Before You Build The House …

Before You Build The House …

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    … you’ve got to lay the foundation.

    The house is the main attraction; it catches the eye and makes people want to stop and look.  But it is the foundation that holds it together at the core, and keeps it from sinking into the ground.

    Brian Burke has taken major steps towards building that foundation for the Toronto Maple Leafs, with his offseason moves thus far.

    Among the many areas of the Maple Leafs team that needed to be rebuilt was team toughness.  On far too many occasions last season, the team was pushed around and did not have the respect of their opponents.  For a team devoid of a superstar player, the ability to inspire a certain level of fear and trepidation in the opposition – and to inspire confidence in its own players – is crucial.

    Placing an emphasis on the need to be able to wear down an opponent, as well as the need for players to stand up for each other and the team, Burke set about making team toughness his number one priority this offseason.

    A look at Burke’s acquisitions, thus far:

    Colton Orr

    One of the key components to a team’s success or failure on the ice is the ability of the skill players to be able to make plays.   When the skill players are being harassed endlessly throughout a game, with no one to step in and send a message, those players can begin to lose momentum, and confidence in their ability to make an impact in the game.   Orr was signed for one reason, and one reason only:  to protect the players who are going to put points on the board, and create positive momentum for his team.

    Opposition players may think twice about pasting a scoring forward into the boards from behind, or slashing his hands when the referees aren’t looking, with the knowledge that Orr is watching, and may be looking for them, if they do.   Leafs‘ players will quickly grow more confident with the puck, and more willing to go into the dangerous areas, if they know Orr will be there to send a message to anyone attempting to get dirty.

    Garnet Exelby

    Another important factor to team success or failure is the ability to protect one’s own net.   Far too often last season, the Maple Leafs simply could not clear the space in front of their own net resulting in many screened or tipped goals against that should never have been.   Crease-crashing forwards had their way with this team last season, on many occasions appearing to have a “get out of jail free” card while standing in the goatender’s grill.

    Consider that card revoked, with Exelby in the lineup:  making life miserable for forwards crashing the net is his specialty. The mammoth defender will not take “no” for an answer, when battling forwards near the net, and should allow the goaltenders to see more of the shots coming their way and have more room to make the save or put the puck back in play.

    Mike Komisarek

    The third most important factor, when building a strong foundation, is the ability to jumpstart the transition game by turning positive plays in the defensive zone into offensive chances.   Whether stripping another player of the puck (in 2006-07 and 2007-08, Komisarek averaged over 40 takeaways per season, which would have led last year’s Maple Leafs by a wide margin), blocking a shot, barreling into the corners to get to loose pucks, or simply forcing a turnover by way of a big hit or the threat of a big hit, Komisarek is a presence who can generate those opportunities for his team.

    With decent mobility and a willingness to join the rush, Komisarek provides the Maple Leafs with the added bonus of able to turn those mistakes by the opposition into chances for his team, by rushing the puck out of the zone himself or making the first pass to the forward leading the rush.   His multi-dimensional skill set will make him a key part of the team’s core for years to come.

    A Blueprint For Success

    With team toughness now firmly established, the Maple Leafs should receive more respect from the opposition on the ice, making the goaltenders’ job easier, allowing the skill players to have more room to flourish, and providing the team with a necessary dose of swagger.   It may not translate into many more wins up front, but no longer will teams be able to take the team lightly, or look upon the Maple Leafs as an easy opponent.

    And that, at the core, is what a makes a solid foundation for an NHL team:  players who can generate respect from the opposition, and inspire confidence in their teammates.   Brian Burke has done an commendable job of finding three players this offseason who fit that bill, joining the likes of Luke Schenn and Jeff Finger as key components of a rock-solid foundation of intimidation, determination and defensive skill upon which to build his team.

    Building the foundation must always be Step 1; anybody watching the Leafs over the past few years knows exactly what having no foundation can do to a team.   Step 2, building the house, is putting together the players who will lead your team to future glory by way of the scoresheet (the part that everyone sees).  Step 3, the renovation, is adding those final pieces of the puzzle to get the team over the top.

    Brian Burke is off to a very good start, in terms of mapping out a blueprint for the team and seeing it through.   We may be a few years away from seeing the finished product – indeed, the work has only just begun – but for the first time in a long time in Toronto, there is a consensus that it is going to be well worth the wait.

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