Leafs Culture Shift: Abandoning the "Boston Model"

The Boston Bruins ruin everything. Ever since their climb to the top of hockey’s elite, teams around the league have fallen into their trap. It happened to the Buffalo Sabres after Milan Lucic ran Ryan Miller in 2011. It happened to the Vancouver Canucks, after they lost to the Bruins in the 2011 Stanley Cup Final. And it happened to the Toronto Maple Leafs quite badly, just by virtue of being in the same division as them.

With Boston becoming one of hockey’s top powerhouses, a strange phenomenon has emerged as teams around the NHL try to “toughen up”. Many teams have bought into the idea of an old-school, bully brand of hockey. The Leafs management has made it clear for quite a while (beginning with the hiring of Brian Burke in 2008) that their plan was to make the team “truculent” and “difficult to play against”.

Toronto’s actions backed up their words, as well. They traded up to draft Tyler Biggs – whose name is an aptronym if you ever saw one – 22nd overall in 2011. They bought out Mikhail Grabovski to sign David Clarkson. And last season, they continued to employ (and play regularly) both Colton Orr and Frazer McLaren.

Of course, no one has truly been able to copy Boston. That comes from teams failing to realize that the Bruins don’t win hockey games by dressing eighteen players with “grit” and “heart” and “intangibles” (read: goons). They win them by being really good at hockey. But that hasn’t stopped teams like the Leafs from trying to win by having terrible possession stats and dressing Mimico’s finest.

Leafs Culture Shift

However, it looks like new team president Brendan Shanahan has been disillusioned by the whole “truculence and pugnacity” shtick. Brian Burke was once quoted as saying “Pittsburgh model, my ass“, in response to a question about whether the Leafs should tank in order to get high draft picks (a strategy that worked out well for the Penguins, and and not at all well for Edmonton). Well, Mr. Burke: Boston model, Brendan Shanahan’s ass.

Perhaps Shanahan has caught on to the fact that, while entertaining, fighting in hockey rarely gives teams an actual momentum boost. Perhaps he’s figured out that, just maybe, dressing actually competent NHLers instead of enforcers, and having an actual fourth line, could be helpful to his team. And, most intriguingly, could Shanahan have acknowledged the benefits of using advanced stats and analytics as an aid in assembling his team?

Look at the Chicago Blackhawks. They’ve won two Stanley Cups in the last four years. Are any of their players likely to punch anyone’s lights out? The LA Kings, defending champions, do have size, but they’re also the best possession team in the league.

Now, a new era is beginning in Toronto. For the first time in a while, the Leafs didn’t sign any big-name free agents to terrible contracts. Instead, they made smaller changes, and now have (arguably) one of the deepest bottom sixes in the NHL. They left many fans relieved by drafting skilled Swede William Nylander eighth overall this year, instead of big power forward Nick Ritchie. They seem to have caught on to the fact that Jake Gardiner is actually an awesome, rare commodity, and signed him to a long-term contract. If coach Randy Carlyle can be swayed into changing his system (if he can’t he could be out of a job by Christmas), and rolling four lines, then it’s not out of the question that the Leafs actually outshoot someone this season.

Then there’s Kyle Dubas. The 28 year old assistant GM. The hiring of Dubas (and firing of both Dave Poulin and Claude Loiselle) represents an incredibly drastic and obvious culture shift. Dubas can enlighten the rest of the Leafs brass on the finer points of Corsi, Fenwick and PDO. He’ll bring a refreshingly modern voice to meetings. Of course, that’s what this is all about – becoming a more modern franchise.

The Leafs are no longer having a perceived identity crisis. Instead, they seem to have embraced a kind of lack of identity. They aren’t trying to be known as the Bay Street Bullies anymore. They seem to want to be just the “Bay Street Good Hockey Team”. Doesn’t have the same ring to it, but is probably more favourable to fans.

Brendan Shanahan clearly subscribes to the idea that, as the sport itself evolves, so too must the Toronto Maple Leafs. All these small changes are positive steps. He’s not going to tear everything down and rebuild, but instead fix what’s wrong. The Leafs have long sold hope and optimism. The only difference now, is that this time it might not be false. If things pan out well, the future could be bright for this team.

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