By Doug Doucette
Much has been made about the Leafs immediate need to get tougher, to get grittier, to be harder to play against. But after decades of staged brawls and open ice hits, clutching and grabbing, has our sense of what that means become out of touch with what today’s game has become?
Toronto are currently the least penalized team in the National Hockey League. And some naysayers might look at that and feel as though it signifies a significant lack of toughness. What’s more likely is that the speed and skill with which they play doesn’t invite mass physicality in any way. How many times have we seen Mitch Marner and Auston Matthews spin off of a check down low and carry on with the puck like the defender was never even there?
I submit, that what this team needs isn’t exactly the kind of toughness that you saw on your television screen ten or even five years ago. What the team is short of, is more of what a guy like Zach Hyman brings to the table. His feet are constantly moving. He engages defenders along the back wall and forces them into 50/50 battles for the puck. And while they can call them 50/50 battles all they want, when it’s a guy like Hyman going after it, with sheer will and determination he comes away with the puck far more often than half the time.
Even if you look back into the 1990’s you’ll find guys like this on every single championship team. Detroit did it with Draper and Maltby. The Devils had Pandolfo and Madden. The Stars had Langenbrunner. And last season we saw the impact that Tom Wilson makes, albeit with one foot still in the open ice hitting era.
So who’s out there, potentially on the move before February’s trade deadline that can bring this type of play? Who can we go out and get to slap on the wing of the Matthews or Kadri line? Let’s take a quick look.
Wayne Simmonds in Philadelphia is probably the most obvious answer. The Flyers are an absolute mess and a contract extension doesn’t appear to be in the future for the 30 year old winger. Simmonds is slightly off of the 30 goal pace for the second straight season, but he brings so much more to the table than just goal scoring. With the struggles of the Flyers and an uncertain future, you should be able to count on that pace to pick up once he inevitably finds himself in new colours. The one down side to a Toronto acquisition of Simmonds is that his natural side is on the right wing, where the Leafs already have Marner, Nylander and Kapanen. It’s not a stretch that any of the four could move, but it’s worth mentioning.
Luke Glendening is a name that was floated around at the trade deadline last season. A favourite of Mike Babcock’s during his time in Detroit, Glendening should come a much lower price than the more highly touted Simmonds, but also offers much less in the way of size and scoring. Still, Glendening is a pain to play against and often see’s minutes in tough situations. He also plays the right side, but could more easily slide into a fourth line role with Connor Brown on the left side and see increased ice time as the game goes on. We’ve seen Babcock limit the minutes of guys like Andreas Johnsson and William Nylander in the last minutes of a close game with the lead.
Alexander Steen is certainly familiar to Leafs fans. Although it’s been a decade since we’ve seen Steen in the blue and white, and the best play of his career appears to be behind him, he’s still an effective player who can play in all situations. He’s also a natural centre who has seen most of his time on the left side when playing the wing. The major issue when it comes to Steen is the two years remaining on his contract after this season. If St. Louis is interested in retaining salary to obtain a bigger return, or in taking back a contract from the Leafs, this could be an interesting target come deadline day.
Kyle Clifford in Los Angeles is another left winger with some term left on his contract, but in his case it’s only one year at a modest $1.6mil, a completely manageable number for any team. The 27 year old Ontario by has never been known for his offensive output. He’s likely another one of those guys that you would see end up in the fourth line role who moves up as the game goes on, but his big body and determination down low cannot be disputed. The Kings have been circling the bowl all year long, and despite poor seasons from Ottawa, Philadelphia and Detroit are currently last in the league. It’s fair to assume they’ll move anyone that isn’t nailed down.
And that brings up another name from LaLa Land. Trevor Lewis has been out for much of the season with a foot injury, which require surgery back in early December. Now that he’s nearing a return for the Kings, they could look to move him and his modest contract (one more year at $2mil) out for future pieces at minimal cost.
Michael Ferland in Carolina has made headlines as of late due to his on going contract negotiations. The Hurricanes acquired Ferlund with Dougie Hamilton in the Noah Hanafin trade this summer and he’s performed at roughly the same level with the perennial offensively challenged Hurricanes as he did with the Flames. That’s likely not the scenario that the Hurricanes hoped for when they acquired him. Ferlund is 26 and has dealt with some concussion issues throughout his short career. The price tag to acquire him could be high, and the risk of losing him in the offseason if his demands get too high is ever present, but he brings strength on the puck at a high rate of speed and has the skill to play with the Leaf’s top end players.
The possibility is always there that this issue is addressed in house, with improved play by those currently in the line up. Frederik Gauthier and Connor Brown seem to have developed some fore checking chemistry on the fourth line, but whether or not they could be trusted with more minutes and more important minutes remains to be seen. Andreas Johnsson has shown a willingness to go into the dirty areas since being given an opportunity on the Matthews line, but does he have the ability to do it over a prolonged period of time, and can he continue to do it consistently in the trenches of playoff hockey? Nazem Kadri has more to give, the struggling centre looks lost some nights when the puck goes into the offensive zone, and he hasn’t shown an increased desire to go and get it for himself.
The most important thing to remember is that The Leafs are a good team. Just like they are right now, they are and have been for much of the season, in second place in the conference. With a nearly inevitable match up with Boston waiting in the first round, it’s easy to look forward and think that they have to do something drastic. And while I’m sure Kyle Dubas and company would love to add another right handed shooting defenceman and a big body forward, they don’t have to overpay to do it. This is still a young and ever improving team that took the Bruins to game seven last year. It’s not unfair to expect that they will enter the playoffs this season, older, wiser and stronger.