By Jude MacDonald
We see it on the TV and we hear it on radio, framed one way or another. “Too soft”, “don’t hit anything”, “no pushback”, “_____ was taken out and nobody even blinked let alone responded.” Just left that blank since it’s happened a fair amount. You get the gist. Put it however you want, the Leafs physicality or lack thereof is a major topic of conversation. Its certainly the question I get most on today’s version of the team, both online and out and about among the fan base. It’s a difficult one to answer but I’m going to give it some sort of a try. Quite simply, are the Maple Leafs big and tough enough for playoff hockey?
If you listen to the majority of hockey media then you already know what pundits like Brian Burke feel and before I say anything further I should probably qualify my own retort with a small back story into my relationship/idea of “toughness” and it’s place in the game.
You may or may not remember I’m a guy who previously wrote a story about Matt Martin and his importance to a group that went beyond what you see on the ice and even what you did as far as making some valuable youngsters comfortable. The era before that I was the same guy who feverishly and even maybe ridiculously tried to explain that Colton Orr and Frazer McClaren’s roles in 6 minutes a night had nothing to do with shot attempts or zone time and everything to do with providing an influx of testosterone to what I would otherwise call a timid group.
Basically….I believe(d) in hockey toughness. Toughness in all it’s ugly and beautiful hockey forms. Intimidation, momentum swings, imposing will, all of it. Yes my fondest memories are of Wendel, etc. I won’t apologize for that, nor should I. That was the style I grew up on, proudly I might add. And as we now all watch the game veering in another direction (especially recently in Toronto) I still hang tight to certain aspects of a competitive sport that I don’t think ever will change. Yet in saying all this you can’t help but take the temperature of the times you’re in. Like it or not, this isn’t the NHL I once knew.
Keeping that in mind, where is the line between romanticizing the notions of hockey’s yesteryear and acknowledging an undeniable void of blunt force or aggression somewhere on the roster?
Around and heading into the deadline there was a relatively loud clamouring for Toronto to, as I eluded to above, “influx” some muscle into their lineup. Most of the better ideas came with the predetermination that any brutish bringer of bravado we envisioned adding could also skate and play. A rarified combination of elements in a sport transitioning away from physical engagement, thus making the acquisition of such type player come at a steep cost. A cost Leafs management measured and passed on paying.
Was this a gross miscalculation by Leafs management or an unsolicited determination worthy of support?
Feb.25th (NHL’s trade deadline) has come and gone and there’s no sense looking in the rear view mirror too long. However, was there an opportunity to “beef up” that may have been missed? Wayne Simmonds, Michael Ferland, Adam McQuaid, these were the names bandied about in the grit/presence department and a few more we didn’t hear were discussed I’m sure.
First of all, let’s just quickly look at the logistics. The price, to begin. Two picks for recent healthy scratch Adam McQuaid? Toronto’s scouting department would be enamoured with that deal, trading two swings or rolls of the dice away for a depth defender on an expiring contract. Am I rolling my eyes at the addition of a big strong defender who would bring things the Leafs don’t have? Read the intro, no I am not. But realistically is he going to help? Who is he playing ahead of? Other dominoes would’ve had to fall to make McQuaid a sensible 6D and even then, have we improved because we are meaner and our average player size took an uptick? Or what would we have truly been doing here? Satisfying an urge for instant retribution or what someone acting as a deterrent to help stop people from getting face washed in a scrum? I’m not shitting on the suggestion, don’t get me wrong. There’s no doubt I’d love to see more “jam” and definitely more response. But what’s actually going to get us playoff W’s? Is that it? Makes for a better story and entertainment, but c’mon off it. What moves the needle of success here with the 2018/19 Leafs? Talent foremost.
