There was a lot said today by Tim Leiweke and Brendan Shanahan as the Toronto Maple Leafs made a big scene in unveiling their shiny new President and Director of Hockey Operations, making the media rounds and holding a press conference. It was also locker clean-out day, which is usually when we get to learn who was injured.
But beneath all that was a Joffrey Lupul quote that’s been buried behind a lot of other stuff.
The Leafs absolutely must improve their organizational depth, but one of the big questions after this season’s turn for the worse concerned whether there was enough leadership on the team. Captain Dion Phaneuf does not think that’s lacking, but Lupul said any team could always use more.
“I’m sure that’s something that’s going to be addressed,” he said. “But it also comes with younger players becoming more mature and comfortable in the NHL and those guys becoming leaders. It’s not like you can just go out and find guys with certain leadership qualities, it’s tough to do.”
I think this season we spent a lot of time—too much time, really—parsing the words of Leafs players and executives and looking for faults inconsistent with measurable data. Joffrey Lupul is 100% right on this one.
Can statistics tell you who a good leader is? No. Leadership is an intangible, meaning that it can’t get added or subtracted. Winning teams tend to have good leaders because everybody’s confident and wants to take charge. By contrast, it’s just a lot less fun on a losing team so you start hearing stories about divided locker rooms and factions supporting various leadership figures.
“Good hockey teams have good leaders” is a mantra that hockey people have accepted for over a century, but which aspect is causative and which is merely correlative? “Leadership” is an intangible that can’t be defined or quantified, and by extension, cannot be added or subtracted or divided or multiplied.
I think if the 2013-14 Maple Leafs season proves anything, it’s that you can’t try to add to talent with players with leadership qualities. It’s that square peg, round hole thing, where David Bolland is expected to come in and do something better than Mikhail Grabovski, but we weren’t sure what. David Clarkson is expected to do something better than Clarke MacArthur, but again, it’s those qualities you can pinpoint that are missing.
If the Maple Leafs changed the management and coaching staff and brought back the same roster, I might have them pegged as a playoff team if only because I think the Leafs team has as much talent at the top as any team in the league. The problem chiefly lies in the secondary and tertiary pieces where the Leafs attempted to add to that top-end talent with leadership. That’s not really what good teams do. Good teams supplant talent with more talent, and I’d have to think the overall pleasantness of the work experience gives off the illusion of leadership.
“Leadership” as a concept is a plot-device for sportswriters looking to spin narratives certain ways. If a player gives 130% every night to make up for the fact he isn’t completely naturally talented, the only added benefit is what production the player provides. Phil Kessel looks lazy and disinterested on the bench all the time, and yet when he’s on the ice, only Claude Giroux has been more productive over the last three seasons. Only a fool could look at Kessel on the bench and think “we don’t need more players like this one”.
But yes, the season falls apart, and with it comes the identity and the character the Leafs seemed to have a year ago. The 2014 Leafs didn’t hit, fight or intimidate any less than they did a year ago. The key difference is that the shooting percentage dropped from a historic high to merely good and they were done in by the sheer volume of shots given up, without being able to compensate with added goals.
There’s no magical formula here, and Lupul is bang on. You can’t fix the Leafs problem by trying to identify leaders and acquire them. You can’t even fix the Leafs problem by giving Lupul a letter to wear on his sweater that used to be on Dion Phaneuf’s. You can fix this team by shipping out the less-talented players and try to get more talented players, and hopefully that’s the message Shanahan is going to relay to Dave Nonis and his scouts during his first week on the job.