A New Leafs
Penalty king no more, Toronto has found success by relying more on young players and a disciplined approach
TORONTO COACH Paul Maurice was working over the referees last month in Buffalo when an extraordinary thing occurred. Maurice abruptly raised his hand, said, "That's all from me" and apologized. It was a gesture the Leafs' first-year coach attributed not to any sudden reassessment of the officials' work but to the depletion of his limited list of compound, schoolyard words.
The most intriguing development of the 2006--07 season is the cultural change on Toronto, which in its worst moments in recent years was three Harleys short of a Hells Angels chapter. Certainly former coach Pat Quinn wouldn't have backed off on the refs—indeed, he is still sore about a blown offsides call against his Flyers in the 1980 Stanley Cup finals—and his filibustering Leafs probably would have crossed into the abyss. Not this team.
Under the leadership of Maurice, who rightly despises undisciplined penalties, Toronto has ditched the attitude but kept the edge by installing a high-intensity, aggressive forecheck. "I think we're playing a game better adapted to the new NHL," says captain Mats Sundin, whose ice time has increased by more than half a minute a game under Maurice. The Leafs, a surprising sixth in the Eastern Conference through Sunday, were averaging only 12.3 penalty minutes per game (fifth fewest in the NHL), a quantum leap for a club that was the third most penalized two seasons ago. "The discipline throughout the organization has been heightened," says general manager John Ferguson, pulling from his pocket a sheet entitled TML Penalty Breakdown, which listed his players and each of their infractions in every game.
Toronto has been able to install some new wrinkles because some of the more wrinkled players left the organization. After the lockout the rough-edged Gary Roberts, a prominent dressing-room figure, and 40-year-old Joe Nieuwendyk signed as free agents with Florida. Last summer Ferguson cut ties with 41-year-old goalie Ed Belfour and veteran enforcer Tie Domi. "When I got here, the culture was that of an older team," says 30-year-old winger Chad Kilger, acquired in March 2004. "But now we're keeping guys like [23-year-old Kyle] Wellwood and [22-year-old Matt] Stajan and [rookie defenseman Ian] White, and it's paying dividends."
Often combustible right winger Darcy Tucker thinks the Leafs' comportment is a direct result of a roster that averages 28 years of age (the 10th youngest in the league), down from 29.6 in 2003--04 (fourth oldest). "Younger players take their lumps and go to the box," says Tucker, 31. "On an older team guys think they have the right to say something to the referees. When you have 12 guys waiting to say something, it gets a little out of hand sometimes."
Tucker, among the NHL's most emotional players, has been a revelation. His 16 goals have kept this career grinder in the company of elite scorers such as Ilya Kovalchuk and Alexander Ovechkin. A league-leading 11 have come on Toronto's slick power play, proof his hands are good for something other than stirring the pot. His current penalty-minutes-to-goals ratio is 3 to 1; it had been about 7 to 1 in his first nine years. Tucker credits Maurice for his improved focus. The coach, of course, demurs: "I don't want any credit, because when the reins come off and Berserko"—Maurice's fond nickname for Tucker—"starts again, I don't want to be faulted for that, either."