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How easy will it be to fix the Maple Leafs?

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My secret thoughts on the New, Improved Toronto Maple Leafs

Toronto Maple Leafs v Vegas Golden Knights Photo by Jeff Bottari/NHLI via Getty Images

I’m going to tell you a secret. I’ve never liked this Leafs team very much.

It’s not the players, especially not now when the chaff is fully combined to the depth, and the meat of the team is all wheat. That metaphor got away from me there a little.

It’s not the coaches, any of the past, present and potential future men behind the bench. Most of them have been high-end thinkers who made plausible decisions. It’s really easy to get huffy because the coach doesn’t play the guy on the fourth line you like, but for most of the meaningful decisions all of them have made, I could construct a logical train of thought in service of a reasonable plan and outcome. Even if I would have done very different things some of the time.

It’s not the management. I liked a lot of what Lou Lamoriello did, I like more of what Kyle Dubas does, and I don’t think Mark Hunter should be judged solely on a mixed draft record. He had some good qualities. He had some bad ones too, namely a desire to do instead of manage, which I think Dubas is very prone to as well. But never mind that.

It’s the whole package that is the end result of all the reasonable choices, cap considerations, trades, personnel deployment and skills and systems analysis that I don’t like. They kept taking the right turns in the road, and they ended up... Well, some people like Disney World too, and I hate that sort of thing. This is a taste issue at least in part.

The first time I ever saw Finland play hockey, I was transfixed. This is years back, and the world has shrunk, and national team characteristics are now old stereotypes that largely mislead, but back then the Finns were geometry on ice. There was a starkness and clean purity to how they played. It looked so fitting in that blue and white jersey, colours washed out by a northern sun. Their game was a team game, and it began with the passing and the puck control. It was puck focused, not player-focused. Canadians had lousy puck skills in those days.

No one eats the same meal everyday of their lives; people like variety, and I also really liked a totally different team. In the days before the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Czechoslovakian teams were a caged beast, a different sort of animal to the Finns and the Russians, but caged up and forced to act Russian. When they broke out of the cage, the Czech team became this amazing pastiche of the world of hockey. They were Russian, but they embraced the rock-and-roll of North American hockey; they were tough, but smart; they were mathematical but creative. Or at least that’s how I remember it. They weren’t ever all that good, though; it’s tough being a small country in a big world.

How does all this affect the Leafs, though?

They’re a mess, that’s how. And they’ve always been one. I’ve been analyzing the shots this team takes and allows for years, from the tank year to now, and barring that tank year, which was a spectacular education in why you should never stop looking when you see a good percentage number, they’ve been a mess.

I’ve made up metaphors for it, things that likely sounded approving. A roller coaster ride with the brakes off. A Ferrari engine in an old Toyota with a special forcefield generator in the trunk. All forward gear, drive, drive, and never look back, and yet... they’ve always seemed a little stupid to me. I’m not fond of stupid.

I don’t like that style of wide-open hockey with no geometry to it at all. I watched the Bruins play Tampa before the playoffs (I don’t remember which one) and it was genuinely the first time I’d ever watched a Bruins game to just watch them. Because, yuck, right?

I loved them. In a small dose, mind you. I would grow very weary of the ‘all the eggs in one basket’ scheme they have going to manage their roster choices. But in small doses, they are beautiful. Their play is mathematical, like there’s gravitational forces determining the gap control, which they all know how to do, not just the defenders. Then last year in the playoffs, I saw the one thing even better than the Bruins geometry, and it was the fluid dynamics of the St. Louis Blues.

Let’s talk Blues here for a second. The zeitgeist, which is about culture war first last and always, had it that the Blues were working class (yuck, right, that’s the worst) and physically dominating and really, Patrick Maroon is the dumbest guy on the ice, right? They were a heavy team and emulating them would ruin the NHL. Ryan “Lady Byng” O’Reilly wins the Conn Smythe, but the Blues got the cup by being olde tyme hockey men who body check first, and we don’t like that around here.

What a load of bullshit.

Here’s what I saw. If you got the puck in the Blues zone, which wasn’t easy, they transitioned to defending so smoothly and so seamlessly it was like watching synchronized figure skating. This is a mental agility and a set of skills that resided in the brains of O’Reilly and Pietrangelo, Paryako and Schenn, and it flowed down the entire roster (Jaden Schwartz, good heavens, he’s good) to their decent, yet not all that creative depth like Maroon.

The Leafs can’t do that.

The Leafs are easy to play against and have always been easy to play against, and the worst they can do to you is tire you out. And in a league with the Tampa Bay Lightning in it, teams have to have a counter for that. So once you’ve accounted for the Bolts in your plans, the Leafs have been taken care of, and you can ignore them.

That’s what I don’t like about this team.

