Maple Leafs Need to Show Toughness

On Oct. 28, a day before the Toronto Maple Leafs matchup against the Washington Capitals, Kasperi Kapanen had an interesting choice of words for the team in regards to team toughness and grit.

“Teams for sure try to come in and kind of bully us around and be heavy on us cause they know we’re a talented team,” Kapanen said. “If we show a lot of grit and effort like that, it sends a message and it’s good in the long run.

“We’re family here, we’re brothers and we’re here for one another.”

Kapanen’s comments came after star forward Auston Matthews took a questionable hit from San Jose Sharks defenseman Brenden Dillon where no one came to his defense after the hit. When plays like that happen, you start to question the identity of the team.

Columbus Blue Jackets Nick Foligno Toronto Maple Leafs Auston Matthews
The notion of team toughness came about when no one came to Toronto Maple Leafs superstar Auston Matthews’ defence after a questionable hit. (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Frank Gunn)

While the Maple Leafs have high-end talent, they lack an edge. They don’t have to lead the league in hits, but they need to be tougher to play against. Teams like the Boston Bruins and Capitals are tough to play against because they have that aspect to their game. It’s tough to win a Stanley Cup when you constantly get pushed around each game and do nothing about it. Do the players really have each other’s backs and can they be more physical?

Have Each Other’s Backs

When you’re on a team, you want to act as a family. Most of the teams in the NHL seem to have that mindset. Even Sheldon Keefe’s Toronto Marlies in the American Hockey League have this mentality.

When a player hits a star player or bumps the goalie on the Maple Leafs, there is hardly any push back. Teams know that’s not their style of play and they are easily affected by it. At some point, that has to change. They have to have some backbone and stand up for one another, whether it’s a questionable hit like Dillon on Matthews or even a clean hit like Jeff Carter of the Los Angeles Kings on Alexander Kerfoot.

They have to let teams know that they’re not going to be pushed around anymore. It’s as if they’re afraid to stand up for themselves. The game against Washington was the only time all year we saw any sort of physicality from the Maple Leafs.

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Tom Wilson was being Tom Wilson when he ran Tyson Barrie into the boards. Although there was a penalty on the play, Frederik Gauthier didn’t think that was enough and immediately went in and stood up for Barrie.

It’s plays like this that should be the identity of every team. If they truly are family, then this is what they should be doing every night. This is the team toughness that the Maple Leafs lack. You don’t need to drop the gloves to send a message, but be ready to get gritty when teams try to take advantage.

Physicality Does Matter

Despite letting the Maple Leafs skill do all their talking, they easily get pushed around. Maple Leafs contributor Chris Faria touched on this in his article about John Tavares’s absence.

I remember in the early 2000s when teams feared guys like Darcy Tucker, Gary Roberts, Tie Domi and Wade Belak whenever they played the Maple Leafs.

They did have Matt Martin, Roman Polak and even Nazem Kadri in recent seasons, but all three aren’t on the team anymore. Currently, the “heavy hitters” would be Jake Muzzin, Zach Hyman and even Kapanen has shown his physical side. In addition, other depth players can lay the body like Trevor Moore and Dmytro Timashov. While they have players that can hit, they should do this a little more often.

Matt Martin, NHL, Toronto Maple Leafs
Former Maple Leafs forward Matt Martin was one of many players that had a physical edge. Is this lack of presence hurting the team? (Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports)

Speed and skill are the most important factors in today’s game, but you can’t fully discredit the fact that physical play is an element leading to possession and zone time, like this hit Muzzin made on Buffalo Sabres forward Victor Olofsson.

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Muzzin’s hit takes Olofsson out of the play, leading to a short-handed, odd-man rush situation for the Maple Leafs. The result, Trevor Moore scores. While this shouldn’t be done all the time, if you pick the right spot to bring the physical play, then it can impact your team in a positive way.

In the playoffs, it’s a given that the intensity amps up. The Maple Leafs have yet to show that they can stack up against the best in regards to their physical play. It’s happened against the Bruins multiple times. Here’s a comparison of the last three Stanley Cup winners’ hit totals in both the regular season and the playoffs.

Team Regular Season Playoffs
Pittsburgh Penguins 2,060 (8th) 753 (1st)
Washington Capitals 1,784 (14th) 781 (1st)
St. Louis Blues 1,615 (24th) 819 (1st)

While they had their skill, they also grinded out each game they played. And that means being physical. While they weren’t leading in this category, they certainly were ready for the postseason. Hitting alone won’t win you the Cup, but you need to be tough enough in order to survive.

Balance Is the Key

While the best teams have top-tier skill, better teams have that balance of offensive firepower and grit that makes them prepared for when the postseason arrives.

Teams including the Maple Leafs need to find that same balance on their roster. They have the talent and ability to score, but they lack the tenacity that’ll go a long way in the playoffs. In comparison, there were times where the Marlies looked better than the Maple Leafs during their playoff run last season. They had great skill, but they had players with the drive and ability to compete each night while getting their chances offensively. It worked for the Penguins, the Capitals and the Blues.

You see this kind of play of some nights, but it’s not consistent enough with this team. This is why players like Mason Marchment, Yegor Korhskov and Pierre Engvall might have a purpose in the future. They are players that are tough to play against, but still have the ability to chip in offensively. They are the depth pieces that might be the key to the team’s success in the future.

Zach Hyman Maple Leafs
Is Zach Hyman’s style of the play the new meaning of toughness? (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

The meaning of physicality and toughness has changed over the last few years. Whether it’s laying the body or a positional play trying to create a turnover, the Maple Leafs need to be tough if they want to be successful. While the team does have some players that play a heavy style, they’re going to need that from their top players, as well. They don’t need to be physical, but they need to be aggressive and put pressure when attacking their opponents.

The Maple Leafs have to find a way to not get pushed around by other teams. Since the game against the Capitals, there appears to be some sense of urgency and a will to fight every night. The effort and drive have to be front and centre.

Statistics from