I’m not sure I agree with the decision Brian Burke made this past week to announce that Ron Wilson would be back behind the Maple Leafs’ bench for another season (based on his career work in the NHL) – but it’s clear why he did it. Burke wants to remind his young squad that he’s in favour of stability. Not security. Stability. Two vastly different things. He wants the boys to know that, when they come to camp next September, they’ll continue to grow together. And there is really no better way to build a team – although it can be the tough way in today’s cap era.
Years ago, building NHL squads through cohesive growth could be relatively easy, and tremendously successful. Not all general managers bought into the plan, however. Most make the knee-jerk move of bringing in too many veterans, ostensibly to provide the character and scoring for a young squad. But Islanders’ GM Bill Torrey didn’t really buy into that. And his New Yorkers won four straight Cups in the 1980s. Youngsters Denis Potvin, Mike Bossy, Bryan Trottier and Clark Gillies grew and matured together.
Of course, Glen Sather’s Oilers are the prototype for the concept. Wayne Gretzky, Mark Messier, Kevin Lowe, Grant Fuhr and Glenn Anderson grew together, ate together, lived together and learned together. Oh, there were veterans in the mix, but they were never, ever the key components. And that’s what it looks like Burke is doing here.
And he’s doing it on the back end first. Guys like Dion Phaneuf, Luke Schenn, Keith Aulie and, suddenly, James Reimer are kids with tons of talent. Clearly, Burke is determined to make them the lynchpins of the Leafs’ future. The veterans in that mix, Mike Komisarek and Brett Lebda, may not be the right guys. But they are interchangeable. The veteran components always are. Frankly, I’m not sure where (or if) Carl Gunnarsson fits into that mix. We’ll see, I guess.
Up front, I love the way the Leafs have stuck with smart-asses like Darryl Boyce and Joey Crabb and Tim Brent this season. I don’t mean smart-asses in the conventional sense. I mean guys who are smart…and they work their asses off. And they’re learning together. Tyler Bozak fits into that group – although his season as been far less than satisfactory. And now, for the final stretch run, young Nazem Kadri has been thrown into the Leafs’ vat of youth.
And, what I love the best, is that Burke has weeded out all the “Hey, listen and look to me, kids” codgers. That run ended when grossly overrated Tomas Kaberle was “tearfully” sent to the Bruins. Thank God.
The key is that, when players grow up together, they learn to go to the wall for each other. And concepts like those build winners and champions. And that’s why Burke supported Wilson. His presence is part of that “grow together” structure.
When the kids come back to camp, they know Wilson will be the guy with the whistle. That stability is key in the Burke plan. And it’s a plan that I like more and more each day.