The Leafs need to improve their mentality to become tough by committee

Photo credit:© Nick Turchiaro-USA TODAY Sports
Michael Mazzei
1 year ago
When it comes to the playstyle of the Leafs, one thing that consistently gets brought up in terms of an area of weakness is the lack of the team being tough to play against.
Meaning that players on the Leafs can be cross-checked, high-sticked, or slashed and their teammates will not put up much resistance to let the opposition know that they won’t get off scot-free.
It is true that the Leafs are among the leaders in hits to begin the 2022-23 season as they currently sit third with 149 behind only the Predators and Capitals. Much of that has to do with new additions like Nicolas Aube-Kubel and Zach Aston-Reese, and some of the mainstays like Rasmus Sandin and Auston Matthews.
It’s a good place to start, but dishing out hits is not the only thing that defines team toughness. A big part is sticking up for your guys when one of them gets hit or standing up for yourself. This is something that the Leafs have struggled with on a consistent basis for years and do not have enough players that instinctively stand up for themselves, support their teammates, and protect the crease to prevent the screen.
It is for this reason that you hear a significant portion of the fanbase complain about how the Leafs do not have enough players that show heart or tenacity to prevent opposing teams from running all over them. Why else do countless armchair GMs make trades that involve the Leafs acquiring players that fit the mould of a sandpaper playstyle while surrendering guys who are more skilled?
That isn’t to say the Leafs do not have anyone that has the willingness to engage in scrums more often than not, with players like Michael Bunting, Wayne Simmonds, and Kyle Clifford leading the charge. But the problem is that Bunting is the only mainstay on the roster and the latter two don’t bring enough to be everyday players at this stage of their careers.
Bunting alone will not be enough to help the Leafs improve their identity of toughness by committee, and that was evident during Thursday’s game against the Stars.
Throughout the game, Matthews was seemingly high-sticked, slashed, and hit on every single shift, that includes this cross-check from Jamie Benn that stung Matthews quite a bit. Despite going to the bench in considerable discomfort afterwards, there was not much of a response from the Leafs to let Benn and the Stars know they wouldn’t get away with it that easily, with the only exception being this one moment late in the third when Bunting went after Jani Hakanpaa for taking a run at Matthews.
Another example that highlights this problem was this sequence where Mark Giordano went awkwardly into the boards. Although it is clear now that Giordano got toe-picked and was not hit by Luke Glendening, there was a noticeable lack of a response from the three Leafs players in the vicinity of the veteran defenceman (apart from Nick Robertson shielding off Giordano from further ailment). In the heat of the moment, the Leafs should have instinctively stuck up for their teammate and let Glendening know they would not tolerate anyone going after the aging wonder. Instead, they all just stood as the defencemen lay down on the ice in pain.
The fear of taking a penalty should not stop the Leafs from playing this way, they need to show more often that everyone can depend on each other and defend themselves when opposing players take runs at them.
They obviously need to be smart about it and not take a needless penalty such as a retaliatory slash, hook, or cross-check, but demonstrating a reaction to plays like these more routinely will help the players grow trust in one another knowing that everyone will have each other’s back no matter what.
During last week’s game against the Capitals, Garnet Hathaway took a run at Matthews along the boards and Bunting was once again the only player that took exception. Hathaway would subsequently be at the focal point of Leafs as he was targeted on some hits before John Tavares went after him during a scrum.
It is good that Tavares was eager to engage in this scrum, but he also did not put up much resistance and the unpleasantries ended just as quickly as they began. I will not consider myself to be a mind reader, but the look on Hathaway’s face makes me think he was bewildered that Tavares barely put up a fight.
This issue is not limited to the NHL team, it also affects the prospects down in the AHL. Last week saw Erik Kallgren get run over by Ethan Prow and Clifford was the only one that really took exception to it by going after Prow. Curtis Douglas was in the vicinity of the collision and it takes him nearly eight seconds before he decides to join the ensuing scrum, well after most of his linemates have engaged.
While it is true that these are all isolated incidents, they are part of a collective problem that the Leafs do not consistently stand up for each other and themselves.
As I mentioned earlier, the lack of a response after the whistle on a regular basis subconsciously tells the opposition that they can do whatever they want without much repercussion from the Leafs. This is part of the reason why teams like the Canadiens, Bruins, and Lightning have been able to exploit this weakness from the Leafs: they have more guys who showcase this playstyle and Toronto does not have enough players who are keen to answer the bell when the situation calls for it.
It does not need to happen every single night, but there need to be enough instances where the Leafs stand up for each other to let opposing teams know they will have to endure some retaliation if they go after one of Toronto’s guys. And it needs to be a collective effort from the big five down to the fringe players and even the goalies. Otherwise, they will need to bring in more players that can provide that more frequently because help from within is not coming.
While this clip is a hit from Matthews, there is a reason why the crowd at Scotiabank Arena reacts the way they did: they want to see their players showcase a willingness to stick up for themselves combined with their natural talents.
Matthews showcasing that playstyle is great, but the rest of the Leafs’ key contributors need to do the same more regularly to help ensure this mentality gets instilled throughout their roster.
When Tavares goes into a scrum, he needs to show some anger and more resistance because it will carry weight given that he wears the ‘C’ on his sweater. Mitch Marner and William Nylander are not going to become enforcers anytime soon, but playing consistently with some feistiness if one of their teammates gets knocked down can also create a significant boost to team morale. There have been moments where Morgan Rielly stood up for his teammates, and doing so more often would help tremendously.
I bring up these five players, in particular, because they are the Leafs’ most important pieces on account that all of them make up over half of the Leafs’ salary cap. These are the guys that will dictate how well the team performs and how far they can take them in the playoffs.
Skill has allowed the team to consistently compete for the playoffs every year, but it has to be combined with that comradery in order to push them over the top. If the Leafs’ top five contributors are playing as they usually do while intuitively protecting their guys on a constant basis in addition to the ones already doing it like Bunting, then it will carry down more easily throughout the roster. This will send a message throughout the rest of the lineup that they need to step up their mindset or lose their spot to someone who will.
A trade for a player who will gladly show a willingness to defend his teammates no matter what combined with their talented skillset would certainly be beneficial in that department. That means targeting someone like Travis Konecny, Timo Meier, or Lawson Crouse to add more tenacity to the mix. While it will definitely help, it can only do so much; this will need to be instilled in as many players as possible to ensure that the Leafs are a pain to play against.
Simmonds slotting in for tonight’s game against the Jets definitely provides a boost on that front, but the burden cannot be placed on one or two players to stand up for themselves and their teammates. There needs to be a united endeavour from everyone in order to make the Leafs harder for teams to deal with while being smart with their decision-making to avoid taking unnecessary penalties. If they fail to do so, their opponents will continue to do as they please without much reverberation.
The Leafs often talk about how tight-knit the locker room is and that they are like a family. That may be true with their off-ice interactions, but they do not show it enough on the ice. There needs to be a change in attitude from the players to instinctively stand up for each other on a consistent basis because otherwise, the same problems from seasons past will prevent this core from achieving anything noteworthy.
Stats from Hockey-Reference.com and Natural Stat Trick.

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