Since the beginning of the off-season, a lot of Leaf-talk has revolved around the Muskoka Deconstruction Project. While Sundin takes retirement for a test-drive, McCabe is dispatched to Florida and Tucker is bought-out and goes to Colorado. Neither Kaberle nor Kubina, the two remaining of The Five, are given the C to wear, nor are they openly endorsed by the coach for their leadership. In fact, sort of the opposite.
You have to look at the leadership in the locker room, and it has not been there.
So we looked elsewhere. A lot of attention this summer has also been paid to the Leafs recent additions: Mayers, Finger, Van Ryn, Grabovski, Hollweg, and Hagman. These players will likely contribute to a higher work ethic on the ice with less disfunction off of it, but they are not a collective nor are they the leaders. They are individuals who can set a fine example for others to follow but won't be blamed when those others don't. No one will look at Mayers at the end of the year and say "we didn't win because Jamal didn't show enough spirit in the locker room".
So has the culture in the Maple Leafs' locker room changed? Or will it? A 2-5-2 record through the pre-season, including 3 games where 2-goal leads in the 3rd period turned into losses, is disturbingly similar to what we experienced last year. If our recent additions can't be fairly blamed for not having enough influence at this early stage, and the former usual suspects (Raycrap included) are all somewhere else, then who should we be talking about now? Who represents the identity and character of this year's Toronto Maple Leafs? Which players form the new Inner Circle?
In my last post, I looked at a group of seven Leaf players that could all possibly hit the 100 assist milestone this year. In this post, I'm going to look at another group of seven - no, not that Group of Seven - , Leaf players, that as a unit, form the new dominant entity within the team, and thus, have the strongest influence over the locker room and its personality. (Also, what should we call them? The Muskoka Five was so catchy. This group needs something similar.)
The core group of players that best represent this team's identity now are: Kaberle, Antropov, Ponikarovsky, Steen, Stajan, Colaiacovo, and White. All seven of these players have been with the team since at least 2005. All seven have never played for another NHL team. Like friends who travel through high school together, these seven are all very familiar with one another. To say that they should be comfortable in Toronto is an understatement. None of them have ever played for any other team. The Leafs' locker room is the only one they've ever known. It's practically their living room, minus the fireplace. For all of them, this year represents a cross-roads in their careers - greater opportunities and greater responsibilities - a chance for each of them to cement their presence on this team as long-time Leafs, but if individually they falter or can't find success, this group may be broken up very quickly, and their careers re-evaluated, probably somewhere else.
So how have they done so far?
Kaberle: Tomas is the unappointed leader of the team. By far their best player, but maybe also their quietest, Kaberle's silent leadership was once endearing to me, but I think a more vocal role is expected of him now. I'd like to see him doing more post-game interviews and I'd like to see some fire in his eyes. Nothing wrong with his hockey though; in 5 exhibition games played, Kaberle averaged nearly 24 minutes of ice time, had 1 goal, 3 assists, and was a plus 3, with 6 PIMs.
Antropov: The lanky Kazakh is gonna be leaned on heavily by Ron Wilson this season, and his shortcomings won't be as easy to hide. Without Sundin, Antropov is going to face a lot of pressure from other team's front line defenders. It'll be his job to lead the team on the scoreboard, but also, to get guys going on the bench. His pre-season stats were only okay; in 6 games played he failed to find the back of the net, but did have 6 assists. Remarkably, Antro stayed out of the penalty box, but was overall a minus 2. His ice time was fairly consistent, ranging from 16 and a half minutes to just over 19.
Ponikarovsky: Alexei could be headed for a break-out year and he really needs it. He definitely had some spark in his last game, scoring an Andreychuk-like goal from the crease, throwing a couple of hits, and he even had a fighting major. Not that he should be defending Jason Blake's stupidity, but if Alexei can play like that every game, the fans will soon be chanting "Pony! Pony! Pony!" His preseason stats are: 6 games played, 3 goals and 3 assists, which is very good, but he was somehow a disappointing minus 4. He also tallied 13 PIMs while averaging 16:54 ice time.
Stajan: The enigma. Has had a very quiet pre-season. Hasn't really stood out one way or the other. I have the feeling MLSE would really like to see Stajan take a more prominent role with the team, but I'm not sure he's ready for it mentally. He needs to find away to get people excited and to play his heart out when the time is right. Obviously, exhibition is not that time, but here's what he's done with it: In only 5 games, Stajan had 1 goal, 1 assist, 8PIMs, and came out minus 1. His ice time ranged between 14 minutes to 19 minutes. Nothing special, but I think he didn't have the same kind of pressure to impress as some of the others in camp did.
Steen: Alex also needs to have a breakout year. His numbers after 3 seasons with the Maple Leafs are not bad, but this year they need to get better. Steen is another quiet leader that I'd like to see more passion from. Whether we win or lose, I want to see the results on his face. His pre-season stats are not great: 8 games played, 2 goals, no assists, 4 PIMs, and a minus 2. His ice time was all over the place, ranging from 13:47 to 21:13.
Colaiacovo: We know what Carlo can do, the big question is for how long can he do it? I don't think Carlo has to worry about ice-time, he'll get plenty of it as long as he stays healthy. He had a very decent pre-season in limited action, seeing only 5 games, but registering 4 points. Carlo had 1 goal and 3 assists, including a couple of really nice plays, and also picked up 4PIM's . His plus/minus finished at even, while averaging well over 20 minutes a game (22:02). Carlo's looking good so far and his effort on its own is uplifting and inspiring. Another spiritually-deflating injury however, and it might be the end of the line for this wonky warrior.
White: In this group, Ian "Snow" White, is the fairest of them all, and appears to be the most on the bubble. In fact, he may already have lost his job as a 5th or 6th defenceman as he doesn't appear to have the skills Ron Wilson values on the blue line. However, his recent transition to forward has been nothing short of inspired and dramatic. White looks good there, especially in that first game on the wing against Detroit where he played beside Stajan and Steen. That line had jump and forechecked very effectively, mostly thanks to White who seemed quick, tenacious, and aggressive. A brilliant move by Wilson, and I'm really hoping it works out for White (as long as he doesn't grow a mid-season beard). This may be his last chance to stick with the team, and to be part of a nucleus of imporant core players whose future is now.
This is the group our fortunes will follow. Their efforts, their attitudes, their responses to their own failures and successes will dictate the character of the team, and will define the identity of the Toronto Maple Leafs this season. Will they be known as the Magnificent Seven, or as Ian White and the Six Dorks? The Personality Of The Room: A New Season, episode 1, begins Thursday night.
*Update - Earlier today, Mark Bell was placed on waivers. I guess this means you can probably scratch his name off the list of Leaf players on pace to get their 100th career assist. The other thing that occurred to me, is that in just 3 games, Ian White outplayed Mark Bell for a job in the lineup as a forward. Congratulations to Ian White, best of luck Mark Bell.