When Brian Burke first came onto the scene in Toronto, he pledged to build a tough team, one that would be able to stand up to anyone physically. That plan didn't work out, however, as the Leafs have yet to taste the postseason with Burke as GM.
This year, things have been different.
There's no unnecessary roller derby on the ice. When Burke first got to Toronto, it was all about truculence. What is this, UFC? This isn't 1974 hockey. The good thing about it is he recognized he was wrong and adjusted. I give him credit. He couldn't put a UFC team together and win. Having a bunch of bruisers who couldn't play the game wasn't helping in the standings.
So Burke made adjustments. He went out and got players with high hockey sense. One of the reasons why the Leafs are scoring more is they think game better. From the top to bottom, the Leafs are vastly improved in the hockey smarts department.
The No. 1 guy to key on is Dion Phaneuf. It's not that he didn't have hockey smarts before, because he had some nice years in Calgary. But he also had some bad ones. To me, what happened, maybe Dion started reading his press clippings. He started to play with a nastier edge that he thought he needed.
In Toronto, his biggest adjustment is he's not running out of position to make plays or to hit someone. That keeps him in better position to defend and attack. His timing is better and his reads are better, and that is having a huge impact on his game and the Leafs' game.
I think the D as a whole is vastly improved and far smarter. I love the move to get John-Michael Liles and I love Jake Gardiner. Their ability to transition the puck is excellent. I love the way the Leafs' defenders have gone from running and chasing to make hits to having D to move the puck. They're making better choices in the O-zone. They're getting shots through, more passes down low and not backing off the blue line like they did in the past. That's been one of the biggest improvements.
Burke has made adjustments from physical to finesse.
Another guy who deserves a ton of credit is Joffrey Lupul. Everyone thought when Burke acquired him, it was just a salary dump. The good thing for him is he didn't pay attention to all that and maybe didn't know how close he was to having his career end. All the working out he's done to get back in shape has made a major difference. I talked to him a couple times before the season and came away very impressed. His mind was in the right place and he's been awesome this season because of it.
Phil Kessel is leading the League in goals, and if you're not watching him, you probably assume it's all off the rush like it has been in the past. I've seen at least six or seven goals this season when he's been down around the net, battling for loose pucks in heavy traffic. He's made adjustments, too.
With James Reimer out, the Leafs' goalies have also found a way to get it done.
I know it's been tough for The Monster, but he's come a long way. I think the expectations were unrealistic for Jonas Gustavsson. The Leafs definitely overvalued him, but so did a lot of teams who were fighting for his services. But I give him credit for starting to find his game at the NHL level. The main thing for him is he's become mentally stronger, but I think he needs to be stronger in the gym. He's just a long, tall, lanky frame. You need to be in shape to bounce back after hard practices and tough games, and there's room to grow in that area. But he's stayed mentally strong during this stretch.
With Ben Scrivens, it's a good situation for him and for the Leafs. To be able to go from the ECHL to the show, it's a good thing. He has made a nice impression. I had a chance to meet him, too. He had a good head on his shoulders.
I think the Leafs can play with anybody. I know Boston has owned them, but the Leafs have a shot tonight. I think the biggest thing for the Leafs is to find that sweet spot in terms of balancing the offense and defense.
By and large, I love the Leafs' transformation.