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Lou Lamoriello wants to make the Leafs better

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The question isn’t how, so much as how fast.

Toronto Maple Leafs v New Jersey Devils Photo by Mike Stobe/Getty Images

Locker clean out day is a weird ritual in NHL hockey, a sport full of weird rituals. The Toronto Maple Leafs had theirs yesterday, and what is it exactly? It’s a media event. There’s no more games, no practices, no ostensible reasons for media scrums at a player’s stall, so they come up with a “last day of school” kind of excuse to have one last pretend workday.

It’s a fake day at the rink and the lines get blurry, the pretences get transparent. When several reporters told stories on Twitter of Roman Polak coming in on crutches and in a cast and describing it all as a “lower body injury” everyone laughed. But Polak hadn’t just broken the fourth wall for a moment, he’d kicked it down. With his good foot, I hope.

Hockey is an entertainment business, and a lot of it is fake like a reality TV show is fake, not just the last day. And the beat reporters, the regulars at post-game and post-practice scrums, are all in on it. Up to a point. They will, sometimes, tell you when a player is hurt, and exactly how; they will, sometimes, tell you they saw crutches or a cast or a walking boot. But often, well after the fact, the bit of wisdom gets dropped that Kasperi Kapanen had a high ankle sprain when he missed several weeks of the season.

This is not the norm:

The reporter asking, the player ducking the question, the deflection of the issue, it’s a ritual too. But it’s also like shot-blocking. You shouldn’t do it as your only means of media relations, and maybe, sometimes, maybe a lot of the times, you should just let the goalie make the save. Answer the question with the simple truth, in other words.

Locker clean out day is the day when it seems like you’re more likely to get simple truths. But after Polak’s joke, mostly what filtered out to the masses were talking points. This day was, in may ways, just like a real work day at the ACC where players speak to a theme exactly like a junior minister stepping up to the microphone in the lobby of the House of Commons to put into words what their briefing notes tell them to say.

You can listen to the theme expressed by Morgan Rielly, Auston Matthews, or William Nylander in this hat:

Or we can just hear what Lou Lamoriello has to say directly because this was a rare day where he spoke, and a lot of what he said was interesting.

“We have to get better, there is no question,” is the theme you will hear the players repeat in their interviews. Lamoriello gets that message out in answer to the first question about how far they have come.

Backing up though, before he gets to his key phrase, he also says, “I don’t know if we knew at the beginning of the year who we were.” Which has a real amount of truth in it. Who were the Leafs beyond a team that somewhat unintentionally tanked the year before? No one knew.

When asked specifically about improving on defence, Lamoriello allows that it’s obvious that there are “certain areas” that they need to improve on, but he then says, “but the most important [area to improve] is overall. You have to get better.”

Better. He talks about the young players, the veterans (who aren’t actually old, he explains), but he always comes back to that word better. He also makes the statement that “getting better within is more important right now.” And that’s a cautionary note for anyone expecting a set of big splashy trades or free agent signings.

There’s a segment about Nazem Kardri that follows, led by a question about his team suspension at the end of the season before last and subsequent renaissance as a player. It’s worth listening to as an example of how Lamoriello views players and their responsibility to themselves and the team, but also for how much he’ll have a player’s back if he feels they are committed to the team.

When asked specifically how many players will change in the lineup for next year, he says, “You will do whatever you can to get better, but you do not do things for the sake of doing them.” This is the second repetition of this secondary theme: caution tempering the drive to improve.

Lamoriello makes the point very convincingly that because it’s an expansion year, this off-season is unpredictable. The players available will be in flux, and teams that seem to have a surplus of something may suddenly not have that surplus. I believe all that, but I also think Lamoriello talks to George McPhee more than anyone else in hockey. Except maybe Steve Yzerman. After all, no one in Buffalo is calling anyone right now, and Arizona didn’t get richer this year, so someone else is making the deals.

