I posted this on my blog but seeing as its readership is about three, I thought I'd put it on here as I'm interested to hear responses. Cheers.
The frequent booing over the last few weeks at the Air Canada Centre seems to be beginning to grind on the players, with Dion Phaneuf refusing to criticize the Leafs fanbase but admitting that it’s not a nice feeling to be booed in your own building. Ron Wilson preferred to label the ACC’s malcontents as a “vocal minority“, although I’m not sure the fact that the majority, in Wilson’s words, is “silent” is a positive thing.
One thing that has always seemed abundantly clear to me, and Phaneuf probably realises this but for obvious reasons can’t point it out, is that the booing is directed at Wilson and Brian Burke. Burke has noted in the past that, unlike almost everywhere else he had worked, the acrimony of Leafs Nation is usually directed at the coach and general manager, and not the players. At the time, he expressed how he thought this was great, and took a lot of pressure off of his players, but now it’s happening it seems to be bothering the two of them a little more than they might care to admit.
Reporters, when interviewing the Leafs’ players, have noted that it seems unfair and unhelpful that boos rain down on a group of players that are clearly trying their hardest. That may be true, but there’s just something that’s not quite there about the Leafs’ effort. This became apparent to me when watching back some clips of Pat Quinn’s Leafs at the start of this decade (it’s how I cry myself to sleep at night); Wilson’s team has effort, but it just doesn’t have the same heart. This team doesn’t play for each other like Quinn’s did; the Mikhail Grabovski-led line aside, which has discovered some great chemistry, it’s lots of individuals trying hard to keep themselves out of the several doghouses that have to be negotiated in Toronto.
Evidence of this is the way that Wilson and Burke gushed over the culture change Phaneuf brought to the Leafs locker room. Unfortunately, captain or not, no player has the energy to keep that up while also trying to play good hockey night in, night out. That’s the job of the coach and his assistants, and that’s the fundamental reason why I don’t think Wilson should keep his job as head coach of this hockey club. Gone are the days where a coach can just bark at the players and expect them to have the discipline to respond; he has to develop more of a bond. They don’t need to be best friends, but there needs to be a degree of empathy, and a lot of Wilson’s actions severely lack that.
Evidence of the lack of connection within this team can be seen throughout the lineup. Phil Kessel is not a character player who is going to bring a line together; he needs to be the Alexander Mogilny to Mats Sundin and Gary Roberts. We don’t currently have anything resembling the qualities those two brought to the team, but it’s been a surprise nevertheless to see how two players who are apparently so close off the ice, Kessel and Tyler Bozak, look so detached on it. They just don’t seem to be in a positive frame of mind, whoever they play with.
Mike Komisarek is another example. Now on the bottom defensive pairing, Komisarek sees a rotation of Brett Lebda, Carl Gunnarsson and Keith Aulie alongside him. He hasn’t found his Andrei Markov on this team and as a result he just looks lost. It seems to me that he’s caught in something of a catch 22 situation; he needs to be a good team player to be at his best, but to get himself out of this rut he’s focusing on himself too much and neglecting his teammates. And very few hockey players are talented enough to do that.
When I watch this team I see a hockey club that takes the wrong attitude towards chemistry. It seems to take it as something that will just click in place if it’s there (as evidenced by Wilson’s constant line juggling) and not something that has been to worked towards and bought into by all players on a line. It means working and sacrificing yourself for your teammates, and covering each others’ backs; it’s reliant as much on mentality as it is on skill and playing styles.
Grabovski and Nikolai Kulemin have always been these types of players, and Clarke MacArthur bought into it too. None of those three are elite NHL talents, but they all get the most out of each other; not many lines will produce the 180 or so combined points that they are on target for, and that is a testament to the spirit those three have shown. It’s what the rest of this team should aspire to emulate, but most importantly it’s a frame of mind that is the coach’s responsbility to bring to the room, and that has been Wilson’s biggest failure as head coach of this team.