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Photo Credit: John E. Sokolowski / USA TODAY Sports

Ovechkin says the Leafs need to play differently, and he might be right

“They’re a young team” gets tossed around an awful lot in pro sports, no? “Ahh, cut this team some slack. They’re young, still learning to win”. I mean, you’ve got to learn to win, otherwise I’m assuming you’d just spend all your time learning to lose. Not a place any team wants to be. But in all seriousness, the “learning to win” narrative gets used a lot and it’s hard to pin down how much weight to put on it.

The Leafs are still a young team. Their average age might not be the lowest in the league, but the core of their team is a trio of forwards aged 23 and younger plus John Tavares. If we’ve said it once, we’ve said it a trillion times, the future is bright with this team.

Except when it isn’t…or at least when the present seems to bring a big hiccup in those plans.

That’s where the Leafs find themselves right now, at least at a glance. This 2019 calendar year hasn’t been kind to them, and they’ve been unable to get positive results in the standings to this point in what is supposed to be a major season in their contention window. And sure, I’m still firmly in the “don’t panic, they’re fine territorially and just need the luck to turn around” camp, but that doesn’t mean that every narrative about team needs to be tossed out the window, especially in the big picture.

There’s an ongoing debate through radio, television, print and social media about what’s supposed to put this team over and make them firm contenders. “Toughness” has been put out there a lot, but it doesn’t seem anyone knows what that means – is that team toughness or employing an on-ice policeman? It’s hard to buy into such a moving target. Perhaps a little more rooted in reality is the idea that a lot of the younger Leafs stars are still learning what their roles are and need to add an element or change one in their game to mesh things together. They haven’t figured out where everything fits, and that’s why they can look so disjointed and inconsistent, especially in games with top billing.

I’m at least willing to entertain that idea more. And apparently so is Alex Ovechkin, who had some advice for the Leafs going into their game against the Capitals tonight:

There isn’t much here in way of details, but we can assume Ovechkin is re-hashing a lot of the same narrative that followed him and his Caps teams on the way to finally winning a Cup. They just had to keep grinding, and eventually things would come together. Whether you think that means players potentially sacrificing point totals or adding some level of toughness to their game is up to you, but I think it’s fair to say that when teams are firing on the cylinders they need to make a Cup run, it’s pretty identifiable. Their lines to the puck are straighter, their defensive play gets tighter and the gaps close up, it really starts to look like a hockey-playing machine; A unit that doesn’t have to think much about what to do next. I don’t think anyone feels like the Leafs are there right now.

And maybe experience is the only thing that brings that about. We can argue over how overblown the “learning to win” narrative is, and I don’t know how much I buy into it myself, but it seems pretty intuitive that any primary core of players should be more cohesive in, say, year five together than year two. We’re not breaking any major ground there.

 

Kyrie Irving might believe this planet is flat, but I do think this quote above sheds some light into how players, especially young ones who are told they’re stars-in-the-making, go about thinking of what their goals are in the early stage of their career. We can see it quite clearly on the Leafs; Some of these players were battling for huge dollars the last 18 months or so, and now they’re going to be battling the new expectations that are coming with it. And don’t get me wrong, while it’s a lot to put on a player, they get the monster money to go along with it…so I don’t feel bad when they go through some on-ice struggles. I just don’t think that discounts the fact that they might have to weather them in order to get better on the other side.