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Photo Credit: © Bob DeChiara-USA TODAY Sports

Was Jim Matheson right about the Leafs needing “greasy forwards”?

You answered no to this didn’t you? It’s fun to answer no to title questions and frankly it’s uninspired to title posts like that. You’re right to be mad. You’re also right to be hesitant about agreeing with something that Jim Matheson said, but I think it at least warrants a little discussion.

First the tweet from Matty…

There it is. Now let’s start by immediately throwing out the Antoine Roussel part. Roussel is too damned expensive to make sense. If you think of it as the Leafs needing greasy forwards, that’s a bit more agreeable, especially after the departure of Kadri.

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I think the notion of a “greasy” player rubs a lot of people the wrong way, because morally we should have a problem with slewfoots, suspensions, biting, head shots, after the whistle garbage, etc. It’s fine that you think this, but the fact that you become so outraged when you see it happen probably also means it works. Players like Marchand, Kadri, Burrows, Torres, Wilson, etc. have all added value beyond their actual playing ability because of it. They draw penalties, they throw the opposition of their game, and can make themselves a lightning rod which frees up their teammates a little. I’m not sure I’m going to say that agitators are the answer to all the Leafs prayers. In fact I’d say better defense is probably where I’d go first, but additional agitation isn’t something I’d discourage.

That being said, finding greasy forwards that you’d want to add to your team is a bit more challenging that Matty is stating, and if they meet the criteria of what I’d need to be happy with a player like that, you’d have to wonder why a team would ever give that player up.

The Criteria

1. They are cheap.

Here’s where you can scratch the Antoine Roussel’s, Wayne Simmond’s, and Michael Ferland’s of the world off the list. They are all good in their roles but are too expensive to be investing in for this type of work. The goal should always be to find the next version of them, and nurture that player’s asshole tendencies while putting them in situations to use their skill.

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2. You can trust them with a regular shift on the ice.

Remember when the Leafs had Ryan Hollweg? Many of you are too young. Others the timeframe was too short. The smartest ones have repressed those thoughts. Anyway, Hollweg is the prime example of having a one trick pony who does nothing more than piss people off and take bad penalties. He wasn’t good enough to draw a penalty, he wasn’t good enough put the puck anywhere near the net. Hell, he wasn’t even good enough to win a fight when the opposition justifiably wanted to pummel him. He was bad.

In contrast, remember that Nazem Kadri guy we had? He was pretty great at pissing people off. He was great a drawing penalties, and hooo doggy did you not mind having him on the ice in pretty much every situation. As much as I am pleased with the Leafs adding Barrie and Kerfoot, a big part of what I’m talking about here is how to replace Kadri on the cheap.

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3. No role players. You have to be able to do at least one other thing well.

This is really hammering home point number two again, but this is just for if you want to make a case for 4th line agitators instead of regular shift guys. Hollweg was a fourth line guy, and there wasn’t much use for him on the penalty kill. If someone in the top nine was injured, there was no way you wanted to increase Hollweg’s ice time, and play him up in the lineup for a bit.

At the very least you’d hope the player can be a net presence. Ideally you don’t hold your breath every time the puck is on their stick.

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4. The other team would give them up. 

So you have somehow managed to find a player that meets the criteria above. Cool. Like Matty said, these players should be easier to find than elite goal scorers, the question still remains, will the other team give them up?

I’m willing to bet the market shrinks a lot because of this. While they aren’t your elite talents, I think most teams want to keep some of these guys around because they do serve a purpose. Especially in a seven game series.

In House Options

I can’t help but think the Leafs might be growing their own in Mason Marchment. His injury certainly sets back the timeline for if he can make the Leafs, but there is no doubt that the Marchment name is second to none when it comes to causing shit. He would absolutely meet the first criteria of being cheap, and the last criteria of being available, but it remains to be seen if he can be more than just a role player in the NHL. He’d need a chance to show what he is, but it seems like the 2nd part of the criteria may be hard to obtain.

Additionally the Leafs do have players like Trevor Moore and Zach Hyman, who while are not true agitators, they are maybe the light version of this and arguably so is Kasperi Kapanen when he chooses to be. It’s not a bad foundation for the Leafs to build off of, but personally I’d like bigger shit heels.

Frankly, there’s little reason to not turn the Marlies into a shit heel factory. If you want to make the Leafs, why not encourage players to play with an edge. Here’s how you are going to separate yourself from the pack. If Egor Korshkov and Pierre Engvall wake up tomorrow and start using their size to throw marginally late hits, or Jeremy Bracco becomes the king of the facewash, well, that’s something you could see challenging for a bottom six job on the Leafs. As much as I’ve told myself Gauthier has improved this year, I’m still disappointed there isn’t a mean streak.

