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The Leafs will be in search of an identity if we ever get back to NHL hockey

I’m sure I’ve touched on some aspect of this here at VLM before, but it crossed my mind today that, if and when the lockout ever ends, we’ll have Maple Leaf hockey again.  But what also quickly leapt to mind was:  when that happens, what will the Maple Leafs actually be?

I’m not thinking in terms of (as we talked about here not long ago) whether they are a playoff-caliber team.  I’m more thinking along the lines of who will they be, what kind of team will they be?  Will they have any kind of discernable identity?

Identity.  I can’t prove this point by going through every professional sports league of the past 50 years and looking at the end-of-season “champion” player by player, but my long-held sense is that most really good teams do have some kind of identity.  I don’t mean that they only do one thing well, simply that there is often an over-riding reason why opposing teams generally don’t like having to play against that really good team.  Virtually all championship teams throughout history are filled with “talent”, for sure.  But that special ingredient, that “identity”, shows itself in some over-arching characteristic, or at least it quite often does.

In hockey, it may be that a team is almost impossible to beat in their own building.  They may overwhelm you with their speed.  It could be their superb discipline. It might be that over-used term, swagger, which really speaks to confidence. But it’s something.

When speed comes to mind I think back to the Montreal Canadiens in the mid and later 1960s.  They truly were the “Flying Frenchmen”, with players like Bobby Rousseau, Henri Richard and Yvan Cournoyer.  (Cournoyer, seen at left in a mid-1960's early-career photo, wasn't called "The Roadrunner" for nothing...he could fly, like so many of his Hab teammates in the '60s and '70s.)  In the ‘70s you had the “Big, Bad Bruins” of Cashman and McKenzie and later Wensink, Stan Jonathan and Terry O’Reilly and then the “Broad Street Bullies” of Saleski, Dupont, Schultz and later Holmgren.  Those were two rough and tumble teams who took you out to the woodshed and also could outplay you.  Later  in the ‘70s, Montreal emerged as the team that was just as tough as the Flyers, but even more skilled.

By the ‘80s, the Islanders showed that relentless determination, real drive and dedication, combined, yes, with skill, depth and good coaching (and of course, outstanding goaltending) was a ticket to success.  The Oilers were just better than everyone else in the mid and later ‘80s, and probably should have won the Cup every year, given their talent and amazing ability to play the game at such high speed.  Everyone who played for the Oilers had a confidence about them that made the Oilers what they were.

In more recent times there has been the “Devils” way, under Lou Lamoriello.  They had (still have?) an identity for years, boring as it was.  But it sure worked.  The Red Wings favour elite skill and system play over, say, "goon" hockey, though they have had their share of gritty guys over the past 15 plus years that they have been really talented, too.

But when I look at the Leafs right now, I ask myself, what is their modus operandi, their "MO"?  What is their identity?

I mean, heck, the Predators have an identity under Barry Trotz and David Poile.  They are relentless in their puck pursuit, finish checks and are hard to play against.  I don’t know that fighting is their thing, though they can drop the gloves if they have to.  But you usually don’t want to play the Predators.  And I’m just using them as an example.

For a while, the Bruins were a feared team.  They had talent, solid goaltending but mostly, they could run you over.  Some nights, they still can.

But does any team look at their schedule and say, “Damn, we’re playing the Leafs next week.  That one’s gonna be tough, because…..” fill in the blanks.  What would they fill in the blanks with?

In fact, does anyone care to venture an opinion as to the last time they believe the Leafs really and truly had a special or particular team “identity”?

For a while under Wilson, we seemed to be a fast-skating team.  But with Carlyle, I’m pretty sure we won’t exactly be a firewagon hockey team, eh?  The missing "identity" link, if I can call it that, sure hasn’t been team toughness, at least not in my eyes.

So who are we?  And what will we be under Carlyle?  Will we have an identity?

You tell me….


  1. "But does any team look at their schedule and say, “Damn, we’re playing the Leafs next week. That one’s gonna be tough, because…..” fill in the blanks. What would they fill in the blanks with?"

    Push them around. They have a bunch of small forwards and don't have much toughness..even in their bottom six. They can be intimidated.

    Shoot from any angle. They have young goalies that can be rattled. Remember that Gustavsson kid last year? We lit him up and chased him out of town.

  2. And hopefully DP, that "identity" will change!


    "A team that never quits and knows how to stay in games no matter what happens..."


    "Taking the time to develop mid-level prospects into solid NHLers who know what it takes to stay here and perform, was worth the effort, struggle and pain for the team and their fans"


    "They never say die and will come at you in so many different ways... you never know how they're gonna' beat you"

    These are the kind of things I hope to hear about a team that 'turned the corner' together, grew together, and never wanna' go back to mediocrity!

  4. ummmmm the leafs haven't had an identity since....EVER! I mean sure they had guys like tie domi, wendy clarke and doug gilmore. but, really in those days they were still a mediocre one line team.

  5. RJ posts:
    How about this: Burke sends Kessel to NYI for Tavares, maybe include Franson to sweeten the deal. Kessel and Tavares posted similar numbers, even +/- last year. NYI gets sniper they lost since Jason Blake left, get an American kid who is a bit media shy. TO gets Toronto boy who is media savvy since 14, a power forward favored by Burke, future captain and face of the franchise...there's your identity right there!

  6. Well said, InTimeFor62 - and I'd take any of the above in the short-term....they're not there yet, clearly.

  7. In fairness, Anon, I think the Leafs did have an identity in that '93-'94 Pat Burns era. They were a hard-working side, maybe best known as over-achievers?