This is not about physicality, which is a word so elastic we could chat for three hours about what it means. It’s not even about defence as we usually speak of it. Look, the trouble is the Leafs have always called to mind the Patrick Roy Avs, and I know that the Leafs have never shown the kinds of epic shot share horror that Roy wrought with his teams, but the Leafs are a much better roster than the junk Roy had to work with. It’s the chaos, the individuals riding off in all directions at once, the total lack of anything like brains on ice that those teams showed.

Well, that’s not quite true. Ryan O’Reilly, Gabe Landeskog and any old guy could always be a good line.

St. Louis Blues v Toronto Maple Leafs Photo by Kevin Sousa/NHLI via Getty Images

You know that old hockey adage about how the worst thing is when a player has to think and then he’s no good? We’ve been hearing har-har lines about Tyson Barrie from Avs fans along those lines lately.

Here’s how I see that. If a player can’t think the game himself, he’s a secondary player feeding off the better man. And that’s who Tyson Barrie is. And that’s who the Leafs have seemed like for all the Auston Matthews era. A bunch of ducklings milling around in search of a plan.

Ah ha! We have just the chief duck, right? Sheldon Keefe can totally give these skilled, yet strangely stupid players a plan. They’ll like him! Love him, even, and he’s strong-willed, and will impose his stamp on the players minds until they live up to their true potential, just with the forceful power of his personality.

This is a very popular mental model of hockey these days. You kids today. Why in my day, we thought authoritarian populism was bad, and the teams played as teams in some sort of natural state of socialist purity. Which is just as silly.

Everywhere there is this burning desire for a strong man, of the right demographics, to impose his will on the team, to will the team to victory... wait. I read that somewhere, that Sheldon Keefe willed the Marlies to victory last season. And I guess his will ran out when he met the Charlotte Checkers? Or their coach had a bigger, stronger will? Or Kaskisuo’s hot streak ended, whatever narrative floats your boat.

I think you need a very strong and decisive voice at the head of every organization. You need openness and a willing to collaborate, but you also need a last word on things. In hockey you have players who play in the moment, and coaches who act shift by shift, and then pull back and plan short term in practices, and then you have GMs who take the longer view, but here’s the thing — the workers are the means of production in hockey. They own it by design. They are the game. And they can be steered and influenced and guided and put to work within an overarching plan, but they can’t be willed to be anything but who they are.

And the Leafs are easy to play against.

It’s not like it isn’t obvious that Kyle Dubas prioritizes brains in players. He and his scouts used the word smart so much last draft that it ceased to have any meaning, but also, I started wondering then, maybe even hoping, that he’d noticed how freaking stupid this team appeared to be on the ice.

I think Brendan Shanahan noticed. I think that’s why in a season that’s unravelling in the offensive zone most obviously, he mentioned only the defensive mistakes first in his remarks after firing Babcock.

In the last game of Mike Babcock’s Toronto career, the best game the Leafs played in November this season, Ray Ferraro noted on the broadcast that the Leafs all drifted over to the puck carrier while defending through the neutral zone, leaving the back lane open for an easy long pass up and an odd man rush by Vegas. Easy. Easy to play against.

Maybe these players need a totally new guy with a different, more slick personal manner to tell them in video review in their next practice that that was stupid. It’s been stupid for years. It’ll be stupid in the next game. And if the players really do need someone else to tell them what they shouldn’t need telling, then okay, they’re just people, and sometimes people are very unlike rational beings.

In the last game of Mike Babcock’s Toronto career, Justin Holl took a penalty, his sixth of the season, because he was caught defending heavy offensive pressure, and he had nothing to fall back on. Easy to play against.

And they’ve been like that for years.

I understand why it’s so tempting to see hockey as this balance of two competing forces. Two teams, who either have the puck or don’t, who win or lose, who defend or, er, offend, who skate up ice or down. But if Boston can show you that defence is a team event, and if St. Louis can show you that transition isn’t just for the team that scooped up the puck, then maybe the simple push-pull forces are not the whole game. Maybe it’s too simplistic to just say these players don’t have defensive skills. Perhaps the Leafs have always had the brains to do more than just play elite offence 25% of the time.

Maybe that’s what the right coaching can bring to the team. I hope so, because I’d like to like this team more. I’d like them to look as smart as Connor Carrick sounds when he talks about the game. I’d like them to be a team that’s dreaded for more than just the aerobic workout they provide in what’s otherwise an easy win.

If the Marlies looked like a smart team that was hard to play against, I’d be really happy and optimistic right now. But they don’t, they haven’t, they aren’t. They have a red carpet right up to the goalmouth; they get outshot; they are easy to transition against, and they fold quickly when they play a team like the Syracuse Crunch. (Did you know the Syracuse Crunch are the AHL affiliate of the Tampa Bay Lightining?) The Marlies are that kid on your block who isn’t very good at road hockey, but his parents bought him better equipment and he beats you because of he’s got a wicked curve on his stick.

The Leafs are broke and can’t buy a better team.

Is just changing the coach the fix here? I don’t know. But, stop being an easy out, Leafs. That’s what I want.