For fans in Leafs Nation, the summer was long and winding. Crazy contract negotiations, juvenile scandals, and bittersweet trades consumed the BeLeafers. The good thing? It’s all over. The season has finally started and one of the best teams that the Leafs has iced in a couple of generations is off to a promising start. The speed and skill of the Maple Leafs has been evident in all four of their games so far. One could say it has been masterful, but others aren’t too quick to call it such. Toronto’s defensive woes have been evident, but the good thing is that the “d” is getting better each game. Things are looking good. That’s if one does not factor in toughness and the team’s lack of it. It’s a problem that most try not to read into, but if past history has told hockey fans anything, is that toughness does matter. In fact, one could argue that the Toronto Maple Leafs prove that skill is king, but toughness is indeed divine.
Toronto Maple Leafs Prove Skill Is King, But Toughness Is Divine
To dig further into this argument, one must ask themselves what is toughness in hockey terms? The word has different meanings in separate sections of the hockey community.
Old school vibes
Old school hockey lovers might associate toughness with the enforcement of hockey’s unwritten code. For them, they appreciate a team full of players who can finish their checks, brutalize their opponents, and earn the respect of their peers all while doing so. They would like to see at least one Ryan Reaves type of player on their team of choice’s third or fourth line. This player is the one to step in when the opposing team decides to rib on the enforcer’s star players. Ideally, old school hockey fans would love a bonafide checking line where the line’s only job is to wear down the other team’s top trios. That’s when they can get the matchup.
The new school mindset
The “new schoolers” in the hockey community believe that toughness is not needed in today’s version of the game. The argument is if a team has enough speed and skill, a lack of toughness won’t be their demise. It would be fair to say that “new schoolers” still want checking lines and players that finish their checks. That said, they don’t put as much of an emphasis on toughness.
A team that can be used as a current-day case study is the Toronto Maple Leafs.
Toughness and the Leafs lack of it
One knows that the Leafs are an insanely skilled team all around. The Maple Leafs only got more skilled when they added right-handed defenceman Tyson Barrie and Russian winger Ilya Mikheyev in the offseason.
Their top-six consists of some of the more skilled players the game has to offer. Auston Matthews, William Nylander, Mitch Marner, and John Tavares are all players that have elite skill, the type which can make everyone on the ice with them better (or worse if they’re on the opposing team).
The Leafs skill is intimidating
In the Leafs first four games, their skill clearly helped them generate scoring chances and eventually put the puck in the back of the net.
Defensively, it has gotten them out of trouble. A great example of that would be in their third game of the season versus the Montreal Canadiens.
The skilled penalty kill
In overtime, the Leafs took a penalty early in the Saturday night affair. Usually, in these situations, the team with the power-play will have solid puck control and if they’re good enough, they will be able to cycle the puck in the offensive zone.
In Saturday night’s game, the Canadiens had a hard time doing such a thing. The Leafs penalty killers were able to gain possession of the puck and dump the puck out of their defensive zone. They actually had some offensive chances during that kill.
Some might write that off as a good penalty kill in a big situation, but it seems that the skill of the Leafs penalty killers has been beefing up their penalty kill. Teams still can have their way with the Leafs on the power-play but that’s if and only they can maintain puck control.
Maple Leafs head coach Mike Babcock has got his players killing penalties aggressively this season, which makes it seem like he can trust his players’ defensive skills.
Toronto Maple Leafs prove there’s a ‘toughness burden’
As skilled as the Leafs are, the one weakness they do have is toughness.
It is a common theme to see the Leafs star players such as Tavares and Matthews pushed around. Yes, they can handle themselves on the ice physically. That said, they’re also easy targets for opponents that have size on their side and looking to stir the pot a bit.
Toronto doesn’t have that player who can “scare” teams into not hitting their star players. One could say Zach Hyman serves as that player, but he’s more a puck hog that can win puck battles when needed. He can be physical but is often overmatched when trying to be an enforcer.
Toughness in the playoffs
The lack of toughness has hindered Toronto in the playoffs. It wasn’t the sole reason why they lost, but the lack of it didn’t make their lives any easier against a gritty and some would say “dirty” Boston Bruins team.
It could be argued that the skill route hasn’t worked for the teams like the Leafs in the playoffs. At least in the past couple of seasons.
Examining past Cup winners
The St. Louis Blues were a tougher team and they ended up winning the Cup. As were the Washington Capitals when they won the Cup in 2018. They had a lot of skill, but they had players like Tom Wilson and Pat Maroon that raised a little hell while contributing to their team’s winning ways.
It might be fair to say that Toronto could use a player like Wilson or Maroon in order to get through the grind of the playoffs, especially when the Leafs might have to play the Bruins for a third straight team.
Sure skill is great in the regular season, but it’s not the end-all, beat-all method to success in the playoffs. It can actually be the death of a team when they can’t respond to a team using physicality as a means to wear them out.
Any team, especially the Leafs, should consider becoming tougher and grittier when prepping for the playoffs. Really all it takes is one or two players to fix such a problem and allow skilled lads like Matthews and Marner to go out and do their thing.
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