The Stanley Cup final is taking place in a mostly empty arena in Edmonton featuring two teams based in the southern United States. But if you’re a fan of Toronto’s NHL franchise, you can only hope the lessons of the championship series are hitting home in Leafland.
There’s plenty to be learned from the journey of the Tampa Bay Lightning, who, after deadlocking the series at one game apiece with Monday’s win, find themselves three wins away from hoisting the big trophy in their series against the Dallas Stars. And the teaching moments that apply to Toronto go well beyond the obvious — specifically, how the Lightning put the pieces back together after an historically disappointing opening-round exit at the hands of an inferior but undeniably dogged Columbus franchise.
An April ago, after all, it was the Lightning who suffered a first-round sweep at the hands of John Tortorella’s mix of grind and goaltending. Last month it was the Leafs who lost a five-game play-in round series to an arguably less imposing version of the Blue Jackets. Given the talent-based similarities of the Tampa and Toronto rosters, let’s just say the Leafs ought to be taking notes on the Lightning’s bounceback in the bubble.
“We used to be a team where it wasn’t good enough to beat you 3-0, we had to beat you 9-0,” Jon Cooper, the Lightning head coach, was telling reporters on Tuesday. “And we had to change that attitude … If you play that way, especially when you get to this time of the year, bad things are usually going to happen.”
If that’s true for the Lightning, it has to be true for the Leafs. Over the last four seasons combined, after all, the only franchise that’s scored more goals than Toronto is Tampa Bay. But even the best of offences can be reduced to rubble in the close-checking cauldron of a playoff series. Heck, the Leafs scored a grand total of three five-on-five goals in their entire five-game run-in with the Blue Jackets.
In other words, teams committed to outworking and out-defending their opponents have a better chance of winning in the post-season than teams convinced they can outscore them. At least, that’s been the experience of an uber-skilled Lightning team that’s been to three conference finals and two Stanley Cup finals in the most recent six seasons and is still searching for a ring.
So here’s an idea for Toronto president Brendan Shanahan: Instead of watching your GM attempt to construct a roster like he’s reinventing the wheel, why not spend a season or two copycatting a more successful version of your squad? Sports weren’t invented in Silicon Valley. There’s no need to innovate when a competitor is providing the template.
And on Tuesday, Cooper might as well have been speaking directly to the Leafs as he mulled over the keys to his team’s Cup final journey: “When guys understand that it’s now what you keep out of your net and not how much you put in the net, good things will happen.”
There are signs, at least, that such fundamental truths are finally dawning on the Leafs, who’ve made no secret of their wish to improve their chronically undermanned blue line. But defending well, of course, goes beyond defencemen, not to mention goaltending (although employing a Vezina finalist workhorse such as Tampa Bay’s Andrei Vasilevskiy, who has played every minute of the post-season, would clearly be any franchise’s preference). After a couple of seasons watching Dubas’s experiments in stacking skill atop skill atop skill, there are those in Toronto who seem convinced of the need to diversify the roster. Shanahan has asserted more control over the operation this off-season while speaking of a potential addition of “compete level and grit.”
The Lightning have already proven that such a season-over-season makeover isn’t impossible. Don’t get it wrong. Tampa still hasn’t won anything. The Stars, buoyed by the hot goaltending of Anton Khudobin, don’t have the makings of an easy out. But the Leafs, seeing as they haven’t reached a Cup final since 1967, can aspire to worse.
And it’s worth paying attention to how Tampa has arrived in this position. They’ve done it with signings like Pat Maroon and Zach Bogosian, who’ve played important grit-injecting roles, and with the February trades that brought in Blake Coleman and Barclay Goodrow, the latter pair Cooper credited with providing the third-line checking and energy that’s crucial to playoff success even if they came with hefty price tags that included a first-round pick apiece.
“You’ve got to commend (Lightning GM) Julien BriseBois for doing what he had to do to put us in this position,” Cooper said. “They weren’t sexy trades. They weren’t sexy signings, but they were gutty ones. It was what we needed.”
Indeed, that the Lightning have done what they’ve done without the services of captain Steven Stamkos, he of the $8.5-million (U.S.) cap hit and the uncertain Game 3 availability, speaks to the importance of such depth — the kind that’s going to be difficult to come by for a Leafs franchise that’s close to capped out.
Still, yet another lesson of Tampa Bay’s run goes like so: Depth makes your team better, but your best players make or break your team. In their journey from unrepentant point hounds to whatever-it-takes Cup finalists, the Lightning underwent what Cooper called “an attitude adjustment.”
“And it starts with the stars, and the guys that are used to putting pucks in the net,” Cooper said.
To that end, he cited the Game 2 performance of Nikita Kucherov. The Stars are doing their best to rough up Kucherov, and smartly so. But while there’ve been moments in Kucherov’s illustrious career when he’s been accused of being a fancy-dance purveyor of expensive shinny with little appetite for grittier versions of the sport, on Monday he looked like a different man.
“(Kucherov) was getting beat up in ways that for anyone it’s hard to come back,” Cooper said. “And all he did was come back and run a power play and score two goals and be a big part of why we won.”
“It starts with the stars” is as true in Tampa Bay as it is in Toronto. In a salary-cap league, expensive talent needs to provide superior results. A season after an historically ugly playoff faceplant, the likes of Kucherov and Victor Hedman and Brayden Point are justifying their hefty paydays with undeniable production. Which is only to say that the bar has been set for Toronto’s highest earners. Leafs Nation awaits a reply from Nos. 34, 91, 16 and 88.
“Experience and being humbled can help right a ship,” Cooper said. “I truly believe last year’s experience, we’re seeing the fruits of that awful setback last April.”
If Tampa’s lessons are undeniable, the following fact is indisputable: Humility has never been an organizational strength in Toronto. The Leafs, who haven’t won a playoff series since 2004, were no doubt disappointed by their latest post-season failure, sure. But as for how many Leafs were truly chastened by it, and how many are paying attention to the lessons currently being taught in Edmonton, fans can only hope it’s more than a few.
And more to the point, they can only hope Toronto’s front office, with all its processing power, is coming to an obvious conclusion. Enough of arrogantly trying to reinvent the wheel. Now is the time to humbly watch and brazenly steal.
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