A Question of Style
It wasn't noticed much in the wake of the Canada-U.S. gold medal final at the Winter Olympics, what with all the celebrations and analysis and national relief.
But Ron Wilson, coach of the U.S. team, delivered a pretty good soliloquy after the match praising not only the quality of the contest, but the attitude and philosophy of both countries in playing a pleasing, aggressive style of hockey.
Basically, Wilson told the international media that this was how the game should be played.
Wilson returned to the more challenging task of coaching the Maple Leafs in the wake of the Olympic silver medal winning effort, and essentially brought the same philosophy.
Now, in his third season as Leaf coach, he continues to preach an ambitious, aggressive style of hockey, one in which his team tries to dictate the play, forecheck hard and has its defencemen play an in-your-face game, particularly in the neutral.
I get that this is a preferred style, and I applaud Wilson's ambition.
It's just not clear it's going to work with these Leafs, with these players.
Obviously, a 29th place club has certain talent limitations, ones that Brian Burke and his staff are urgently trying to address. The Burke administration didn't inherit much - Jiri Tlusty was the blue-chip prospect in the system - and has tried to use free agency to enhance the lineup with the addition of experienced pros and useful college kids.
Right now, the Leafs are scouring the league for a centre, knowing that nobody has to be under the salary cap until opening night so bargains may not become available until the middle of next week.
But given what the Leafs have, it's not at all clear that this team has the capability to play the way Wilson wants them to, as laudable as that approach may be.
They put a lineup out against Buffalo on Monday night that looked very close to the group likely to open the regular season, and the result was another spotty effort, albeit a winning one. You can't draw conclusions from exhibition games, but at the same time, while it was crowd-pleasing to see Phil Kessel and Nik Kulemin show some flash and dash, this still looks like a team that's going to have a hard time keeping the puck out of its net.
Burke has loaded up with veteran D-men, and maybe they'll tighten up starting next week. But the group of Dion Phaneuf, Francois Beauchemin, Mike Komisarek and Tomas Kaberle is anything but formidable when it comes to defending and loses a startling number of one-on-one confrontations, while the Leaf crease remains an area that enemy forwards don't mind visiting.
Against a partial Sabre team, the Leafs gave up 39 shots and four goals, and Jonas Gustavsson produced another so-so effort in goal. This is a team that doesn't have a lockdown defensive tandem or anything resembling a checking line, and the necessity of cutting the goals-against by at the very least a half-goal per game looks like a distant dream. it's great that Kessel, Tyler Bozak and Kris Versteeg look like a decent offensive line, but whatever defensive pairing goes with that line better be prepared to face a few odd-man breaks because none of those forwards will win the Selke this season.
As it stands, the Leafs look likely to give up at least three goals most nights, which is going to make it awfully tough to make the post-season.
There are some optimistic signs. The penalty killing looks somewhat improved, although the Sabres scored twice with the man advantage Monday night. Freddie Sjostrom will be back soon, which adds a good checker and PK man. Keith Aulie was a big surprise in camp, precisely the kind of stay-at-home, defence first, keep-it-simple blueliner that could help this team, and he may be back before Christmas.
Still, one is left to wonder that if the Leafs continue to play Wilson's preferred style, and a style of hockey that when played well is most pleasing to the eye, whether short-term success is possible, or whether a more conservative, tight-checking approach might yield better results until the roster talent improves.