    They were entertaining, and successful, under Quinn. They just didn't quite make it through a very tough (at the time) Eastern Conference...

  8. Well RJ, we know Burke wanted Tavares in his draft year (we all remember the discussions about making a big splash and moving up in the draft to get him) and he would no doubt love to get his hands on him now.

    I just don't know if the Isles would move their best guy, especially with their pending move to Brooklyn.

    But it's a heck of a nice idea! (Maybe even nicer, if they could somehow not have to move Kessel in the deal - they would then have two bona fide explosive offensive players in the line-up...)

    Thanks for chiming in on this one, RJ

  9. Michael,

    At this point in time I would settle for any identity really. Yes, even a defence first, win the game 2-1 identity. I don't think that we have that kind of team, but a hard working, competitive team would be nice. This is what it is like to scrape the bottom of the barrel, sports fan wise. I am deciding which kind of losing team I would be most interested in cheering for. In some ways, I would love to watch a team made up entirely of Wendel Clark and Doug Gilmour. Wendel was a defenceman in junior I believe, so this works for me. You can hold me to this if you like, but I really don't care what kind of team comes out on to the ice. I just want them to play hockey again, soon.

  10. I hear the frustration in that comment, Jim. And I get it.

    Some hockey would be nice - and a Maple Leaf identity a la Clark/Gilmour would be nice, too.

  11. Defensive hockey was an identity associated with the Cup winning teams in the 60's and it obviously brought success. Roger Neilson's teams in the late 70's were structured much the same way,as were Pat Burn's teams in the early 90's.Pat Quinn changed the model to some success by playing a high tempo game but still relied on players like Travis Green, Shayne Corson,Darcy Tucker and Gary Valk to shut down the top opposition. Why Ron Wilson thought he was smarter than the rest and decided that a run and gun system could bring success was beyond me, especially when the talent wasn't there. A commitment to team defense and strong goaltending should be the identity and teams coming into the ACC should be prepared to work hard for their two points instead of the home team always being the charitable opposition. Burke's "entertainment business" motto be damned, I'll be quite happy to watch 2-1 games as long as the Leafs are on the right side.

  12. You absolutely hit the nail on the head, ingy56. Imlach's teams were hard-working. Oh, they had some skill with Kelly, Mahovlich, Duff, Keon, but every guy (maybe less the Big M, who was maybe an even better all-around player in his later years with Montreal...) was a dutiful two-way player. Pulford, Olmstead, Litzenberger, Armstrong and in later years Ellis, Conacher, Pappin played grinding hockey.

    Neilson definitely had a tough, defensive team, with a role for every guy. Same with Burns. I agree that Quinn had more of a blend-model, but still, as you say relied on some tough customers to block shots and do the hard work to complement the skill guys.

    Where are we now?

  13. I think it is more difficult for teams to establish an identity today than it was in the Imlach era. Back then teams used 3 lines, 2 defence pairs and 1 goalie almost exclusively. With no free agency or salary cap it was possible to keep a team together so there were usually few changes from year to year. Players were signed very young and developed on the team's junior farm, learning their teams system from an early age. Todays draftees play on unaffiliated junior teams whose system may differ radically from that of the club that drafted them. I am not saying it is impossible to establish an identity, just more difficult.

    In order to establish a solid identity, management must be stable and the GM and the coach must be on the same page. I don't think that this has been the case with the Leafs since the last lockout.

    I had great hopes when Burke was hired. He stated that he was not going to go through a rebuild. He stated his plan of building from the goal out. He talked of truculence. I was looking forward to a team with an identity; hard nosed two way forwards, a solid defense and good goaltending. That has obviously not happened. Burke and Wilson never seemed to be on the same page. There has barely been a hint of truculence.

    It is to be hoped that Burke and Carlyle can forge a team with an identity based on two way play and grit but at the moment I must say that this team does not have an identity.

    By the way, I would definitely include Ron Stewart in your list of Imlach era grinders.

  14. It's true, back in the '50s and '60s, it was a different era and it was no doubt easier, Pete Cam, to forge an identity and stick with it- if it worked. The kids who made the big team, as you said, already knew the style of play they were expected to slide into.

    I think a lot of people expected that, with a new regime a few years ago, we would have built a strong identity by now, but we don't seem to have that just yet. Maybe the Carlyle addition will help make it happen, but the jury is out.

    (I agree...Stewart was a versatile player for the Leafs, PeteCam. I should have included him. I think I have also always under-valued him a bit. Here's a guy who played defense, and effortlessly because a forward under Imlach. A natural skater and a solid all-around player.)

    Thanks PeteCam.

  15. We haven't had an identity since JFJ offered Nieuwendyk and Roberts a split contract and they walked. Burke has lied and I no longer trust him. Truculence? What a joke.

  16. There's no doubt a lot of character left the room when Nieuwendyk and Roberts walked (were pushed?), Anon. And we've been scrambling to replace that element ever since...

  17. I hope the Leafs will end up playing like a team with nothing to lose, whether they come back this season or next. Burke is at the end of his tether, a few players are nearing contract years, the goalies & Kadri have everything to gain by throwing caution to the wind. But, that said, I suspect they'll be dull & defensive under Carlyle & that the playing group will be turned upside down again before much identity can develop.

  18. I, too, sense that the Leafs will be a very "Carlyle" team, Peregrine. That may be a good thing in the win-loss column, but it may well be dull hockey. I also would prefer that not be our "identity"...