Kinks in the System: Who Gets the Part
The pre-season Buds may have exuded that truculent belligerence so deeply worn into the modern Toronto fans lexicon, but they rarely looked convincing. Either letting leads slip or being forced to fight back from poor starts, the Leafs managed to scrap their way to a strong 6-3 record. But as the 2008 Detroit Lions will attest to, a good pre-season rarely translates into a successful regular season.
Subsequently, while it is easy to buy into the hype of September hockey after the barren months of Summer, the Leafs will do well to learn from the more lackadaisical moments of their 6-3 warm up before they start lacing up against the cream of the leagues â€œAâ€ squads. After all, rallying performances aside, the pre-season has done little but affirm that the Leafs own one of the strongest depth charts in the league, not necessarily the strongest team.
Too often the Leafs were burnt puck watching in their own end, evidenced continual lapses of concentration after goals, perpetually lacked consistent 60 minute performances and regularly let opposing teams machine gun the Leafs net for the best part of the first period. It may seem hyper critical of a team that won two thirds of their pre-season games, but pre-season is where the bugs come to the fore.
Obviously transition proves a bumpy road. With a new core of veterans learning to work alongside feet dipping rookies, Ron Wilson has been simultaneously trying to impose his own brand of West Coast hockey, largely witnessed last year, on a revolving door of players and line combinations. Hammering home the physical advantage, Wilson has also tried to install a more attacking ethos to a fundamentally stronger group of players.
Be it a forecheck fashioned on the speedy Capitals, or the strong side defenseman pinching; the implementation of these new systems on untested lines inevitably led to the Leafs becoming unstuck. The worrying problem is that the kinks became more apparent in the stabler lineups of the final few games.
The strong side pinching in particularÂ was utilized with positive effect, but also led to several lopsided breakaways which will surely be more clinically punished by the leagues top lines. While Kaberle and Komisarek seem to have worked an instinctual understanding that has seen the Czech stalwart come alive, other defensive pairings and more crucially the centers (bar Bozak) have looked less accountable.
Meanwhile the forechecking play has been hit and miss. The more pugnacious and hungry players, Stalberg and Mitchell to name two, have looked more than adept at harrying opposing defenders but all too often the good work is unhinged by sloppy neutral zone coverage or lazy puck pursuit, Grabovski, Kulemin and Tlusty to name three.
To be fair Kulemin improved as the September schedule wound on and Grabovski was the victimized linchpin of many experimental lines, but both were inconsistent performers and in a word, “consistency” was the very thing the pre-season Leafs lacked, the very thing the Leafs of last season lacked.
Sure that isÂ unpreventable in the maelstrom of players hitting the late summer rota, it also has to be remedied fast. It is one thing to see inconsistent performances from young, over worked rookies, but many of the players and player combinations that struggled were those penciled in for opening night.
One canÂ easily point at shifts where Blake, Stajan, Kulemin, Tlusty, Grabovski andÂ Exelby looked great and worked hard, there were also plenty of occasions when they were almost completely absent… or worse.
Considering Burke has done his utmost to make the Leafs a meritocracy and remove the culture of entitlement witnessed in the dark days of JFJ, too few players treated the pre-season as the audition it should have been. Meanwhile those that did: Gustavsson, Bozak, Stalberg, Rosehill, and to a lesser extent Ian White; all made strong arguments for inclusion. Making a stand out of principle or brushing pre-season performances under the go-to (pre-season means nothing) excuse, Burke and Wilson have got a difficult decision on who makes the team on Thursday night.
In many respects its a dilemma most coaches would relish, the Leafs have several serviceable front lines and a defense that on paper is top 5 quality. With perpetual question mark Lee Stempniak coming on in later games and pairing well alongside the maligned Rickard Wallin and Niklas Hagman playing at his best; the sheer number of options is enviable and also fraught with pitfalls.
With so many to account for whilst also eating up a line with likely truculent fan favorites such as Colton Orr and Wayne Primeau, those expected to perform (Blake and Grabovski) or those who knew they had to perform (Tlusty, Kulemin, Stajan, Toskala and Exelby) have been largely an enigma.
Subsequently trying to breed the very same culture of accountability that powered the early season, undermanned Leafs of last year to unexpected pre-December heights whilst also trying to find greater consistency over this pre-season could prove even more of a challenge with a deeper, more talented roster with so many â€œunprovenâ€ youngsters knocking at the door.
If consistency proves the mantra on the ice, one wonders how consistent the Burke-Wilson tandem will prove when it comes to picking the most deserved players against the diminutive Canadiens. It’s one thing to expect to play, quite another to earn it.