Is there anything better than a revenge game against Winnipeg?
Yes. Many things. It largely sucks whenever we give the Jets a second thought, but following the last meeting, there is likely some unsettled business between the two teams.
The timing of this grudge match comes at both a good and bad time. Having Muzzin unavailable for it, and the Leafs potentially either sitting Lyubushkin and Holl or playing them at less than 100% certainly isn’t ideal, but the Leafs having to play a greasy team following Boston, and being able to continue to ramp up their team toughness in advance of the playoffs is certainly something we should want to see.
It’s probably worth taking a look at where the Leafs are sitting from a team toughness perspective, starting with the most questionable of measures, hits.
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Player
Position
GP
TOI/GP
Hits/60
Hits Taken/60
HiT Dif/60
Kristians Rubins
D
3
11.75
20.43
10.21
10.22
Brett Seney
L
2
7.02
12.83
12.83
0.00
Ilya Lyubushkin
D
17
16.06
12.08
8.57
3.51
Kyle Clifford
L
14
8.54
12.04
16.06
-4.02
Nick Ritchie
L
33
11.99
11.98
6.37
5.61
Colin Blackwell
C
4
10.08
11.91
8.93
2.98
Alex Biega
D
2
13.12
11.44
4.57
6.87
Wayne Simmonds
R
60
9.45
11.32
6.35
4.97
Kirill Semyonov
C
3
10.04
7.97
3.98
3.99
Michael Amadio
C
3
9.16
6.55
2.18
4.37
Rasmus Sandin
D
51
16.96
6.10
6.94
-0.84
Nicholas Robertson
L
9
10.01
5.99
9.32
-3.33
Jake Muzzin
D
41
21.01
5.85
7.11
-1.26
Justin Holl
D
55
20.46
5.28
7.89
-2.61
Mark Giordano
D
4
20.20
5.20
6.68
-1.48
Timothy Liljegren
D
48
16.02
4.68
8.04
-3.36
Travis Dermott
D
43
14.72
4.08
4.27
-0.19
David Kampf
C
66
15.04
3.87
4.96
-1.09
Joey Anderson
R
4
7.79
3.85
9.63
-5.78
Michael Bunting
L
66
15.62
3.78
4.66
-0.88
Pierre Engvall
L
62
12.77
3.71
7.28
-3.57
Alexander Kerfoot
C
66
15.22
3.58
7.29
-3.71
John Tavares
C
65
18.04
3.53
3.84
-0.31
Ilya Mikheyev
R
37
14.88
3.05
4.03
-0.98
Auston Matthews
C
61
20.46
2.64
4.23
-1.59
Alex Steeves
C
3
7.97
2.51
5.02
-2.51
Ondrej Kase
R
50
13.98
2.49
5.32
-2.83
Morgan Rielly
D
66
23.99
2.46
3.75
-1.29
Mitchell Marner
R
57
20.77
2.38
2.53
-0.15
Jason Spezza
C
60
10.87
2.02
3.04
-1.02
TJ Brodie
D
66
21.48
1.57
5.21
-3.64
William Nylander
R
66
18.25
0.75
3.44
-2.69
Carl Dahlstrom
D
1
12.50
0.00
14.40
-14.40
data from Natural Stat Trick, greyed out means not on the current roster
Certainly, hits aren’t the full story. For instance take Ondrej Kase, who plays an incredibly hard game, going to tough parts of the ice, and doesn’t back away from any chippiness. His numbers being on the lower side certainly don’t account for his style of play. On the other side of things, you have players like Kyle Clifford who fit the adage of you can only get credit for a hit when you don’t have the puck. His overall benefit to team toughness is questionable. From what we can see the additions of Lyubushkin and Blackwell improve the Leafs on the hitting front, and even Mark Giordano is on the more aggressive side of the curve for the Leafs.
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What we’ve seen recently is that players like Mitch Marner are more engaged physically as well. Auston Matthews has become much more comfortable in using his size this season, and while he’s dropped off significantly of late, it’s important to remember that even William Nylander was using his size to make plays at the beginning of the year. A team playing tougher makes a lot more sense than dressing Kyle Clifford and hoping his seven minutes of hockey intimidate the opposition.
When it comes to Hits/60 this season, the Leafs are ranked 28th in the league at 19.5. In contrast, their Atlantic Division competition sits at 3rd (Bruins with 26.47), 5th (Lightning with 25.22), and 6th (Panthers with 24.97), and that could pose a problem. Despite the Leafs very much holding their own against Boston on Tuesday and Florida on Sunday, they have struggled against teams like Montreal and Pittsburgh which are also heavy-hitting teams. Of course, the Senators lead the league in hits, so let’s not go too crazy about overstating the importance of hitting.
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What we do see is that physical play is an area that the Leafs are addressing. Mitch Marner is hitting over twice as much this season as he has any other year, Blackwell, Lyubushkin, Bunting, and Giordano all provide practical toughness, and Wayne Simmonds remains one of the best nuclear deterrents in the league. Tonight’s game against the Jets is another opportunity for the Leafs to demonstrate that they can blend skill and physical play to be one of the most effective teams in hockey.