Will Maple Leafs’ Newfound Toughness Lead to Success?

The Toronto Maple Leafs enter training camp with a different look for the 2021-22 season. One of the biggest criticisms of Kyle Dubas has been his teams have too much skill and not enough size, too much finesse and not enough fight. The general manager addressed that in the offseason by signing some bigger and meaner players.

Toronto Maple Leafs general manager Kyle Dubas
Toronto Maple Leafs general manager Kyle Dubas (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Christopher Katsarov)

Team toughness and grit are hard to measure. It’s something that is made evident on the ice and during the game. However, the number of hits is the most obvious statistic to indicate if a team is rough. Toronto’s hit count under Dubas shows that the Maple Leafs have been about as soft as their mascot Carlton, the Bear. Quant hockey keeps track of hits for and against across the league. These amounts equal a hit differential and show Toronto is dead last for the last three seasons. Yes, they have been hit the most and delivered the least amount of punishment.

Maple Leafs by Year and RankHit Differential
2020-21 (31st)-562
2019-20 (31st)-579
2018-19 (31st)-659
Information from Quanthockey.com. Differential tallied by subtracting hits against from hits for.

That’s a sickening stat for a franchise that once iced the Bay Street Bullies. In the late 1990s and early 2000s, Toronto had a roster to give the Charlestown Chiefs a run for their money or even the Dansbury Trashers. The 2003-04 roster included Tie Domi, Darcy Tucker, Bryan Marchment and Wade Belak. They also had Ed Belfour in net, who would clear his crease by whatever means necessary. It was a mean team lead by captain Mats Sundin. This team is also the last Maple Leafs team to win a round in the playoffs.

Maple Leafs Added New Players

I’m not going to try to fool you; today’s team is not half as mean as those rosters. However, during a recent interview on the Bob McCown Podcast, Dubas was asked if this team is tough enough, “That is a question of any team. The game is so different now. We went into the offseason, and the players that we acquired in free agency, especially, bring those different elements.” He’s right; the 2003-04 team may have difficulty keeping up with today’s game. But Dubas is confident he found the right amount of grit.

Nick Ritchie

Nick Ritchie, the tenth overall pick in the 2014 draft, is one of those different pieces. “Nick is a good player who can score and play up and down the lineup,” explained Dubas, “but he is also a very, very tough young man in the way that he plays.” The 6-foot-2, 230 forward has played 350 NHL games. During those games, he has amassed 888 hits, 387 penalty minutes and 137 points.

Michael Bunting

Toronto also picked up Michael Bunting, who many describe as a rat and a Brad Marchand-type player. He doesn’t have much for NHL numbers, but Dubas knows his game. Dubas had Bunting in junior when they were with the Soo Greyhounds. “He doesn’t have a long fight record or anything like that. So that really doesn’t matter to us. But in terms of how he competes, where he scores, and the areas he is able to get to, that is what was important to us.”

Kurtis Gabriel

Then there is Kurtis Gabriel, another player who has not seen a lot of NHL action but usually makes the highlight reel when he does. He is a fighter who always goes after the biggest guy on the opposing side. He listed Darcy Tucker and Wendel Clark as his favourite Maple Leafs.

Wayne Simmonds

Of course, Toronto also re-signed Wayne Simmonds. Simmonds was a force to start last season, getting into a fight in his first game wearing the blue and white. He was also a presence in front of the net and would mix it up in the corners. But the “Wayne Train” did not return to that form after a wrist injury sidelined him for six weeks. So the Maple Leafs are expecting much more out of him this season.

Dubas Has Added Competitiveness

These new elements may be the answer, according to Dubas, “in terms of the players that we signed, we certainly looked at their competitiveness, their toughness, or whatever you want to call it, and that was really important to us in terms of how hard they play and where they were able to have success as players — around the net, defensively, and such. We are happy with where we went there.”

Wayne Simmonds Toronto Maple Leafs
Wayne Simmonds will have to be more physical for the Toronto Maple Leafs (Photo by Steven Kingsman/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

It’s not the Bay Street Bullies, however, the new additions certainly make this team a bit meaner and hopefully more difficult for the competition. That said, Dubas can only sign the players, it’s up to Sheldon Keefe and his coaching staff to make it work on the ice. That challenge begins this week with the opening of training camp.

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