Up front it’s even more complicated. Toronto needs a big forward, you say? Alright, so who goes? On the right side you’re already looking at Connor Brown on your 4th line when everyone is healthy, and as a matter of fact he could be pushed out altogether. You aren’t taking ice from Kappy, Willy, or Mitch. Full stop. On the left side you’ve got Hyman who already provides as much heavy and grit and grime you could ever ask for while keeping the mitts on and the mitts across the NHL are sewn on now anyways. Johnnsson, well you aren’t pushing him down anywhere. He’s gonna be latched to Auston this post season is my guess or somewhere in the top 9. He’s tenacious, hard on the puck, and a vigorously competitive player. Heavy? In his way, kinda sorta. Yes he’ll get levelled from time to time, but AJ is a battler who can rile up opponents. Then you’ve got Patty Marleau who conceivably could get bumped down perhaps if you added say a Ferland type. Though from what I see I don’t know if either will or would have the impact of Trevor Moore or Tyler Ennis as we go and include Simmonds if you want. Not to mention the other names who were available that I don’t see as a viable improvement over the “little” guys. All that’s left is adding to your 4th line and maybe just to say you did. Kyle Clifford? Wouldn’t hurt, but he’d cost something and not convinced he can play ahead of anyone we have there now. Instead the Leafs took the “soft” narrative and stretched it even further by adding more speed/skill at the bottom of the lineup with a trade for undersized utility forward Nick Petan.
Now all the above here honestly does is provide an attempt at a logical explanation as to why bringing on a bit of rough and tumble wasn’t as easy or straight forward as it may have seemed. It doesn’t quite absolve management for not instilling the perceived missing ingredient in the general team constitution. To my eye, there are times I have to say this is all a bit new. Even troubling. What am I trying to say without saying it? Yeah, it’s true. Toronto do often come across as or look “soft’ by hockey’s current definition. You can’t honestly say they don’t. But, I mean, are they truly soft? Or could it be the Maple Leafs are in the midst of redefining how we view this trait we call toughness.
Tell me, who is soft exactly? Put yourself in that room right now. You’re the coach, you’re Babcock, and you’re circling the room. Who are you calling out for playing too tentatively or without effort on the puck? Because I don’t know if there’s anyone specifically you are. Go through the lineup. We aren’t bangers guys and we gotta deal with it. Auston? Doesn’t finish checks and has a large frame, but I’m not of the thought he’s meek. It’s just something he’s never done and his energy/efforts is used elsewhere. Does his intensity have to ratchet up? I would say so but I’m hopeful that will come with the territory of being in his now third post season. There’s fire in there. Willly? Soft? No way. Don’t buy it. Bull on the on the puck along the ozone walls, great in the neutral zone, not gonna slam anybody or drive them into the boards but he’s not “weak” in any facet. Mitch? Lol. Why because he’s “small”? Marner won’t be shying away from anything come playoff time. Only gets him going more, like Dougie. John Tavares plays about as heavy as it gets without throwing his weight around other than to protect the puck when leaning on guys. Look, you could go through everyone on the roster. Do they hit? Nope. Are they cowardly or mild. I wouldn’t concur with that evaluation. Nazem Kadri isn’t scared of anything on the ice. Hyman absorbs 900 hits a game and begs Babs for more. Muzzin is gonna battle, Hainsey, Toronto won’t stay out of the trenches when it’s time to crawl in. Look at their record versus playoff teams. They’ve taken advantage even of some of the bigger clubs. The Jets for instance looked sluggish against the Leafs when enthralled in their A game. If Toronto can find something in themselves that we’ve seen in spurts against the leagues best and “heaviest” squads, maybe they can discover their own style of post season bite on the goddam scoresheet.
When the Maple Leafs say they believe in their group it’s because they do. I don’t think it’s lip service at all. I’ll promise you they aren’t making moves because conventional wisdom, consensus, or Ricky from Etobicoke on Line 3 calls for it. If you needed any further proof we saw it at the deadline. Toronto has doubled down on skill and are sticking to their template. Dubas and Babcock have an idea of who this team is and what the path to winning looks like for the Buds. As there are many routes to the same goal. Do they feel they can get it done without toughness? Not a chance. Absolutely not. Nobody wins without toughness and I don’t care what anyone thinks. What I am willing to waiver on is the root definition. Where does Toronto find their strength, their toughness? And can Toronto rebrand the NHL’s version to some extent?
