Moving Forward Only Gets Tougher

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“Every Battle is Won or Lost before it’s ever fought.”

That quote from “The Art of War”, attributed to the ancient Chinese military strategist Sun Tzu dates back to the 5th century. The subtle meaning is not lost on everyday life and in this instance our Toronto Maple Leafs.

In what we Leaf fans enjoyed immensely this season was the emergence of a young talented group, on the verge of becoming a real threat to compete for Lord Stanley’s Prize.

Auston Matthew’s skill set is off the charts; a talent arguably never seen before in the history of the Maple Leafs. Mitch Marner makes plays leaving anyone watching shaking their heads in amazement. William Nylander’s speed, creativity and puck handling is breathtaking at times. Connor Brown scored 20 goals while carrying himself like a seasoned veteran, and along with Zach Hyman, made life miserable for opposing defensemen with their tenacious pursuit of the puck. Morgan Rielly and Jake Gardiner both elevated their games, showing real leadership on defense. The relentless energy of the young forwards brought out the best in veteran players such as Bozak, Kadri, JVR and the addition of Brian Boyle shored up the fourth line but also offered a voice in the room. Fredrick Anderson was the rock in goal that’s absolutely essential to be considered a challenger for the Stanley Cup.

The depth of the organization is the deepest in decades, creating competition at each position, putting the onus on the players to perform at the highest level.

After pushing top seed Washington to the limit in the playoffs, the off-season is filled with promise, a rarity in the last 50 years. However as expectations percolate; losing is no longer acceptable as a means to get better. Or is it?

The NHL is fast becoming a young mans league as teams constantly look to upgrade talent, for fear of falling behind the curve. While Toronto was the surprise team of the league this year, no longer will that be the case in the 2017-18 season. And as the young Leafs found out in the post season, the level of compete escalated beyond anything they’d imagined and became targets.

The glaring weakness in the Leaf lineup is on the blue line or more to the point in their own end of the rink. The forwards aren’t big and struggled to keep the puck out of their zone. This is a common problem amongst a lot of teams and one need not look any further than the defending Stanley Cup Champion Pittsburg Penguins, whose Achilles heel is in their own end with small forwards.

The big power forward is highly coveted, with availability scarce; Mike Babcock’s mantra since the day he arrived entails the need for players to have “good” summers, meaning in the gym, eating properly and getting stronger.

“You can’t let your talent make up for your work ethic”

The advancement of the Leafs is ahead of schedule, but they must stay with the plan; keep the young assets and develop from within. If an asset in free agency will fit the need, then by all means at minimal cost fill the hole.

The Chicago Black Hawks, the model franchise for success in the modern NHL, drafted Duncan Keith in 2002, Seabrook, Crawford 2003 and Toews, Kane in 2006-07; they didn’t win until 2010.

Toronto qualified for the playoffs on the second last game of the season but only had one regulation loss less than first place Montreal. The difference between advancing or going home, came down to a couple losses. The point is, advancing into the playoffs will be a challenge for all teams each year therefore it’s imperative the foundation remains solid and the days of “going for it” are extremely risky.

The concern we Leaf fans must prepare for, is that the chance the team gets off to a slow start next season. Remember injuries were limited, a record number of rookies played in excess of 70 games, a number of team records were broken and everything went pretty smooth. The fact that the team has depth will remind players to never take a shift off and do not cheat yourself in the off season. The coach’s strong message for two years is consistent.
No spot will be given unless it is earned regardless of the player’s seniority or draft position.

There are no shortcuts to success and accountability begins at the top with Brendan Shanahan. Free agency will be interesting with Polak, Hunwick and Boyle tough decisions for Lou Lamoriello because the easy move is to sign them; the bold move will allow a younger player from the Marlies to grow into the position.

Elite players find a way to overcome challenges and how quickly the Matthews, Marners and Nylanders adjust to the added attention they will attract next year will determine how successful the Leafs will be going forward. In that regard I feel comfortable that Leaf management has nurtured the expectations of the players the same way they have for us fans.

As it has been said, “Don’t be afraid to give up the good to go for the great.” – John D. Rockefeller