Friday, July 17, 2009

Bigger and Badder

This is about hockey.

There, now that 70% of you have stopped reading, I can continue.

It's about the Leafs.

That should drop it to 10% of the original readership.

That most beloved of teams is rebuilding. This is known. But the whole "rebuilding" concept is very foreign to Toronto fans. We're generally used to our teams sucking for extended periods of time, and then some new money coming in and buying high-priced free agents.

Which is why I think the upcoming season could be interesting.

Yes, it's July.

See, we had Cliff Fletcher as GM for a brief period. His job was simply to hold the fort until Brian Burke came to town. He did an admirable job. He knew that Burke would be rebuilding, so he cleared out some space, salary, and dead weight. He avoided sentimentality in his decisions, something that less experienced GMs in Toronto have often failed to do. And he tried to build a halfway decent value-priced defence so that the team wouldn't be completely embarrassed.

And then Burke came in and spent the remainder of the season evaluation what he had. He wasn't pleased. He saw a team that was small, timid, and weak. He saw a team getting pushed around the ice. He saw a team with just enough talent to not completely suck, but not enough to make a difference.

And he made sure everyone knew it. He proclaimed that the team would get tougher. He brought in Brad May of all people to toughen up the team. May made a minor impact, throwing his weight around and dropping the gloves when needed. But May isn't young.

Then the off-season came. Burke's living up to his promise.

The draft brought in a "potential" player in Kadri. This is a kid who may never see the big leagues, or may be a superstar one day. It all depends how he grows and develops. He's no Crosby, Malkin, Staal, or even a Schenn. The skills are there, but he's not ready for prime time yet.

But the draft was minor in the grand scheme of things.

He got bigger and tougher. Colton Orr - one of the toughest fighters in the league. Mike Komisarek - a huge defenceman. Garnet Exelby and Francois Beauchemin, two more sizeable d-men were added. Jonas Gustavsson, dubbed "The Monster" is now backing up Vesa Toskala in net (and could take over the starting job depending how Toskala is post-surgery). Throw in Christian Hanson (yes, he's a real Hanson - son of Dave) at the end of last season, and Burke has reshaped the team. Only 4 players under 6'0" tall makes The Leafs a sizeable force.

But they aren't really any better. Most of the size has come on the back end. The defence is bigger, badder, and much more stay-at-home. But this is what's needed for a rebuilding team. A big defensive squad that doesn't venture deep into enemy territory will only help the goalies. It won't make for exciting hockey, but it will make for some confidence on the front end. It should allow for more creative plays, and give coach Ron Wilson the chance to... coach.

Rebuilding takes years. It's generally accepted to take around 5 years from start to finish. You need to wipe the slate clean - and The Leafs don't have much left from the Ferguson years. Then you need to see what you've got in the system. A couple years of high draft picks that you hope turn out, and player development follow. By year 3, you should be showing marked improvement and a solid direction.

This is usually where the surprises happen - grit and chemistry come together to put together a stronger playoff drive than expected, or a big surge at some point in the regular season. This is usually where the plan falls apart too. The fans get a taste of success. Front office gets a taste of playoff and merchandaising revenue (the latter is never lacking in Toronto). These combine to force rash decisions - high priced free agents, big trades, and eventually a complete collapse over a couple seasons as you destroy the foundations you built. If a team can make it past this point and hold onto the original plan, they have a chance.

Year 4 is when the team is taken seriously. Those draft picks and young guys are now established players. The team it top-heavy with guys that can be traded to fill in the depth chart elsewhere or let promising rookies into the system. A strong playoff showing is expected, and there's even the chance at going all the way.

Year 5 is when the final pieces are put in place. The veteran leader is brought in. The blockbuster trade is made. The big name free agent is brought in to fill a hole. Individual, yet big, pieces are moved into place.

Right now, the Leafs are entering year 2. The team is laying the groundwork to be a bigger, tougher team. The size brought in will create an image for the team. It will up the aggression of the more timid players on the roster. The defence will allow mistakes to be made up front without serious consequences destroying young egos. The highly-touted backup goaltender should light a fire under the starter, or make Toskala a tradeable commodity.

But they still won't achieve much. If they make the playoffs, they'll squeak in, get a taste, and slink out quietly. This is part of rebuilding, and the fans need to get used to it. With a little luck, their patience will finally be rewarded. And Leafs fans have been nothing if not patient for the last 42 years.

1 comment:

KenP said...

Sure, followed it with baited breath to the bitter, bitter end. Didn't get a lot from it. Thought I would. After all, I was in the motel...I think you call it car park...when a gaggle of women came out. They were a roller derby team. That's the same thing, isn't it?