The Maple Leafs aren’t taking it to the alleys. They aren’t the Broad Street Bullies and they might actually be the furthest thing from it I’ve personally ever seen. But do you know what I find really tough and in life? Being disciplined. I’m not talking about avoiding retaliation or “our enforcer is our PP”, though that fits the eventual point. No, I’m talking about self control and stick-to-it-iveness. A drive and focus on the task at hand without distraction. Getting knocked on your ass and then getting right back up and right back in there, unfazed. Time after time, you keep coming. In waves, that’s what the Leafs need to refine and master. Relentlessness in the face of adversity, challenges, and yes physicality. The Leafs know their game, their best attributes, and they have to play to them. There’s nothing to be gained trying to emulate something you aren’t. While we are at it, who are these big bad Bruins everyone talks about? For starters you don’t mould your club to beat one team but it’s mainly horseshit anyways. I see a fantastic team in Boston but I don’t see a group that runs anyone out of the barn. Are they tougher? I’d say no doubt about it and especially if it was an eight man tag match or something. I may be joking and don’t intend to play down the fact they are a battle tested group. It’s just the tough thing is more created by reputation than actuality. The Maple Leafs are best served to not involve themselves in the scrums and the face licking and the nonsense. Fill your fkn boots. It’s going to be heated and contested, just how the playoffs always are. But it’s still hockey. This idea the game suddenly morphs into something unrecognizable is severely overblown. Over/Under on fights this playoffs is like 3. Do more guys finish their checks? You know it. I’d bet you’re gonna see more Leafs doing the same. But within yourself without running around or getting out of character. Not to mention the last two playoff series Toronto has been in they weren’t pushed around for my money. Washington we embraced the tight checking, spirited head to head even if not quite fully matured for it. Furthermore Toronto was up 4-3 going into Game 7 vs Boston but somehow the story has become toughness cost them. Did they look sheepish and nervous in Game 1? Yep. They did. But that’s as much part of the learning curve than anything. Some of the grittier names are gone now but again I’m not sure those players helped as much as it just plays into thinking you need to “out-Bruin” the Bruins. Toronto, you’ve got to be you. Don’t stand up to your opponent, stand above them.
It sounds like I’ve turned my back on some of what I considered a vital part of hockey. That’s not necessarily true. As I make a case for Toronto not changing their makeup and going with what they are, I can’t help but wonder what lies ahead. I’m not trying to sell you on the Leafs being tough. Lol. It would be disingenuous to tell you I am comfortable. But hey, I think they are on to something.
So as we close out I’ll give you an answer to the burning question of the day, which we all know is meaningless as the only certified litmus test awaits in the post season. Most likely with Boston to start. Drumroll….Are Toronto Big & Tough enough? By the current accepted playoff standard, no. They are not. I am 100% willing though to entertain the possibility that Toronto aren’t subscribing to the banter you hear every other intermission or every lunch hour or in every arena or coffee shop where the Leafs are discussed. Toronto have their own idea of tough.
The teams in Detroit with Babcock weren’t always rugged by traditional standards but they never backed down. Never stopped working tenaciously. This, this is the toughness Toronto has to find. I would argue they aren’t capable of completely embracing it until the playoffs, but it’s in there. You can see it. Heads are up, working hard, playing sharp, game-breakers breaking games. We haven’t seen this team’s best yet and the post season will provide the Maple Leafs an opportunity to find out what kind of tough they can be and prove themselves along the way to everyone who has doubted their fortitude. That might be the word right there I’ve been searching for. Toronto must show their fortitude. Then maybe, just maybe, they can help redefine or add to the terms associated with toughness in hockey while doing so in the grandest of fashions. The Leafs were tough because they just played hard clean hockey and came at you in floods.
Man, I miss old time hockey. I do. But that’s where we used to live. That’s our old neighbourhood. That’s our old rink. I don’t want Toronto to chase yesterday when tomorrow is right in front of them. I truly believe the Maple Leafs can not only beat Boston, I believe they can run the table. Provided Tampa is expelled for doping. Nah fkn bring them on too. In order to do so though, the Blue & White will have to find a way to be tough. Toughness by no other definition than their own.