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Leadership Might Be A Myth

Leadership? What Leadership? - (Photo by Abelimages/Getty Images)
Leadership? What Leadership? - (Photo by Abelimages/Getty Images)
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Recently we've been treated to copious amounts of "analysis" attempting to find a rational reason for the Leafs dive to the basement of the NHL. The management is throwing its arms up with a "never seen anything like it" response. The team discusses how they "can't explain" what's going on with the group who have obviously come unglued and lost all confidence in their abilities as NHL caliber athletes.

We've had media members say they can't remember the last time a team started as poorly under a new head coach following a mid-season change, despite the fact that Montreal - possibly the only NHL franchise analyzed as close to death as Toronto - had an almost identical record under Randy Cunneyworth earlier this year.

We've also had articles brought forward that interviewed the past leadership core and apparently now groups of former NHL players who prefer to remain anonymous while casting aspersions on the current Leafs roster. All in all I think the narrative being constructed around "what went wrong in Leaf land" is almost as ridiculous a death spiral as what the team is currently going through.

Following the jump I'd like to explore a bit of history with the Leafs, and remind people that while things ARE going atrociously right now, there are explanations, and reasons for optimism, none of which involve the "leadership" of the current group. Dave Feschuk should definitely read this and take some notes.

Did the former Leafs leadership group being asked about team toughness and responsibility really do a bang up job as a leadership group for their entire Leaf tenure? Not even close. Tie Domi was quoted in a recent Star article that had some bizarre statements like the following:

Domi, who was perhaps the most popular member of that team, his No. 28 jersey a perennial best-seller, simply can’t relate to the current malaise.

Really Tie? I guess Tie's early tenure with the "golden age" Leafs from 1994-95 through the 1996-97 season doesn't ring any bells. Domi was dealt from Winnipeg to Toronto in exchange for Mike Eastwood and a 3rd round pick in April of 1995, suiting up for the final 9 games of the lockout shortened season. The Leafs managed to go 4-4-1 in those final 9 games. Tie's leadership was obviously part of the mix that closed out Pat Burns' run with the team... the team was definitely not heading in the right direction as Burns was shown the door. They lost an opening round playoff series to Chicago in 7 games, and Domi must have thought they were close with no cigar as the Blackhawks went 3 rounds that year, eventually losing to the Detroit Red Wings in the Conference Finals.

What was in store for Tie's 2nd season in Toronto? Lots of leadership and victories I'm sure as the veteran laden team with Gilmour and Andreychuk at the tiller, Wendel Clark back in the fold, a young Mats Sundin ready to spring into offensive action - everything was on the up and up right? Well no - not exactly. See the team only managed 80 points, Pat Burns was fired, and the team brought in Nick Beverley as they stumbled to a 34-36-12 record and a quick exit from the playoffs in 6 games versus St. Louis.

So much for all that "leadership" the next season saw Gilmour and Larry Murphy traded, Mike Murphy only managed to get the team to 30-44-8 on the year for a measley 68 points, and a dead last finish in their division. They failed to make the playoffs, and all those great leaders didn't seem to fix much. Potvin in net, Sundin putting up 94 points, Clark scoring 30 goals in only 65 games, Gilmour posted 60 pts in 61 games prior to his trade, Larry Murphy, Kirk Muller... it didn't matter.

Leadership didn't mean ANYTHING on that team... and yet they played worse than the current Leafs have this year. Maybe it was coaching, maybe it was bad luck, but would anyone make the leadership argument? Probably not. Now we're getting Feschuk articles on the subject every few days.

As a leader, Phaneuf has, from the outside, appeared to be an ineffectual force, as powerless to stop a season’s death spiral as every other dismayed citizen of Leafs Nation. While NHLers are usually quick to praise teammates, the Leafs have danced around the subject of Phaneuf’s leadership at the best of times this season.

So why are we being treated to it now? Probably because with a young group it's an easy target narrative to explain the problems on this team. Maybe because the press is tired of writing "Leafs goalies suck" every night, and it's hard to justify something this bad that came across so unexpectedly. I guess the idea that Sundin's leadership would ever be an issue is easily forgotten, but I'm pretty sure in 1997-98 when Sundin was named Captain at the start of the year in September, not many people expected the team to produce a 30-43-9 season for 69 points (hey it was a 1 point improvement!).

