I’m no great fan of Washington Capitals left winger Alexander Ovechkin. Over the years I’ve enjoyed seeing the Caps choke in the playoffs time and time again even though they’ve perpetually had one of the most stacked teams in the NHL—as is evidenced by their 3 Presidents’ Trophy wins during Ovechkin’s career. Even so, I’m all about giving credit where credit is due, and Ovi’s recent advice to the Toronto Maple Leafs was bang on!
“It’s up to them how they want to do it. If they want to play for themselves, or if they want to win a Stanley Cup, they have to play differently.”
Though his (somewhat ironic) comments may have offended many in Leafs Nation, Ovechkin could not have been more accurate in his assessment of the situation—all hockey players have a decision to make: either play for yourself and your own personal glorification, or play for your team and city, and play to win. It’s a universal truth that applies to all team sports. Even Leafs’ coach Mike Babcock couldn’t argue the point: “Well, I don’t know if he’s wrong, …he knows because he lived it.”
Many young players seem to favour playing for themselves, and not without good reason. If a player can make a big impression with a solid statistical performance through his entry level contract, there’s usually a large bounty waiting for him at the other end.
But the Leafs’ young stars have received their huge paydays, and now’s the time to earn them, which requires an entirely different mindset, and a team first approach to the game. Sacrifice is key if you want to lift the Stanley Cup, and a willingness to sacrifice doesn’t always come easily to young players.
Roenick Weighs In
Jeremy Roenick would seem to agree. His comments on TSN’s Leafs Lunch radio program suggest that the current Maple Leafs squad is not willing to pay the requisite price to win: “[They] are not mentally prepared to battle, to work hard, to take the hit, to do the ugly things that it takes to win.”
And that’s a big problem, because there’s no way that Maple Leafs fans are going to wait patiently for another decade (or more) for their young core of stars to grow up and realize where their legacy lies. It’s not in the huge paycheques, nor is it in the statistics and individual accolades. It’s almost entirely wrapped up in hoisting the Stanley Cup. If this Maple Leafs team can’t do that in the next 2-3 seasons—or at least take significant postseason steps towards it, patience will quickly wear thin in Toronto and jobs are going to be lost.
Maple Leafs’ Early Struggles
So far this season the Maple Leafs have looked spectacularly mediocre. With a record of 6-5-3 through their first 14 games, they’re currently holding onto an early playoff position, but their top stars (and particularly Mitch Marner) have not looked great. Both Marner and William Nylander have just 3 goals to this point, and Auston Matthews, though he’s got 11 goals to his name, has been completely invisible at times and looked weak and ineffectual at others.
Then there’s the Leaf’s biggest off-season acquisition, Tyson Barrie, who has yet to light the lamp through 14 games and is an ugly -5. Since he’s a defenceman, I can somewhat overlook the lack of goals, but it would seem that he’s been more of a liability on the ice than an asset thus far. Nazem Kadri, on the other hand, already has 5 goals in just a dozen games played, though they’ve all come for the Colorado Avalanche. At least Alexander Kerfoot is nicely pulling his weight so far, with 4 goals and 7 points in his fluctuating role with the team.
Blaming the Coach
While some are blaming coach Mike Babcock for the team’s lack of inspiring play, the highly paid youngsters that make up the Leafs’ core are ultimately responsible for their own lacklustre performance. Ovechkin is absolutely right—if this team wants to win championships, it’ll have to play differently, because there’s no way this October incarnation of the Toronto Maple Leafs could ever get past the Boston Bruins come playoff time. It’s probably worth noting here that according to Elliotte Friedman, Babcock’s coaching job is not yet in jeopardy.
As for Ovechkin and the Washington Capitals, their fans were forced to wait it out… for a very long time. It took the Caps’ core until the end of Ovi’s 13th season to finally raise the Stanley Cup, and that’s what makes it at least mildly ironic that Ovechkin is now the one raising the alarm in Toronto. His team was known for years of epic failure long before they had any success where it counts—in the playoffs. And, after just a single season at the top of the mountain, they couldn’t even manage to get past the upstart Carolina Hurricanes in the first round as the defending champs last season.
Still, Ovechkin did eventually climb that mountain and get his Stanley Cup, and when he made his very honest comments about the Toronto Maple Leafs on Tuesday, he was speaking from experience and knew exactly what he was talking about. The Maple Leafs are ripe for criticism right now whether their fans like it or not, and Ovechkin’s advice might actually do them just a little bit of good if they’re wise enough to listen to it—particularly since he later backed it up with a huge 4 point night (2 goals and 2 assists) against those very same Maple Leafs, including the game winner in overtime.