Photo credit:Nick Turchiaro-USA TODAY Sports
Maple Leafs ‘snot’ makes its first appearance of the season against Vancouver
By Alex Hobson3 months ago
Outside “Matthews” and “extension”, no word may have found its way into Toronto Maple Leafs articles more than “snot” did this past offseason. With the awkward handing of the torch between general managers Kyle Dubas and Brad Treliving, one of the main things the latter stressed in his introduction to the media was just that – the need for ‘snot’.
While he may not have gone about it in the smartest way, Treliving certainly delivered on his call for more snot. First, he signed notorious bruiser Ryan Reaves to a three-year contract (who’s actually made the least impact of anybody, funny enough, but we’ll get to that later). Then, he followed up with the signings of Max Domi and Tyler Bertuzzi. Neither of these players are known for throwing thunderous hits or dropping the gloves, but both of them play a gritty style in the corners and will go to bat for their teammates if needed.
With the arrival of such players and the departures of those such as Alex Kerfoot and Pierre Engvall, who aren’t known for physical play, the Leafs appeared to have a new mindset going into 2023-24. It took a little over a month of games and some serious media scrutiny, but it would appear that the newfound “snotty” Leafs are finally here.
Before we talk about that though, let’s talk about what led us to this point.
The first month of the Leafs’ season was no different than any other year – mediocre. The team had games here and there where they looked like they could be the best team in the league, with a multitude of sloppy efforts mixed in. To make matters worse this time around, they were much worse defensively – something that was expected with the trade off for increased depth scoring and toughness, but there was one problem. The depth scoring and toughness hadn’t shown up yet.
Reaves, although tied for the team lead in hits, hadn’t made a legitimate physical impact on a game since the second tilt of the season against the Minnesota Wild. On top of that, the fourth line was getting absolutely carved every time he was on the ice. I know that plus/minus isn’t really a stat to be relied on, but a minus-9 rating in your first month of the season is impressively bad, especially when you’re averaging less than seven minutes of ice time per game. On top of that, Bertuzzi and Domi couldn’t comfortably play their games because they were too focused on trying to find their spot in Sheldon Keefe’s system.
This is all fine and dandy – sometimes new acquisitions take a little bit longer to fit in. That said, one aspect of your game that shouldn’t take long to fit in is your willingness to stand up for your teammates. They had an opportunity to do so against the Boston Bruins, when Brad Marchand can-opened Timothy Liljegren into the boards, but nothing happened. Not on the ice immediately afterwards, and not on the shift following the instant replay. This was the type of moment that Reaves was specifically signed for, and all he did was throw some chirps Marchand’s way from the bench. Needless to say, the Leafs got grilled enough to the point where they had to hold a team meeting to address the lack of response.
If you watched what happened in Saturday’s game against the red-hot Vancouver Canucks, you’d have guessed it was a whole different team to the one that bowed down to the Bruins a couple of weeks ago. David Kampf got drilled by Canucks forward Dakota Joshua, and 40-year-old Mark Giordano instantly went after Joshua and dropped the gloves against him. He got an instigator penalty, sparking the evergreen “was it worth it” debate, and the Canucks promptly scored on the power play, but the fans got the response they wanted.
Later in the game, Nick Robertson, who has a history of being injury prone, was laid out in open ice by veteran defenceman Ian Cole. Without hesitation, Robertson’s new linemate Max Domi jumped Cole and dropped the gloves with him. The same thing happened again, with Domi getting an instigator and the Canucks promptly scoring on the power plays.
Regardless of the on-ice repercussions coming from the fights, the Leafs felt great about the response, perhaps helped by the fact that they won the game 5-2.
Another shocking development to this story is that, for the first time in what feels like forever, the Leafs are currently leading the NHL in hits. And not by a small margin either. Toronto leads the league with 342 in that department, with the next-highest by a team being the Vegas Golden Knights with 300. And what makes it especially impressive is that they’re getting contributions from everybody. Auston Matthews is third on the list with 25 hits in 15 games. Right behind him is fellow Arizona product Matthew Knies with 24 in 15 games. They’ve been getting physical contributions from depth additions like William Lagesson, who has 17 hits in eight games. Even players like Mitch Marner, not typically known for physical play, has carried his weight with 16 hits in 15 games.
It’s important to remember that “team toughness” is more or less meaningless if teams around the league know they can push the Leafs around. They had a fair amount of physical players last season, but there were still far too many instances where they got bullied and there was no physical response. What Domi and Giordano did will satisfy the fans for a while, but it doesn’t truly matter in the grand scheme of things until they apply it to their game all year long. So, stay tuned on that front, but if nothing else, it’s nice to see them show their opponent they won’t be pushed around for a change.
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