Looking outside the organization

Well, we’re scratching anyone named Tkachuk off the list unfortunately. As good as they are, I have my doubts they’ll be available. Similarly, I think that Lucic guy is past his prime and a little pricey. The list really narrows, I’d love to make a case for Chris Kreider who I think is the perfect example of what a good greasy player is, but the salary cap will forever be our enemy. Instead here’s the list of who I think might be worth a look…

Player Team AAV GP G Pt CF% xG% Pen Drawn Pen Taken
Nick Ritchie Ducks $1.5M 60 6 21 48.9 46.6 5 21
Lawson Crouse Coyotes $1.53M 81 8 20 45.2 48.8 14 11
Brendan Perlini Blackhawks $874k 46 11 3 45.4 40.4 5 7
Givani Smith Red Wings $913k
Kyle Clifford Kings $1.6M 72 9 19 52.1 52.2 10 18
Josh Ho-Sang* Islanders $874k 10 1 2 59.0 60.3 3 2
Brendan Leipsic Capitals $700k 62 6 19 46.2 44.7 13 8

all numbers in 5v5 situations and sourced from NaturalStatTrick.com

So there are a few things that will need some further exploration here, and we’ll get right to that starting with the player who has an asterisk next to their name.

Josh Ho-Sang

Ho-Sang is by no means a player who to date falls into an agitator or shit disturber role, unless off the ice counts. He’s certainly shown that at times in junior he could slip into that role, and given his inability to stick in the NHL so far, I’d make a case for him adding this as an important skill set to keep him around.

Ho-Sang is priced right and can play up in the lineup. He’s definitely available, and worth the rolling of the dice, especially since he can start in the AHL.

Givani Smith

Smith might be hard to pry out of Detroit given that Steve Yzerman will probably see young players with upside as more critical to his next steps over his aging veteran core. That being said, I’m including Smith anyway because he’s priced right and has the size and toughness to be worth a look if the price isn’t too high. He doesn’t have any NHL stats to go off of, but he 13 points in 64 games in the AHL last year, with 86 PIMs. This year he’s started off with 4 points in 4 games before getting recalled by Detroit.

Brendan Perlini

Perlini doesn’t really have the mean streak of some of the players on the list, but that doesn’t mean the Leafs can’t try to instill one in him. He looks to be on the outs in Chicago, and likely to be moving on to his third organization at some point.

Perlini is a buy low candidate similar to Ho-Sang in that he’s a good canvas to work off of. Where he’d fit into the lineup today is a bit more of a debate as he wouldn’t be eligible to head to the Marlies for reprogramming as a heel.

Kyle Clifford

Another year and another chance to start talking about Kyle Clifford coming to the Leafs. I’m not sure Clifford belongs in the disturber conversation and he’s not likely to become one, but he’s not a player who shies away from aggressive play and would fit the mold of players like Hyman, Moore, and Kapanen who provide hits of toughness while primarily doing a good job of playing hockey.

Clifford as a former client of Kyle Dubas is going to be a constant source of speculation, and perhaps he doesn’t fully belong in this discussion, but the goal isn’t to find the biggest and baddest agitators. It’s to find guys who play hockey well and exhibit some of those abilities.

Nick Ritchie

Remember when people wanted to draft Ritchie instead of Nylander? The Leafs need size they said. The Leafs need to play tougher. Well, they were kinda right, but not at the expense of passing on Nylander. A few years later and Ritchie is a bottom six player who can probably be added fairly cheap, assuming the Leafs can move a bit of salary to fit him in. There’s some hope he could find some of his offensive game and the idea of him tanking around the ice like Tom Wilson would be something I’d like to see. In reality, he might be the least skilled guy on this list and would be an overpriced fourth liner if he doesn’t pan out.

Brendan Leipsic

Might as well throw a former Leaf on the list. Leipsic was going to be the pest of the future before the Leafs decided they were okay with him going in the Vegas draft. That doesn’t appear to be a mistake, but now, making league minimum and bouncing around the league, maybe he’s worth a second look. He’s priced right and if he hits waivers at some point, a claim wouldn’t be the worst thing assuming the Leafs are comfortable moving on from one from Spezza or Shore to bring him in.

Lawson Crouse

Remember when people wanted to draft Crouse instead of Marner? The Leafs need size they said. The Leafs need to play tougher. This is not a broken record. It really does seem to be an annual thing that Leafs fans want to prioritize toughness over skill at the draft. The outrage can be traced back far beyond people wanting to draft Zach Kassian over Nazem Kadri, and it’s probably not going away anytime soon.

While absolutely everyone who said that picking Crouse high in the draft was a bad idea was proven right, that doesn’t change that he appears to be a very competent third line player who would bring a bit more physicality to the Leafs. I’m not entirely sure why the Coyotes would want to part ways with Crouse, but John Chayka has never been shy about making trades.

TL;DR

So, there might be some truth to what Jim Matheson has said. That being said, the Leafs should be careful about constructing a team that is built to deal with Boston and Boston alone. If they over commit to the pest life, they will sacrifice some skill, and there’s also the very important factor that no one will ever do what Boston does as well as Boston. You beat Boston by not playing Boston hockey.

However, let’s say you’ve built your team 90% the high skill Leafs way, is there any harm in adding a couple of wildcards to the organization who could fill an important role at times throughout the season and in the playoffs? I don’t think so. As much as I love Jim Matheson being wrong, I’m not sure he is this time. I just don’t think addressing this is a priority and the help could come from inside the organization.