I’ll spare you the trip down memory lane to the failed David Clarkson era and the mind-boggling stupidity of paying Matt Martin $2.5M AAV for four years. We can all acknowledge that the Leafs history is riddled with mistakes that only serve to ruin what could still be a pretty good weekend.
Instead, we’ll focus on the recent Keefe-era Leafs and explore how there seems to be a steady decline in outputs from physical forwards the second they put on the blue and white.
Wayne Simmonds serves as Exhibit A here and perhaps the weakest argument as Simmonds did seem capable of playing a role in the Leafs lineup when he arrived. In his first 12 games with the Leafs, Simmonds picked up 5 goals and it was a wrist injury that shut him down.
After that initial season, Simmonds’s time on ice declined sharply. He was still doing what he was brought in to do and that was hit a ton, and fight when he was called upon to do so, but he very much was a fourth liner after his wrist injury and the shifts in the top nine were almost non-existent.
Simmonds’ numbers have also been in a steady decline with his CF%, xG%, and HDCF% all falling last season and starting out even worse in his limited time this season. Still last season his hit totals were up over his first year and he was still the checking forward he was brought in to be.
With Simmonds, it could age and the accompanying foot speed catching up with him leading to a decline, but he is just one player in this trend.
Nick Foligno is another example of a physical player not being a fit for the Leafs. His time with the Leafs was short-lived and again his struggles can be attributed to injury, but there seemed to be a fundamental misunderstanding of what the Leafs were getting rather than Foligno not playing the way he plays. Foligno hit and fought as advertised, and his four assists in his seven regular season games for the Leafs look decent on paper, and his declining results in the playoffs are again heavily influenced by injury.
This could be another case of the Leafs acquiring a player five years after they were effective, or it could have been the Leafs not knowing how to inject physical play into their lineup.
By its nature, high hit totals are probably going to accompany negative shot differential numbers as it speaks to the Leafs not being in control of the puck. Most importantly, like Simmonds, Foligno never found a consistent place in the lineup to thrive. He was attached to each of the top three lines at some point and Toronto couldn’t find an effective fit anywhere.
That brings us to Nick Ritchie.
Ah, Nick Ritchie no player when from bargain signing to contractual albatross faster than Ritchie. His role was to be a simple one, a sheltered power forward, but the Leafs thought putting him on the first line made more sense. When that didn’t work out, things didn’t really go much better.
The bar wasn’t high for Ritchie, but he had 15 goals, and 26 points with the Bruins the previous year, and he quickly rebounded to 10 goals, and 14 points with the Coyotes in his remaining 24 games last year, and is off to a decent start this year. As far as I can tell he’s still just a big dude sent out on the ice to hit stuff, clog up the high danger era in front of the opposition’s net, and knock home the occasional rebound. It seems to work everywhere but Toronto.
That brings us to Nic Aube-Kubel, and to some extent Zach Aston-Reese. Neither one has been strong in the regular season, but Aston-Reese has been somewhat better. Both have spent time in the press box, but Zach’s resume and better contract have certainly earned him a longer leash than Aube-Kubel has.
The numbers support Aston-Reese as being the better option in the small sample over Aube-Kubel, but certainly both are struggling. What might be the most interesting thing is that on paper Kyle Clifford has been the best physical option for the Leafs and coming into this year he was the most universally panned.
Still what most of these guys do isn’t really about the numbers and it’s more about creating opportunities for other players to thrive. So far the Leafs haven’t been thriving either.
So that brings us back to the big question here. Other teams, good times, have found ways to use physical play to their advantage. In the Atlantic Division, it’s easy to point to the success of the Lightning, the Bruins, and the Panthers when making the case for physical play. The fact that teams like Montreal and Ottawa have been effective against the less physical Leafs also shows that it’s possible to close the gap with more talented teams. So the question is why do the Leafs struggle so much to inject an effective physical element into their game?
The answer to this question needs to be answered at some point this season. Late in the season, the Leafs will have the opportunity to bring Matthew Knies into their fold, and having Knies as a promising power forward would certainly beat having him as an ineffective bottom six crash and banger. There are truths in between the two, but with the Leafs there needs to be some concern that the ineffective option could be at least the immediate reality.
To some extent the solution needs to involve the Leafs continuing to inch towards each player playing tougher. It can’t be the obligation of a few players, every player needs to do it and just rely on the Aube-Kubel/Aston-Reese types to do it a bit better than everyone else.
Looking at the success that Aube-Kubel had last season, it was with a fast, young forward like Alex Newhook, and centers like JT Compher and Tyson Jost. Or Darren Helm, older but still fast-ish. Speed and some offense ability seemed to be part of the equation for success, His better play in Philadelphia was alongside Michael Raffl and Scott Laughton, a very fairly well defined checking line.
As for Zach Aston-Reese, despite his time in Pittsburgh he was not a “Mark Donk” type of winger that could be adjoined to Crosby or Malkin’s line for instant success. Aston-Reese was at his best in a true checking line, and playing with Teddy Blueger or Brian Boyle. Zach seems to be the ideal fourth liner that is capable of being a low liability to pick up the occasional shift on the higher lines if needed.
Steering away from this archetype of player hasn’t been ideal for the Leafs, but there hasn’t been much success there recently either. As much as it hasn’t worked out so far there is plenty of time to figure it out and there could be a benefit in it for Toronto.
As for Aube-Kubel, there is a pretty good chance he clears waivers today and the Leafs have a bit more flexibility in how players like Aube-Kubel, Aston-Reese, Gaudette, Simmonds, and Clifford fit in with the Leafs plans for the bottom six of the Leafs.