How should the Leafs address their team toughness?

It’s no secret that the Leafs have been built to celebrate skill, and beat their opposition with speed and accuracy, and pretty goals. Though that hasn’t really worked a whole lot for the Leafs in moving beyond the first round of the playoffs. Seeing teams like the Islanders move on to the Conference Finals on the strength of physical play, and being out muscled by Columbus is going to inspire that sentiment in a lot of fans and now with the Leafs looking to make some offseason assessments, we’re asking to what extent do the Leafs need to address the issue of team toughness, and how exactly do they do that.


Kyle Clifford will not be re-signing with the Leafs

Scott Maxwell (@scotmaxw)

Last season, the Tampa Bay Lightning got swept by the Columbus Blue Jackets while looking out matched physically, thought to be a big reason for the loss. So, Lightning GM Julian Brisebois went out and changed that. During the offseason and regular season, the Lightning brought in Pat Maroon, Blake Coleman, and Barclay Goodrow, all good players that have a physical edge and won’t be intimidated by teams like the Boston Bruins and Columbus Blue Jackets.

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For me, that is the biggest key for the Leafs when addressing this need. Don’t get desperate and bring in physical players who aren’t actually good at hockey just for the sake of bringing in physicality. While Radko Gudas and Wayne Simmonds bring that physical edge, they’ve seen better days as players and will probably hurt the team more than cost them. I can’t say I know exactly which players like this to bring in for the Leafs, this is the most important factor when making this kind of move.

Also, another important thing to remember is that the Lightning did not have to break up the core in order to bring this element to their game. Sure, they gave up some futures to get it done, but they didn’t have to sacrifice a single piece of their NHL roster to do it, and it’s paying off in dividends so far for them.

MerOutLoud (@meroutloud)

I agree with Scott. I think the Leafs, through Kyle’s maneuvering, need to stay true to the identity they’ve committed to – which is of a highly skilled team. Adding some “grit” or “toughness” shouldn’t be done at the expense of that commitment, but rather should compliment it. That said, I’m also not against the idea of having one or two guys who we all know will be The Guy if there’s a need for it on the ice. You can love or hate them, but having a Ryan Reaves or Tom Wilson or even Brad Marchand on the ice can be really helpful. (None of those guys is going to be a Leaf, but I’m sure there are similar players Kyle can kick some rocks to find.)I also think that there’s potential for some of the current Leafs to get a bit more physical. Zach Hyman could step it up a bit, Muzzin doesn’t seem afraid of a little fight, and even Auston has been using his physicality and size a bit more recently. I think there’s room for a balance between skill/talent and some grit, for lack of a better word, and some of the current Leafs might have it in them.

Mark Norman (@mnorman87)

Watching the Leafs this season, it too often felt like our opponents were treating games against us like a free skate. If I were to summarize things in one word, it would be that our opponents were “unafraid”: unafraid of cutting through the middle of the ice, going to the front of the net, or heading into the corners. It’s not that we were getting bullied and pushed around this season: there just wasn’t much in the way of pushback or making things hard for our opponents.

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Part of fixing that comes from within, and I think that comes with experience. When you’re new in the league and still feel like a kid, getting into scrums with full-grown adults can be intimidating. As our young core gets older and wiser, perhaps that comfort for laying the body, doling out cross-checks in the corners, and getting involved in scrums may start to materialize. Just make it less enjoyable for your opponents!

When you look at the Leafs this last season, of the players who played more than half of our games, just one player averaged more than 7 hits-per-60, with 15.8. Go ahead and guess. How far down your list was Dmytro Timashov? Next up was a guy that many Leafs fans complain doesn’t use his frame to punish opponents, Frederik Gauthier with 6.9 hits-per-60. That in itself speaks to an issue with our team’s physicality, when our smallest forward and meek giant are leading the team in hits.
Now that may speak to how the fourth line was deployed this season: to get pucks in deep, cycle and keep it out of our zone. And for the guys at the bottom of the list, there’s truth to the notion that if you have the puck often, as skilled players do, there’s less opportunity to hit your opponent. But I have to think that there’s some room to grow for our skill guys to start leaning into their opponents more.

As for suitable external options, we’re not just looking for face punchers or pure grinders: you definitely want guys who can pot a goal here and there. That makes options like Wayne Simmonds desirable, as long as it’s for the right price. Trade-wise, perhaps you can get Lawson Crouse out of Arizona, Marcus Foligno from Minnesota, or Zach Sanford out of St. Louis. All of these players played at a pace higher than 25 points over 82 games and doled out more than 8 hits per 60 mins played.

Earl Schwartz (@earlschwartz27)

There’s a simple solution to the Leafs grit problem, find out what Dustin Byfuglien’s favourite thing is and have MLSE purchase the entire supply chain of said thing. You then use his favourite thing as leverage to get him out of retirement. Since he’s over 35 he can sign for league minimum and get the rest in performance bonuses, up to ~$6m. Just point at the problem and have the largest man on the ice swing them around by their ankles.

If that doesn’t work for some reason, look at what Tampa Bay did this year. They needed D depth and physicality, and they waited for the guys that other teams passed on. They got Shattenkirk, Schenn, and Bogosian for a combined $3.75m when just a year prior those players came in at a cap hit over $12.5m.

