This probably seems like a silly title to a post about the Toronto Maple Leafs. A former division rival no longer even in the same conference as “Big Blue”, the Red Wings could also be described as not even in the same league. This thought has been in my head for close to a month now, with the Maple Leafs about to crash into another Oakville golf course for the spring tradition of not playing for a Stanley Cup, seems like as good a time as any to discuss. What exactly does this saying above mean?
The Christians have used this for years applying Jesus as the subject. David Letterman has also used it on politicians for late night laughs. But if you really think about it in terms of a professional sports operation, the expression is not only applicable, but rather necessary. The goal should always be to mimic those around you that exhibit greatness. Would anybody find it strange to embody the values of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. or General Douglas MacArthur? Not likely.
The Detroit Red Wings have displayed nothing short of greatness and professionalism for more than 2 decades. The years following the realignment which saw the Norris Division divided, the Wings have been the only team to qualify for the post-season each year since 1990. They have had home ice advantage each of these playoff rounds for the past 17 years. They have not drafted in the top 10 since 1991 when Martin LaPointe was selected with the 10’th overall pick. In 9 of the years since, the Wings did not even draft in the first round, having traded the picks. They have been to the conference finals 8 times in this span, and competed for 6 Stanley Cups, winning 4. This is the definition of success.
Why do I think the Leafs need to act more like them? If your still asking then read the last paragraph again. This team has been everything the leafs have not, both on and off the ice. This is not about sports writers or bad fans, but an organization that functions with 1 single goal in mind each season. The Red Wings do not play each year with the hopes of qualifying for the post-season, they play with the single intent to win the Stanley Cup. Most will tell you that this is a silly statement, that this is every teams goal. That may be true, but saying it and taking action to accomplish it are 2 very different things.
The tank people will tell you that success can only be found from the draft, that blowing the team up and starting over is the only way. How many top five picks play for the Oilers? Free agency is not the place to build a team from because the players are’nt available say the pro draft people. Well, that may be true if your team can’t attract free agents. But it’s the job of everyone from management to ownership to sell a market to a player, not simply a case of random luck. Terry Pegula sold Buffalo, NY to a lot of people last summer and while they are not seeing the success they may have hoped for, they surely appreciate the fact that players actually showed up.
The first step is identifying your competition, and evaluate them as you do your own squad, strength and weakness. The teams in your division should be as familiar to the management and ownership group as your own. The primary goal should be to win every one of these games, with no exception. Reality says it won’t happen, but the attitude should not change. 24 games are played within the division, that’s one third of the season. The Conference comes next, which accounts for the largest portion of the schedule, 40 games. The non-conference games are freebies so to speak, points lost are not in your portion of the standings, but winning half of these games is a fair goal. Simple, right?
The next step is building a development system which spares no expense, and in the case of the Maple Leafs, it should not. Young players should be worked for years in the farm system before getting a chance to audition. This creates 2 scenarios, both of which are good: depth which will become inevitably necessary, and assets able to move if a player of desire or need becomes available via trade. Development is the key to next years success. In fairness, Toronto has made tremendous improvements on this front over the last 2 years.
The most important step, one which gets lost on most organizations, is to identify and correct problems within the organization. This should’nt be done with desperation, people in Toronto know this better than many. A need in goal for example can be better corrected by building a system which minimizes chances against. The same goes if goal scoring dries up. Watch any team around the playoffs and you will see this kind of thing become more apparent. The goal is not really to score, more not to get scored upon. Management can not be married to a particular player, coach, or playing style. All three need support to succeed, but management also needs to walk a fine line. Many teams hold on to players 1 or 2 years longer than they should, rather than maximizing value in return.
The most important thing that any successful organization can do is give the guys that are playing everything they need to win. Whether it be equipment, medical and dietary needs, psychologists, or anything else that it takes. If the system being played does’nt suit the players on the roster, change the system. If your coach is not willing to do that, find one that will. If a player is unhappy, find him a new home. If separation has to happen, do it respectfully. Simple things, but all of them will garner more respect from other players in the long run.
Lastly, and something that has been more than a little irritating over the past few seasons, honor your legends at the appropriate time. The best way to honor them is to build a winning tradition which represents the accomplishments they were able to achieve. This year will mark the 45’th year that has passed since the Leafs last hoisted the cup. Since 1993, every Original Six team has been able to do this at least once (Rangers-1,Blackhawks-1,Bruins-1,Canadiens-1,Red Wings-4). Toronto is all alone in terms of losing streaks, and no talking will correct this. The Wings are still dominant, the Bruins look to be built for a sustained period, the Blackhawks are very talented and should still win, and the Rangers are a team on the edge of greatness. Montreal is a mess, but like the last time they won they have a goaltender that can win games by himself. It’s up to the organization now to change its place in hockey.
As a final note, with the trade deadline coming up at 3PM, I will be providing updates all day as they come in both here and on twitter – @mullen93robbery