For years now, the Toronto Maple Leafs have had a problem that has been clear to the media, fans, and as the Amazon documentary revealed, especially to the team itself. Despite being one of the NHL’s most skilled teams on paper, the roster struggled mentally, lacking that extra gear necessary to succeed at the highest level. However, as we cross the quarter mark of the 2021/2022 NHL season, it seems that the team may have finally found their killer instinct.
In previous seasons, the team’s lack of urgency and what appeared to be a lack of passion cost the franchise countless wins. Whether it was starting games late, playing down to weaker opponents, or seemingly giving up on a game the moment things got tough, the worst kept secret in hockey was that the easiest way to beat Toronto was to get into their heads.
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We saw it in the collapse to the Montreal Canadiens when the team thought the series was over and stopped trying, we saw it during the David Ayers game when Carolina made things hard on Toronto and they folded in response, and we saw it every time an opponent got physical and the Leafs spent more time feeling sorry for themselves than fighting back. All of this is behaviour we haven’t seen for quite some time now.
After Friday’s 4-1 win over the San Jose Sharks, Wayne Simmonds had a postgame quote that caught a lot of people’s attention.
“This is the amount of skill we have on this team. You know, it’s almost harder practicing than it is playing games sometimes,” said Simmonds during the media scrum.
Taken out of context, the quote seems like an athlete flexing on their opponents, which in itself would be deserved for a team that had just won 13 of their last 15 and looked downright dominant at times while doing so. However, during that same interview, Simmonds gave plenty of context as to what he meant, and in doing so revealed a culture shift around the team that is sure to excite even their most critical fans.
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When asked about the team’s hot streak and whether it had made them content with their record so far, Simmonds explained that they weren’t satisfied by any means. He elaborated that within every game a new challenge is presented, even detailing how despite that night’s 4-1 victory, there were still lessons to be learned including limiting the amount of chances that were given up in the third period and generally grinding down their opponents more while late in games.
It was even revealed that while on their California road trip, the team hasn’t taken a day off to enjoy the weather with several players including Wayne Simmonds and Morgan Rielly supporting the decision.
“We’re at work, we didn’t come out here for a vacation,” Simmonds explained. “We came out here to play hockey. We don’t expect to get days off and enjoy the sun and all that type of stuff. No, that’s not what we’re here for, we’re here to play.”
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While every person deserves a break from their job to relax and unwind, a balance is needed. For a Toronto Maple Leafs team who has often been criticized for not working hard enough, hearing quotes like Simmonds’ provides wonderful insight on how the culture of this team is changing right before our eyes. The players don’t look to be burnt out either, they’re having more fun than ever and genuinely seem to love playing together as Auston Matthews vocalized after his goal against the Los Angeles Kings.
William Nylander, who has been subject to more criticism than most others on the roster, also spoke about the culture shift following the win against San Jose.
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“I think maybe we’ve learned from past years, where we’ve played a couple of really good games and then we just relax and take our foot off the gas,” Nylander explained.
All that said, it’s one thing to talk the talk, but recently the Maple Leafs have shown they can walk the walk as well. Gone are the days of starting late, with the team scoring early and often throughout this recent hot streak. In five straight wins, the Maple Leafs have scored within the first ten minutes and held that lead for the rest of the game, never once allowing their opponents back into the contest. The last time Toronto allowed a game tying goal was back on November 13th against the Buffalo Sabres in a game Toronto refused to give up on keeping their foot on the gas until the very end before scoring the winning goal with only 12 seconds left in regulation.
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In previous years there have been reports that other teams have figured out the Maple Leafs, but so far this season that doesn’t appear to be the case. The powerplay looks deadly, every line is contributing on both ends of the ice, and most importantly of all, the team is finding different ways to win.
Part of having a killer instinct includes being able to win in any way possible. While the team was once criticized for only being capable of winning high-scoring games where the offense bails out inconsistent goaltending and a weak defense, those critics have been silenced. This year’s Maple Leafs are just as likely to defeat an opponent 1-0 as they are 6-5. Teams can no longer rely on playing a strict defense to suffocate the offense while waiting for a Maple Leafs blueliner to make a defensive mistake that leads to a low-scoring win for the opposition.
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At the beginning of the year, as Toronto struggled out of the gate, losing five of their first seven, many were worried that these were those same old Leafs, having learned nothing after getting embarrassed by their oldest rivals just a couple months earlier. Yet here we are, entering the second quarter of the season and the team has never looked more deadly.
At some point, whether it was the 7-1 blowout loss to the Penguins, or falling behind 2-0 to the lowly Blackhawks, the Toronto Maple Leafs received a wake up call in a big way. This no longer looks like a squad that doesn’t put in the full effort, and takes periods or even entire games off expecting to just coast to lazy wins. Toronto may have finally found their killer instinct and with that kind of mindset mixed with the sheer amount of skill on the roster, there’s no telling what this team may be able to accomplish.
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Every year, each NHL team makes changes in the hopes of bringing success to their franchise. While Toronto has added some quality players this year, the greatest change the Maple Leafs seem to have made is one of culture.