As much as Mike Babcock was criticized in his time in Toronto, one thing we can all agree on is when the team finally took off after the Matthews lottery, they were a team that played with a ton of pace. Hell, even in the year they finished in dead last, they were at least quick to get to the puck, even if they couldn’t do anything with it.
Now it’s been a year since Babcock was fired, and Keefe will finally get his (sort of) full camp and a new season to start fresh with a group he and Kyle Dubas no doubt talked a lot about over the break. It became clear toward Babcock’s last few months that the team was no longer interested in his style. But something that seems evident in hindsight, at least to me, is that the Leafs under Babcock were probably never really made to play with a torrid speed he established. And with their makeup now, I’d argue that’s even more true.
It’s tough to define fast and slow in hockey. You could argue a team that suffocates the other and limits games to 2-1 affairs is a slow team. Do teams like the Isles and Jackets, who appear to grind out wins, fit the bill of “slow”? I’m not sure. That doesn’t seem to be the definition in my mind. I’d actually argue teams that want to smother space are fast, they hit the gas every shift and look to frustrate other teams. In terms of good teams that are “slow” I’d actually look to a club like the Bruins, that simply play a smart style, hold on to the puck. Aging guys like Chara, Bergeron and Krejci are fine within that system and they seem like a team that doesn’t necessarily gun it every shift. The Lightning have similar elements, and I think that’s why they were able to fit in guys like Bogosian, Maroon, and Schenn without much of a fuss. Whatever the definition, you know the Leafs have had no part of “slow” hockey the last few years, including this most recent one:
Being a slower team, I think in some sense, is about pushing the game in front of you, and now Toronto is becoming perfectly suited to that style.
Think about it. We don’t expect Joe Thornton to put up massive point totals, but he will be an important part of the team, and adding him puts arguably a top-five playmaker of all time in a lineup with a top-five shooter (Matthews). Is this a team that wants to grind and beat it out to every puck? It just doesn’t seem in their makeup, now especially.
The team as it stands is quite multi-faceted, and I’d say the element of speed is becoming lower on the list of priorities than it has been in the past. In fact, I’d say the only real burner on the back end now is Rielly, with most of the core of that group in Brodie and Muzzin and (eventually) Sandin more so positional and transitional players. Sure Brodie and Sandin can skate, but it isn’t their bread and butter by any means.
And the Leafs are committing to these players. Muzzin and Brodie are on long term deals, Sandin is in the fold forever as a building block, up front Spezza and Thornton are veterans that want to play important parts even if it’s under limited minutes. Simmonds is another veteran who isn’t a burner by any means. He’ll post up in front of the net and make his mark there mostly. All of these players are more “heady” than known for any point-to-point speed. The Leafs’ makeup is now-more-than-ever in line with teams like the Bruins or Penguins or Lightning than the firewagon brand they’ve been fine with playing the last few years.
And then there are the core guys. Nylander and Marner are strong skaters, but are both actually at their best in the lanes, going in and out. Matthews, though a shooter, is a lot like Thornton in terms of his pace and the way he can push the game in front of him. Tavares has simply never been a great skater.
Indeed, it might be time that the Leafs slow things down and let them open up that way. Sure, trading rush for rush has been fun, and with the offensive power they’ve had they can overcome that style. But I wonder if, when this new season gets going, if their focus isn’t more on a style that moves the puck up the ice slower and with more intention. The moves they’ve made in the offseason certainly point that way.