The Leafs should absolutely make an offer on Pietrangelo if he reaches UFA. They should also see how much DeMelo and Gudas want, but if the right fit is out of their price range the Leafs would be foolish to throw money at someone who is physical and”good enough”.They can also look to add bigger forwards up front, but that takes the chance away from a player like Egor Korshkov.

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Since physical players cost so much in free agency, it might be more sensible to get players who are valuable in the regular season then trade for more physical players at the deadline when the cap is more flexible.

Brendan Mori (@bmori98)

As other’s have mentioned. The Leafs should not go out of their way to add toughness to the lineup. It needs to be a complementary trait, added alongside speed, skill and hockey IQ.

They need to do what Tampa did this past offseason, identify skilled players with some toughness and sandpaper in their game (Maroon, Coleman, Goodrow).

If the Leafs can reconfigure their bottom six to have more toughness and sandpaper WITHOUT sacrificing skill, I think they’ll be in a much better place and more poised to make a run. The key though is not sacrificing skill and hockey IQ for it.

On top of this, the natural evolution of the team’s top players will only help too. We know know that Zach Hyman is like a pitbull, we started to see Auston Matthews use his body more this past season. Marner and Nylander are more slippery than physical, yet will need to continue to be relentless on the forecheck (similar to Hyman) and hound puck carriers.

Michael Mazzei (@theleafsimo)

As much as we like to think that physicality has been phased out of hockey, the reality his that it still remains valuable. It is especially the case during the playoffs in which teams possessing players with a sandpaper play style in combination with skill have gone far.

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Think about the Kyle Clifford departure from yesterday. While he does provide the physical play style that the Leafs needed, his overall value in other areas is limited which isn’t going to cut it when the games are most important. We saw this in the qualifying round vs. Columbus where apart from a few shifts, he did not thread the needle much at all.

The Tampa Bay Lightning provide the blueprint for the type of players Toronto should be on the market for in regards to improving their sandpaper style of play. One of those guys they acquired is Blake Coleman, who is someone I’ve mentioned previously as a perfect fit on this Leafs team. It’s also why you keep hearing Wayne Simmonds as a potential addition to the team.

They key to making this work is buy in from the players already on the Leafs as well. Adding these physical players would help Toronto out a ton, but it will all be for naught if the rest of the roster also doesn’t follow suit in some way. It’s why seeing Auston Matthews start to play with an edge is a positive sign, along with Kasperi Kapanen before he was traded to the Pittsburgh Penguins. I’m not saying the Leafs need to abandon their skillful play, but they will need to also play physical to not get bullied along the boards and be able to not get phased by what teams like the Blue Jackets and Bruins throw their way.

So it comes down to searching the open market for players that play with an edge who can also provide skill that will be a primary focus this offseason, regardless of whether it’s from a trade or a signing. This in combination with more but in from the players will do wonders in giving the Leafs’s better shot at going further in the postseason than in previous campaigns.

Nick Barden (@nickbarden)

The 2020-21 season screams toughness for the Maple Leafs. As we watched Kyle Clifford in this year’s playoffs, we learned that physicality on its own doesn’t win you a series. I love Clifford, but for the Maple Leafs to have success they need a well-rounded player who can be physical, but also know how to be effective offensively.

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Giving some of the Toronto Marlies’ top players a chance could be a start. If you give the opportunity to one of them, they won’t take it for granted. After seeing Andreas Johnsson and now-traded Kasperi Kapanen bring their physicality once they graduated to the Maple Leafs, I think bringing up new players is a step in the right direction.

Dubas also shouldn’t be afraid to look outside the organization for toughness either. There’s so many players who can provide both physicality and skill that it would be smart to also go that way. And maybe, just maybe, sign Wayne Simmonds (if he takes a pay cut.)

Jon Steitzer (@jonsteitzer)

I think a lot of what has been said above echos my thoughts. I certainly don’t think dismissing team toughness is the way to go. Being a physically imposing team should not become the identity of the Leafs, but they need to find a way of infusing into their lineup without sacrificing the overall direction of the team.

It’s a shame that players like Martin Marincin and Freddie Gauthier never realized how big they were and decided to use that to their advantage and that’s why I’d be ready to move on from them as Leafs regulars. The Leafs depth players need to realize that it’s on them to pick up the physical play and doing so is part of what keeps them in the lineup. Jason Spezza seems to be grasping this concept, and the expectation of all forwards not named Matthews, Tavares, Marner, and Nylander need to realize that part of what keeps them in the lineup is a willingness to be physical. On defense I’d say that rule applies to everyone not named Morgan Rielly, and in a perfect world he’d use his conditioning to his advantage to win puck battles and force the oppositions play more frequently.

I wouldn’t say going out and landing Radko Gudas, Wayne Simmonds, bringing back Matt Martin, etc. is the answer, but rather taking a flyer on a number of league minimum guys like Matt Beleskey, Curtis Lazar, and Alex Petrovic and seeing if they want to push for NHL roles by playing an aggressive game. I’d also personally consider Ilya Lyubushkin from the Coyotes as a slightly more expensive, but still affordable option, assuming he’s made available.

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Of course if that doesn’t pan out, Earl has the right idea and you can always find tough guys at the trade deadline for reasonable prices, especially in an expansion draft year. The Leafs have more pressing issues on their blueline that will draw the front office’s focus this offseason.

Are we off on this one? Do we need to return to the glory days of Colton Orr, Mike Komisarek, Garnett Exelby, and Colby Armstrong, or is infusing a little more bite into the games of each player all that is required? Tell us in the comments.