From the outset of this season, John Ferguson and Paul Maurice have been preaching the need for the Maple Leafs to become a hard team to play against. This was to be accomplished as the players matured under a second season of Maurice's puck pursuit, hard forechecking system.
The idea of a team pursuing the opponent with speed and laying the body is enticing and should equate to increased offensive opportunities. The key to success under this type of approach, is that you must actually be 'hard' to place against. Unfortunately for this edition of the Maple Leafs, this simply isn't true.
The primary deficiency of this group of Maple Leafs, is that they are soft and display very little passion or aggression. Skill alone does not make a team difficult to play against, particularly in hockey. It is a game fed by emotion, determination, and the desire to win more than the other guy. Plain and simple. Skill is a required element to enhance these traits and that is why the Anaheim Mighty Ducks were Stanley Cup champions last season. They mixed a high level of skill, with size, speed, and a whole lot of meanness. This year's edition of the Philedelphia Flyers appear headed down this path as well.
As for the Maple Leafs, their stated identity goal is incompatible with their composition. As the make-up of the team hasn't changed substantially in the past two seasons, it can only be assumed this particular combination of players cannot produce these characteristics. The evidence clearly points in this direction;
1. The Maple Leafs are one of the biggest teams in the NHL, yet they don't hit with any regularity. They have their moments, but the majority of games this season and last have been pretty tame affairs compared to other NHL competition. It's one of their biggest assets and is severely underutilized.
2. Watch closely during post-whistle scrums. The Leafs are reluctant participants and don't provoke other players. There is rarely any outward display of anger or attempts to defend a teammate. Meaningless? I disagree, post-game scrums fuel emotion and hockey is at it's best when emotion levels are high. The Leafs continually lack any sort of aggression.
3. Break the players down individually and look at their nature; Kaberle, Kubina, Ponikarovsky, Sundin, Stajan, Steen, Pohl, Wellwood, Strahlman, White, Gill, Tlusty, Devereaux, Wozniewski. Some of these are big strong players, but they don't utilize it as it's not part of their inherent character as a hockey player.
Some of these players could be key components to an elite hockey club. However as it stands, the Maple Leafs lack any type of identifiable identity. They don't have a defining characteristic as a group. Leaf Nation wants to wrap their hearts around a group of players that leave everything on the ice...win or lose. Currently, there is very little attachment between these Maple Leafs and their skeptical fan base. Why? We're not sure what to embrace.