Jeff Blair @SNJeffBlair November 18, 2019, 10:53 AM
Nothing says a team has all but run out of ideas more than the phrase "we’re searching for an identity," so it was with no small amount of concern that I heard Toronto Maple Leafs general manager Kyle Dubas utter those words last week in connection with his under-performing team.
[Warning: Stupid and to me, incomprehensible basketball analogies ahead in following paragraph. Just because a Toronto team has won something, doesn't mean hockey fans care]
This is bad sportswriter psycho-babble, along with another favorite: "We’ve had a difficult time getting on the same page." It’s especially concerning when it comes from a team and a front office with a pronounced analytical bent. Look, I get that the players are all human beings, and you only have to see what the Toronto Raptors have done this season to realize that there probably is something to championship DNA — although I’d rather chalk that up to smart coaching, sturdy defence and a club that is among the leaders in fast-break points as opposed to something in the genes — but my real hope is that Dubas and his brain-trust don’t believe the drivel about identity and that it’s just a sop to keep the press pack at bay.
Identity? The GM has clearly said they are going to overdose on skill at the expense of physical play. There’s your identity. This core has been together for three years, now. They have the same coach. They’re all well-paid. They have a captain — wasn’t that supposed to be a cure-all? — and even the newcomers to the group have had a quarter of a season, now, to acclimate themselves. I mean, I’m sorry: Tyson Barrie isn’t the first player to be traded. And he’s not 22-years-old. The excuse that he’s still transitioning to a new team needs to stop. Now.
At most, I’ll buy the notion that injuries have prevented us from seeing this group together in its entirety, which has likely thrown some of those analytical calculations out of whack. But spare me the identity nonsense. We know what this team is: a club that is top-heavy and needs not only to maximum performance from those players but also a surprise here and there; it needs an Andreas Johnsson or Travis Dermott or two to emerge every season. It’s a club with an elite goaltender who hasn’t been able to backstop the team through a playoff run, and a stubbornly ineffective power-play that keeps beating its head against a wall of fancy passing, fear of going into the middle of the attacking zone, and perhaps the easiest to defend system of zone entry in the NHL.
For the better part of three years, now, there have been whispers that head coach Mike Babcock’s style — "Mike hates players," is what one former NHLer told me last week — isn’t jibing with the collective whatever-it-is of the dressing room. Nobody’s ever really bothered extinguishing that particular fire, which can only lead to a belief that there is something to it, and that Babcock’s bosses have made a calculation that it has not yet reached the point where it’s an impediment; that the price is worth it for whatever tactical and developmental juice he’s bringing.
So there’s your identity. Win a playoff round and maybe it changes. The concern I have right now isn’t that the Maple Leafs lack identity — it’s that the identity doesn’t match what Dubas and his lieutenants want it to be and feel it should be and would prefer it to be. That can make it awfully difficult to make the kind of tough call that seems to be on the horizon. Sometimes a thing is what it is and wishful thinking is a waste of time.