointing.
Many NHL teams struggle to find an “identity.”
When you think of teams with an identity the Detroit Red Wings (veteran-laden/skillful team), Chicago Blackhawks (dynamic, young team with speed and skill), Philadelphia Flyers (well-balanced attack with a roster full of both skilled and physical players that can shut their opponent down) and others come to mind.
So what is the Maple Leafs identity? Where do they fit in?
Is this a skillful/offensively gifted team? Not really.
Is this a physical team? Nope.
Is this a young/dynamic, speedy team? No, it’s not!
Is this a “hard-working” team? Maybe...but not consistently.
Are the Maple Leafs a defensive juggernaut? Nope.
Fact is, the Maple Leafs are a team in need of an identity—any identity at all. Right now the Buds are that team that just ended an eight-game losing streak (with the benefit of four power-play goals), and not much more.
The easy thing to do is to ask Brian Burke to bring in a player that can change the dynamic on the ice. He has tried to do that with the acquisitions of Phaneuf, Brown, Versteeg and Armstrong, but, to date, this group has failed to gel and create an identity in the process.
Instead of asking Burke to go out and get a player that can help his team in the identity department, perhaps it is time that the current crop of characters took a long hard look in the mirror, manned up and took it upon themselves to start molding the Maple Leafs into a team that has an identity.
Truculence, Testosterone, pugnacity, whatever it takes—something has to give.
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