Nothing says a team has all but run out of ideas more than the phrase “we’re searching for an identity,” so it was with no small amount of concern that I heard Toronto Maple Leafs general manager Kyle Dubas utter those words last week in connection with his under-performing team.
This is bad sportswriter psycho-babble, along with another favorite: “We’ve had a difficult time getting on the same page.” It’s especially concerning when it comes from a team and a front office with a pronounced analytical bent. Look, I get that the players are all human beings, and you only have to see what the Toronto Raptors have done this season to realize that there probably is something to championship DNA — although I’d rather chalk that up to smart coaching, sturdy defence and a club that is among the leaders in fast-break points as opposed to something in the genes — but my real hope is that Dubas and his brain-trust don’t believe the drivel about identity and that it’s just a sop to keep the press pack at bay.
Identity? The GM has clearly said they are going to overdose on skill at the expense of physical play. There’s your identity. This core has been together for three years, now. They have the same coach. They’re all well-paid. They have a captain — wasn’t that supposed to be a cure-all? — and even the newcomers to the group have had a quarter of a season, now, to acclimate themselves. I mean, I’m sorry: Tyson Barrie isn’t the first player to be traded. And he’s not 22-years-old. The excuse that he’s still transitioning to a new team needs to stop. Now.
At most, I’ll buy the notion that injuries have prevented us from seeing this group together in its entirety, which has likely thrown some of those analytical calculations out of whack. But spare me the identity nonsense. We know what this team is: a club that is top-heavy and needs not only to maximum performance from those players but also a surprise here and there; it needs an Andreas Johnsson or Travis Dermott or two to emerge every season. It’s a club with an elite goaltender who hasn’t been able to backstop the team through a playoff run, and a stubbornly ineffective power-play that keeps beating its head against a wall of fancy passing, fear of going into the middle of the attacking zone, and perhaps the easiest to defend system of zone entry in the NHL.
For the better part of three years, now, there have been whispers that head coach Mike Babcock’s style — “Mike hates players,” is what one former NHLer told me last week — isn’t jibing with the collective whatever-it-is of the dressing room. Nobody’s ever really bothered extinguishing that particular fire, which can only lead to a belief that there is something to it, and that Babcock’s bosses have made a calculation that it has not yet reached the point where it’s an impediment; that the price is worth it for whatever tactical and developmental juice he’s bringing.
So there’s your identity. Win a playoff round and maybe it changes. The concern I have right now isn’t that the Maple Leafs lack identity — it’s that the identity doesn’t match what Dubas and his lieutenants want it to be and feel it should be and would prefer it to be. That can make it awfully difficult to make the kind of tough call that seems to be on the horizon. Sometimes a thing is what it is and wishful thinking is a waste of time.
QUIBBLES AND BITS
• The most remarkable takeaway from the Toronto Raptors recently-concluded 3-2 road trip wasn’t just the fact that they received so much good work from bench players forced into regular duty because of injuries: it was the fact that the bench players made a difference offensively as well as defensively. Matt Thomas’s reputation as a Euro-shooter preceded him, but beyond that? I mean, it’s one thing to have a rotation full of guys who can give you all sorts of seat-of-the-pant defence and honest graft; quite another to see the likes of Chris Boucher, Terence Davis and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson fill the basket, too. Ideally, you want your bench players to hold a lead or, if you’re lucky, expand it against inferior opposition. So far with these guys, it hasn’t mattered.
• I get that Mike Trout is the best player of his generation and one of the very best players of all time by just about any significant measure, but I’m sorry: missing the last month of the regular season while playing for a team that never had a sniff of the post-season picture ought to be enough to disqualify you from winning a Most Valuable Player Award. BBWAA voters have become so cowed by the possibility of criticism based on analytics that they are now unable to put performance in context and exercise critical thought. Trout was not the most valuable player in the American League this season and shouldn’t have been a finalist, let alone the winner. Alex Bregman of the Houston Astros was screwed.
• Thornhill, Ont.,’s Andrew Wiggins is starting to re-write his story with the Minnesota Timberwolves. Despite missing the past two games due to the death of his grandmother and being listed as doubtful for Monday’s game against the Utah Jazz due to illness, Wiggins has career-highs in most categories and has 25-plus points in six games, and in his last seven games he’s averaged 29.1 points, shot 50.6 percent and averaged five rebounds and assists per game. Most telling, he’s making trips to the free-throw line at a pace faster than the previous two seasons, suggesting he’s regained some of the aggressiveness he seemed to lose with the ascension of Karl-Anthony Towns and the disruptive influence of Jimmy Butler.
• Biggest John Herdman fan there is but, man: I don’t get why the Canadian men’s soccer coach used Alphonso Davies at left back in Friday night’s 4-1 loss to the U.S. in Orlando. I get that’s the spot where he’s found success playing club football for Bayern Munich, but given how dominant he was farther up in that 2-0 win at BMO Field, I just assumed we’d see him in a more advanced role. Herdman alluded to recent comments from former Bayern president Uli Hoeness suggesting Davies could be “world-class” at left back. The logical riposte would be to suggest that’s because the German giants have better options up front compared to Canada.
• When our Ben Nicholson-Smith reported from the general managers meetings that the Blue Jays were mulling over the possibility of having Lourdes Gurriel, Jr., play some second base again, my initial reaction was this was another sign of an organization that tinkers so much it can’t get out of its own way. But as BNS later said: it could be nothing more than an attempt to juice the player’s trade value. Or — as I’ve been told — it’s a reflection that other than Bo Bichette and Vlad Guerrero Jr., there is nobody on this 25-man roster who is untouchable. That also includes Cavan Biggio, who still has real offensive question marks around his game.
If you suspected that the NFL’s workout for Colin Kaepernick was anything other than a charade, you haven’t been paying attention or, more likely, realize you can’t watch the NFL without making yourself less of a human being, anyhow. Once you cross that rubicon, nothing matters but your fantasy team or your $150.00 bet.
By now, it’s clear that the NFL was interested in nothing more than getting Kaepernick to sign a bogus waiver buried deep in legal mumbo-jumbo that could effectively limit his ability to launch future legal action against the NFL. Maybe this was all a sop to Jay-Z and his new relationship with the league, because it was as remarkably tone-deaf move by the NFL.
As SI.com’s Michael McCann noted: the waiver that Kaepernick was asked to sign was not markedly different than its standard waiver — the problem being that this was hardly the usual kind of workout. Kaepernick’s social causes are no less important than they were years ago — in fact, they take on a growing importance with each passing day — but unless I’ve missed something he’s gradually become less of a talking point around the game.
Hey, I’m with him all the way but after being out of the game for three years, I don’t find it outside the realm of possibility that there are a bunch of third-string quarterbacks or potential draft picks that are, frankly, of more use than him. That doesn’t take away from the sleaziness of the NFL in this matter, but again: I don’t get the sense there was wide-spread public hankering for Kaepernick. And now we’re talking about him again.
Jeff Blair hosts Writers Bloc from 2-5 p.m. ET on Sportsnet 590/The Fan and Sportsnet 360