The number one criticism of the Toronto Maple Leafs is a lack of toughness. That’s why the team must have Kurtis Gabriel in the lineup night in and night out, not just for the odd game against a rival team. The 6-foot-4, 216 pound, 29-year-old who’s made a name for himself with heavyweight tilts needs to be a regular on the roster.
In the latest Leaf Blueprint, team president Brendan Shanahan says, “we can talk about the types of goals we score. Do we score enough playoff-style goals? Does our powerplay score enough of those ugly goals to go along with those beautiful cross-seam goals?” Unfortunately, the answer to those questions for the past three seasons is a resounding no.
It should be no surprise that one of the most aggressive, roughest players to suit up in the 1990s is looking for a different type of scoring. He also says it’s important that guys who put on the blue and white “to stick together like brothers and stand up for each other.” When you look at the 26 forwards invited to training camp, only a handful fit that type of player described by Shanahan.
Gabriel Breaks the Maple Leafs Mold
Although Gabriel wears William Nylander’s old number 29, he won’t be mistaken for the smooth-skating Swede. In fact, he won’t be mistaken for several Maple Leafs. Gabriel does not fit the makeup of Kyle Dubas’ Maple Leafs, which is the point. He lumbers when he skates, he doesn’t have the quick feet to make the fast directional changes, and his two career goals in 49 NHL games indicate his scoring prowess.
The simple fact is the Maple Leafs already have lots of fast skaters, skilled shooters and elite passers. After the core four, the other forwards are practically interchangeable. In recent memory, none of those exchangeable forwards have launched the opposition out of the rink or acted like a bowling ball bashing through the competition. Gabriel did that and plenty more in just the first ten minutes wearing the Leafs’ logo on his chest.
Gabriel’s Passion for the Maple Leafs is Evident
In his first preseason game, he got a goal and a fight. According to the commentators, he nearly went into the Montreal Canadiens bench to chirp the opposition. Even getting fourth-line minutes, he was noticeable every time on the ice, both by fans and the opposition. Gabriel said that’s the game, “as long as I’m getting guys to come after me like that, that is the goal. If I’m doing my job, someone should be coming after me almost every night.”
Not since the departures of Matt Martin, Leo Komarov and later Nazem Kadri has there been a player on the team whose job is to be the target of the opposition. As for the other skills that he lacks, there is only one way to get better: playing regularly with the best in the sport. Keeping him around for the odd rough game or a physical playoff matchup would be a disservice to what he could offer the team. It would put him far below where he could be with regular NHL action.
Maple Leafs Have Taken Notice
Captain John Tavares has been impressed with Gabriel’s effort, “I know just how much he puts into every day. How much he loves to come in and compete, how hard he works, the pride he takes in his preparation, the intensity he brings, and how bad he wants to make a difference.
Jake Muzzin was asked what Gabriel brings to the mix. Muzzin’s eyes got big and, with a grin, said, “he adds a lot! He is a lot of fun around the rink and in the room. He plays hard, and he looks after us.” In addition, Muzzin said, “he cares a lot about the team, the guys and doing well.”
Maple Leafs Could be a Tough Team
The decision rest with head coach Sheldon Keefe, who likes what he sees, “lots of energy, that’s what he does. He is a physical guy; he is a vocal guy. He is engaged in the game even when he is not playing.” Keefe first met the big man in the offseason at the performance centre, where Gabriel spent most of his summer working on his game with Jason Spezza.
The Maple Leafs had Wayne Simmonds last season; although they brought him back, he was not enough to answer the physicality needed, especially in the playoffs. So Toronto also acquired Nick Ritchie and Michael Bunting to ramp up the toughness in the lineup. Toronto should go with that trio of guys along with Gabriel consistently. Only then will they go from one of the softest teams in the league to a mean and rough group of players that the opposition would hate to play.
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Kevin Armstrong is an award-winning journalist with more than two decades of experience. He’s been rink side for World Juniors, Memorial Cups, Calder Cups and Stanley Cups. Like many Canadian kids, his earliest memories include hockey. Kevin has spent countless hours in arenas throughout the country watching all levels of the game.