This year feels different, doesn’t it?
Maple Leaf fans are witnessing something that they haven’t seen since the early ’90s when the likes of Gilmour, Clark, and Potvin were at the helm and the late Pat Burns was anchoring the ship. Maybe, it’s because we are currently in the most unpredictable, unprecedented time that the world may ever see or maybe it’s because things seem to be uncharacteristically trending upwards for this team, despite the plethora of injuries they continue to endure. Regardless, something is different this year and I believe it starts in the locker room.
They say you don’t know you’re in the “good ol’ days” until they’ve passed, and it is evident now that those specific Maple Leaf teams may have been the best roster assembled, until now.
After nearing the half-way mark of the season, the Toronto Maple Leafs continue to ascend on their journey to conquer the Stanley Cup for the first time since, well, we all know the date. What makes this roster any different than those of the past? In years prior, they have acquired veteran “depth” pieces that were supposed to help the team gain experience and enhance their chances in the postseason. Players like Brian Boyle, Thomas Plekanec, and Patrick Marleau were all brought in to mentor the young players and add experience to an extremely new roster. Each experiment had its pros and cons, but none really panned out the way Maple Leafs management had expected, that is until this season. Now, this isn’t an article about how the Maple Leafs are primed and ready to win the Stanley Cup even though they are clearly the juggernaut of the North division. That would be foolish to say after half the season has been completed and they are truly only facing Canadian competition, but this article is going to be about why this team is different than years prior, and why this year may be their best chance at finally going the distance.
The Maple Leaf culture has suffered for well over a decade, due to some mismanaged contracts (Clarkson), heart-breaking defeats (Boston 2011), and the inability to make it out of the first round of the playoffs, just to name a few. This season has proven that the locker room is healing, and the culture is changing.
Sheldon Keefe is a player’s coach who has demonstrated endlessly that the talent on the ice is what is going to make this team successful. The always tough, John Tortorella style of coaching may work for some rosters, but it is clear that this team was loaded with talent who needed to have free reigns on the ice. Keefe has taken the shackles off this roster and it is most evident in the way this team can generate scoring chances and limit the oppositions. In short, he is getting the most out of his players, and as obvious as that statement may sound, it holds weight. Coaches tend to have a short shelf life, as they often fall victim to a firing because of an underperforming team. In Keefe’s case, he has been able to rejuvenate the talent of Spezza and Thornton, turn Matthews into a possible Selke award winner, and make this defense seem somewhat competent if not, borderline good. Yes, their systems are great when executed properly but it’s the creativity that each line produces nightly, that separates them from the rest, by constantly keeping possession of the puck and generating good offensive zone time. Who wouldn’t want to play for an offensive team?
“The Big Four.” This roster was assembled around four of the most talented players in the NHL, currently harboring some of the most expensive contracts. The worry for some was that these players would never be able to live up to the money, and Toronto would fail miserably at trying to build around them. Well, General Manager Kyle Dubas took that challenge like a Matador in Spain takes on a bull. He flirted with the possibility of failure and at the last second was able to step aside and acquire the right pieces this team needed to be successful. The reason these acquisitions work much better this year than years prior is because of the culture change that came with them. Joe Thornton; have you ever heard of him? The only player to ever win a Hart Trophy with two separate teams is a major factor as to why this team performs nightly. If a twenty-year veteran doesn’t take a night off, how can you? Brandon Dillon mentioned on the “Spittin Chiclets” podcast that Thornton was incredibly competitive both on and off the ice, more specifically in his workouts. He continued by saying some of the best advice Thornton ever gave him to be successful in the NHL was that he “had to work,” which can only be assumed the same message was related to this current Maple Leafs team. T.J Brodie, Wayne Simmonds, and recent Stanley Cup winner Zach Bogosian have all brought a blue-collar mentality to this roster which it had clearly lacked in previous years. The trio portrays a hard-nosed mentality that is put on display every shift, by keeping their head down, packing a lunch and going to work. Wayne Simmonds was quoted telling Mitch Marner to “shoot it at my chest” (TSN) while standing in front of the goalie. It’s this type of “win at all costs” mentality that has the Maple Leafs succeeding in all aspects of the game, and finally scoring goals the dirty way.
The band of brothers. It is hard not to notice how much fun this roster is having every single night. Whether you are watching “The Blueprint” on YouTube, (highly recommend, if not) or simply just watching goal/post-game celebrations, the atmosphere is exciting. Gone are the days of playing for the nameplate on the back and welcome the days of playing for the giant blue Maple Leaf on the front. This team is close, closer than just teammates. They seem to be forming a brotherhood right before our eyes and it is a welcoming change from teams of the past. Regardless of who is between the pipes, this team is ready for that challenge. Superstars blocking shots, backup goalies getting shutouts and every player standing up for teammates are all attributes of a successful Stanley Cup-winning team and the Maple Leafs possess these qualities. Each goal is celebrated as if it was their first, and each win seems to matter a little more than the last. This team has clearly bought into whatever Sheldon Keefe is selling and every single player is making an impact.
Toronto is coming for you Lord Stanley, be ready.