Lamoriello returns again to his main theme of getting better and avoiding complacency. He reminds everyone—us fans, I think, not the press—that the Maple Leafs took a step forward last year, but, “it’s only a step.” He comes back to this refrain again when asked how close they are to contending. And he says they have to convince the players that they have many more miles to go yet.

The discussion switches gears a little, and Lamoriello is asked about the draft. The Leafs are moving back a few rows on the draft floor, not drafting high for the first time in a long time. Lamoriello has the best line on that subject: “The best seat at the draft is the last row.” But this is also a note of caution. There is no superstar coming in the first round.

As far as the future spending and the salary cap, Lamoriello neither seems worried about future contracts nor like he’s planning a spending spree. He had another killer line ready: “There’s a five year plan. That changes every day.”

He ends the availability with an ode to the young-veterans on the Leafs and praises their performance and their buy-in to the New Toronto Maple Leafs. It doesn’t sound like he wants to ditch them. It doesn’t sound like there will be big changes in the roster.

If the start of the year was all about, “There will be pain,” the end of the season seems to be, “Success takes time.”

Mike Babcock had a similar message in his last meeting with the press for this season.

In answer to the first serious question about internal competition for jobs, he immediately quoted himself in earlier remarks about the Tampa Bay Lightning. He’s gone to this well two or three times since he first pointed out that if the Leafs had the level of injuries Tampa dealt with this year, they wouldn’t have made the playoffs.

Let’s be honest. If the Leafs had that level of injury this past season, they’d be moving their draft table up to the front seat again. We’d be talking about drafting Nolan Patrick or Nico Hischier not a mysterious list of guys who don’t get much press and most fans have never heard of.

Babcock is more direct though. He doesn’t say the Leafs need to be better. He says, “We’re not good enough.” He makes the point very succinctly that finishing barely in the playoffs and getting bounced before the end of April is okay only when you come from where the Leafs were last year.

When asked what his expectation for next season is, he says that the team wants to make the playoffs. But the tempering of caution creeps into his words too. He talks about the teams that didn’t make it this year who plan to next year. He talks about how hard it is to just make it into the playoffs at all. He bluntly says the Leafs are not at the level of the Washington Capitals who know when the puck drops in the first game of the season that they are in.

He brings up something that Lamoriello referred to more obliquely. Improvement isn’t just for players. Depth isn’t just how many centres you have or who your seventh defender is. It’s the entire staff, coaching and management, that build a team, Building a team that is at the Capitals level, which is his clearly stated longer term goal, is about all of the people who work for the Maple Leafs as well as who is on the ice.

About who will be on the ice next year, Babcock only says, “There will be changes.”

When you watch these locker clean out days for some other teams, the ritual is one of player remorse and self-flagellation. There are teams that make their players available to explain how it is they are bad and lose a lot of games, but never put their management to the same public shaming. There are teams that put the players in front of the cameras to shoulder the blame and then fire their management and coaches.

Both Babcock and Lamoriello clearly state their expectations for a high level of commitment and work from all the players, but every discussion of the team needing to improve starts with “we” not “they”.

The rest of the questions are about specific players, and the only thing of note is that Babcock describes Nikita Zaitsev, who is not playing in the World Championships, as “playoff ready” but not 100 per cent healthy, much like a lot of other players on the team. You can make of that what you will.

Auston Matthews and Frederik Andersen are not going to Worlds and have both said they need rest. Some others, like William Nylander, have not confirmed if they are participating or not.

There are interviews available with a lot of players if you want to see more of the last day at school. The only one I found interesting was Brian Boyle, but that’s mostly for how he talked about his wife and how great she is at dealing with life after a trade while about to have a baby.

The kind of dramatic change Boyle’s life is about to experience is not what Lamoriello and Babcock were preparing Leafs fans to expect. They were selling sober caution in a way that seemed aimed at quelling over-enthusiastic and wild-eyed optimism in the fans.

If the start of the year was all about, “There will be pain,” the end of the season seems to be, “Success takes time.”

But then I thought of this, and wondered how real were the notes of caution being sung repeatedly: