Maple Leafs Are Ditching the Softness Narrative

It’s time that Toronto Maple Leafs’ fans quit with the “Maple Leafs Are Soft” narrative. It no longer holds water.

How many times have we read in the comments section of any Maple Leafs’ post that the team is too soft to win in the playoffs? We personally have lost count. At one point in time, we might have agreed with that sentiment. In the past, we didn’t think this team was balanced enough to win when the going got rough.  

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That’s changed. We think that management and, in particular, general manager Kyle Dubas has taken steps to address the team’s lack of physicality. Some of that has come naturally as the team’s core players have matured. With that maturation, they’ve also incorporated more physicality into their game. 

Kyle Dubas Toronto Maple Leafs
Kyle Dubas, Toronto Maple Leafs (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

Some of that lack of physicality has been addressed with trades, new signings, and draft picks. For example, no one can call Nicolas Aube-Kubel passive or fearful on the ice. In addition, the Maple Leafs’ first draft choice of the 2022 NHL Entry Draft Fraser Minten impressed coaches at the team’s recent development camp with his physicality.

The “Too Soft” Narrative Exists, But It’s Changing

Yet, even with these changes, that same “too soft” narrative still exists. Is it true? Is it backed up by the numbers? During the 2022 Stanley Cup Playoffs, the Maple Leafs became more physical. They ranked fifth in hits-per-game of the 16 teams in the postseason. 

Fraser Minten Toronto Maple Leafs
Fraser Minten brings some physicality to the Toronto Maple Leafs (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

The teams with more hits per game were the Nashville Predators (53.8), the Washington Capitals (50.3), the Florida Panthers (44.3), and the Boston Bruins (39.4). 

Interestingly enough, for fans who believe that postseason teams can only be successful if they’re physical, of the five teams that registered the most hits per game in the playoffs, only the Florida Panthers made it out of the first round.  

Another random observation in case readers are interested is that the Stanley Cup-winning Colorado Avalanche were sixth in hits-per-game with 37.9, and the Tampa Bay Lightning were seventh with 37.2.

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As for the two “softest” teams in the playoffs, the Minnesota Wild had the fewest hits-per-game with 22.2, and the Pittsburgh Penguins had the second-fewest hits-per-game at 30.1. Both those teams lost in the first round. 

Looking at the Maple Leafs Top Hitter in the Playoffs

To summarize, the Maple Leafs averaged just over 21 hits per game during the regular season 38 hits per game in the playoffs. Was this helpful to win? The team came closer but didn’t win – yet again.

Auston Matthews Toronto Maple Leafs
Auston Matthews, Toronto Maple Leafs (Photo by Claus Andersen/Getty Images)

The Maple Leafs best player Auston Matthews scored nine points in seven postseason games. Matthews also had 32 hits in those games. That is a hits-per-game average of 4.6 hits each game, which placed him third in hits-per-game amongst the five top hitters in the playoffs. [In total hits, Darren Helm registered 97 hits in 20 games and Erik Cernak registered 84 hits in 23 games.]

The Maple Leafs Core Four Is Becoming More Physical with Experience

Looking at Matthews’ career, in six seasons his hits-per-game average for each season shows his progression toward more physicality. In his first and second season in the NHL, he averaged 0.26 hits-per-game. In seasons three and four, he averaged 0.48 hits per game. In seasons five and six, he averaged 1.01 hits-per-game. 

During the playoffs, in his first four seasons, Matthews averaged 1.75 hits-per-game. In his last two playoffs, he has averaged 4.3 hits per game. 

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Mitch Marner, another Maple Leafs’ core player, also has grown more physical over the seasons. During his first five seasons, Marner averaged 0.42 hits per game (or 34 hits over an 82-game season). In 2021-22, he had 75 hits in 72 games (or 85 hits over 82 games), which is an increase of 51 hits or 150 percent over 82 games. He carried that average into the playoffs, registering ten hits in seven games.

Mitch Marner Toronto Maple Leafs
Mitch Marner, Toronto Maple Leafs (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

In 2021-22, Captain John Tavares set a career record for hits during the regular season with 90. During the playoffs, he averaged more than two hits-per-games (with 15 hits in seven games). Even William Nylander, who’s been especially targeted for his lack of physicality, is becoming more physical. Over his career, he’s only averaged 0.25 regular-season, hits-per-game. However, during the playoffs, he increased his physical play and averaged 0.75 hits-per-game.

In the 2022 World Championships, a curious thing happened to Nylander. Above is a short clip of how he played in one game in the tournament. We’d love to see him carry that over to the NHL next season.

Maple Leafs’ Fans Have Misjudged This Team’s Physical Play

In conclusion, not only are the Maple Leafs as a team more physical than many fans are giving them credit for, a lot of that physicality is coming from their core players.  

Interestingly, given the postseason numbers, the question now has to be asked: “Is being physical during the postseason a good thing anymore?”

[Note: I want to thank long-time Maple Leafs’ fan Stan Smith for collaborating with me on this post. Stan’s Facebook profile can be found here.]