With the NHL’s trade deadline come and gone this past Monday, upper management of the Toronto Maple Leafs has strongly indicated that they believe the talent pool in the locker room is good enough to make the playoffs. With their recent play seeming to indicate the opposite though (see also: Tuesday’s 5-3 loss to conference rivals, The Florida Panthers), it may be time for a more abrupt message. Now is the time for what is often known as the “Come to Jesus” speech. Not to be confused with a sudden influx of religious fervour, a CTJ speech or moment is one that some teams or individuals may require in order to try get back on track when they seem to have lost their way. It is usually a moment in which an honest appraisal of what has been happening takes place, and one tries to plot a course for the future that will help lead to better results.
A CTJ speech doesn’t necessarily mean that one needs to change everything about how to play the game. In many instances, it’s not about WHAT athletes are doing, so much as HOW they are doing it. Effort, intensity, and approach can all have a huge effect on eventual outcomes. If anyone (let alone, more than one) of these factors is lacking, results can be disastrous.
So what would I say? The first place I would start would be with the mindset of the team. With a record of 1-8-1 over the last 10 games, you have the makings of a team that is frustrated, lacks confidence, and is beginning to get desperate as the playoffs loom and they currently find themselves on the outside looking in. Additionally, the dynamic starting to shape up in Toronto is very much an “Us vs. Them” situation. The team is being assaulted on all sides. Their opponents want them to not make the playoffs for obvious reasons; The fans are frustrated, booing during games, and calling for the head coach to be fired; The media continue to pour on the pressure with their constant second guessing and armchair quarterbacking. It’s an easy dynamic to fall into, so why not go for it? Think of the pennant run sequence at the end of the movie “Major League.” An overly dramatic example, sure, but the basic premise is there. Everyone either thinks you can’t, won’t, or don’t want to make the playoffs. Prove ‘em wrong.
Once the mindset of the team is taken care of, I’d get down to the nuts and bolts of how to go about finishing the season strong. Namely, I’d point out that now is the time to set some short-term goals and narrow the focus of the team. The season isn’t 82 games anymore – it’s 19. Shortening the focus of the athletes to view the remaining games as a sprint to the finish can also have a large effect on the intensity they bring to each game. It’s not about being 3 points out of the playoffs. It’s not about needing your opponents to do badly. It IS about making the most of the 19 games left before the playoffs begin. Focus on those things that you can control and forget the rest. A reasonable goal at this point is winning at LEAST 10 of those games. A better goal would be winning 14. One of the keys in goal setting is to make sure to set difficult, yet not impossible goals. Another key, especially in this case, is to set goals that, even if they aren’t reached, put you in a much better spot than you were previously. Winning 10 of the next 19 games would be a big lift for the Leafs. It would definitely put them in contention, but what happens if they get to that 10th win with 6 or 7 games to go? The last thing you want at that stage is to take the foot off the accelerator once the goal has been reached. With a 14 game goal, The Leafs may not achieve their goal, but they may win 11 or 12 in the process, which would almost assure them a playoff spot. Additionally, since they didn’t achieve their initial goal, it gives them somewhere else to go once they’ve reached the playoffs, rather than simply saying “hey, we made it!” and losing in the first round.
Finally, I’d point out that times like this are about going back to the basics. The players know the systems at this point in the season – they know what they need to do in order to succeed. Shorter, higher intensity practices should be all they need to maintain their focus and stay energized for the last push to the finish. The key isn’t to try and do anything fancy, over the top, or drastically different in terms of actual gameplay. Rather, they need to focus on an earnest, intense effort for the next 30 days of the regular season. The Leafs have systems in place that work. One need only look at the month of January in which they went an entire calendar month without giving up a goal on the penalty kill for proof of that. The key is sticking with that approach every shift of every game. The team’s leadership, especially head coach Ron Wilson and Captain Dion Phaneuf, need to press that point home. Amen.