Sundin only posted 74 points that year, and it was probably easy to point out that at 26 he was a young (though obvious) choice for the captaincy. The Leafs as a group still had veterans despite the loss of Gilmour and Murphy. Jamie Macoun, Mathieu Schneider, Wendel Clark, Igor Korolev, Kris King, Derek King, Sylvain Cote, Rob Zettler, and yes the aforementioned Tie Domi. Their core may have been at fault then too, but there were young pieces set to improve the fortunes of the club.

Fredrik Modin was still improving; a 25 year old Dmitri Yushkeyvich was filling into his role; Danny Markov was a space cadet still at 21, but he was getting better; Mike Johnson was 23 and finished 2nd in team scoring; Alyn McCauley was a developing defensive C at 20 years of age; Sergei Berezin had some jump as a 26 year sniper; Jason Smith was 24 and getting tougher; Steve Sullivan showed flashes of future brilliance at 23... there were definitely pieces on the rise with Sundin.

Perhaps the biggest flaw with that team was it's goaltending? Felix Potvin wasn't stealing as many games as he could, and the aging back up - who I'm sure has forgotten more than most of us know about bad losing teams, just ask him - a 35 year old Glenn Healy wasn't so effective (posting an .883 SV% is kinda sad even back then).

Guess what was upgraded going into the following season? GOALIE. CuJo signed with the club, the team started to score like crazy, and the rest - as most of us recall - is history. The team put up 95 points behind the "leadership" of new head coach Pat Quinn - with Sundin posting 83 points, Steve Thomas posting 73, and that crazy Russian Berezin firing home 36 goals of his own in a career year. Steve Sullivan finally produced points, and the Leafs had six players post 20 or more goals, with two of those scoring 30 plus.

Alexander Karpotsev joined the club and managed to go +38 on the year, helping Sylvain Cote settle down a young core with Yushkeyvich, rookie Tomas Kaberle, high flying Bryan Berard, and the more rugged Markov and Smith do their duty to try and keep pucks out of their end.

That improvement in goal and defense let the team's offense break out finally, and a lot of those younger guys finally stepped up and produced results. Interesting how that works as players age, improve, and develop. Unfortunately much of that development requires stability, patience, and frankly a fair bit of luck. The current Leafs edition has had a horrible string of bad luck recently, between injury problems, confidence issues, and an onslaught from fans and media (which is entirely understandable given their play of late).

In the end though, I think it's educational to remember that the Leafs of that "golden era" Dave Feschuk refers to went through some amazingly dark times of their own - which, while admittedly brief, definitely helped set the platform for future success. The team didn't really turn a corner until the D settled in and the Goaltending gave them more of a chance though, and frankly until that happens in Toronto this time around, I don't think Phaneuf's leadership (or lack thereof) will make much of a difference.

Let us remember that the Marlies are a very solidly coached group, who are definitely excelling defensively with solid options in net. Ben Scrivens is posting top 3 numbers with respect to SV% this year in the AHL, Mark Owuya has looked extremely good in his brief time in North America, and the Marlies have a number of players under the age of 24 who are on pace to have very productive AHL seasons.

Consider the following list of players and their point per game production this year with the Marlies: Marcel Mueller (0.61), Joe Colborne (0.64), Carter Ashton (0.63), Nazem Kadri (0.80), Nicolas Deschamps (0.65), Matt Frattin (0.74), Greg Scott (0.57), and Jerry D'Amigo (0.54). Add in Spencer Abbott who was just added as an NCAA signing from the University of Maine where he posted 61 points, and Sondre Olden who has played most of this season with Erie in the OHL. Mueller, Scott, Frattin, and Abbott were all born in 1988 making them 23 or 24. Deschamps, Colborne, and Kadri were all born in 1990, making them 21 or 22. Ashton and D'amigo were born in 1991 making them 21. Olden was born in 1992 and still hasn't turned 20 yet.

They may not all pan out, but some of them likely will. So might Jesse Blacker, Juraj Mikus, Korbinian Holzer, Simon Gysbers, Greg McKegg, Brad Ross, Stuart Percy, Tyler Biggs, and whomever the Leafs select at this year's draft with what's going to be a high selection. Having some hope that this team IS being rebuilt in a slow but sure fashion, whether or not it's horrible right at the moment, is not insane. Try to not get so low on a string of bad luck and bad play that you think it will NEVER turn around - it just feels like it, and most of us are pushing all the buttons that confirm it.

Leadership really isn't the main problem with the current Leafs squad, they have gaping holes in their line up that need to be filled, either from within through development, or from without with savvy contracts. There are some good pieces already in place though, and we'd all do well to remember it.