Maple Leafs News & Rumors: Physicality, Nylander & Kessel

In this edition of Toronto Maple Leafs’ News & Rumors, I’ll take a look at changes that I believe are happening with the way the postseason unfolded this past season. What might that mean for the Maple Leafs’ chances?

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As well, I’ll look at two players who seem to have been Maple Leafs’ whipping boys, one current and one from the past. What made these players so targeted by the fans? 

Item One: Must a Team Be Physical to Win the Stanley Cup?

In my mind, the Colorado Avalanche Stanley Cup win over the Tampa Bay Lightning was a good sign for the Maple Leafs’ chances to win this season. First, the Avalanche differed from other teams in that they did not have an elite goalie. Second, the Avalanche didn’t lack physicality, but they were not reliant on it. Instead, they depended more on offensive speed and strong team defense. 

Nazem Kadri Colorado Avalanche
Former Maple Leafs’ Nazem Kadri was part of the Colorado Avalanche Stanley Cup win. (Getty Images)

We’ll see how Darcy Kuemper does this next season, but I don’t think he’ll do as well with the Washington Capitals as he did with the Avalanche. The Capitals are just not as strong a team. To my mind, he’s not in the same ballpark as either Andrei Vasilevskiy or Igor Shesterkin. 

Related: Ottawa Senators: Revisiting the Zibanejad Trade

In addition, while I don’t think the Maple Leafs played the same kind of strong defensive game the Avalanche did in the playoffs (the Avalanche sometimes just overwhelmed the Tampa Bay Lightning), I think that good defense is something that can be learned and coached. Mostly it’s desire and on-ice IQ.

I look forward to the Maple Leafs improving that aspect of their game. I think the new signings have that possibility to their game.

Item Two: William Nylander Is Loved or Hated, Pick One

Recently I’ve seen comments in the conversation section of posts dissing the Maple Leafs for their physical play. In fact, William Nylander gets the brunt of the blame for his play in Game 4 of the playoffs, when his team was behind by five goals (5-0) and he gave up on a puck without a battle. 

William Nylander Toronto Maple Leafs
William Nylander, Toronto Maple Leafs (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

He might have prevented an icing call, but he didn’t. Not to my taste particularly, but I wasn’t on the ice to see what was going on. So I’ll give him a pass – it happened quickly.

That said, to my eyes, Nylander is not a “gutless” player. In fact, I have seen him take more hits last season than ever before to get into a good position in front of the opposition’s net. After that heinous play (according to many fans), he did score two goals in the game and was about the only good offensive thing for the team in that 7-3 loss.

Is he really the “gutless” player that fans should blame for the team’s losses in the playoffs? He’s for sure the latest team whipping boy, but I bet most teams would love to have him on their team. I can see the Maple Leafs trading him, but I hope they don’t. He is what he is, and that’s valuable to the team.

Item Three: The Stanley Cup Playoffs Have Changed

I believe the prevailing belief that the Stanley Cup playoffs are more physical and that the referees let more penalties go are things from the past. That’s not what I saw throughout this entire Stanley Cup playoff. Even if it were, physical teams are not winning. The St. Louis Blues got dumped. The Calgary Flames got beaten badly by the Edmonton Oilers. 

Related: Flames Management Outperforming Oilers Front Office

And, as one reader noted in the conversation section, the Florida Panthers had the reputation of being a physical team and they were beaten convincingly by the Tampa Bay Lightning. The Panthers scored only three goals in the four-game sweep by the Lightning. The postseason is changing.

Item Four: Remembering Phil Kessel’s Time with the Maple Leafs

The last I heard, Phil Kessel was still unsigned for the coming season. I would be surprised if he didn’t land somewhere. He’s been too consistent as a point producer not to find a home. Just wanted to thank regular reader and contributor Doug Madill for his contribution to the conversation section of a recent post. 

Phil Kessel
The Maple Leafs acquired Phil Kessel, who’d had a stupendous sophomore season, in September 2009, but paid a hefty price. (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

Doug recalled that Kessel was always behind the eight ball, even from the beginning of his time with the Maple Leafs. He was acquired by Brian Burke for two first-round picks, who turned out later to become defenseman Dougie Hamilton and forward Tyler Seguin. These two players became fan favorites in ways that Kessel never did. 

Related: Maple Leafs Commentary: Always Seeking the Newest Michael Bunting

In his time with the Maple Leafs, Kessel didn’t get along well with the media, and fans believed he had next to nothing as far as leadership skills went. In addition, he seemed to start each regular season out of shape and was renowned for eating a steady diet of hot dogs. Although he was a consistently high goal scorer, he didn’t seem to play defense or demonstrate a high work ethic. 

These were not qualities that endeared Maple Leafs’ fans to him. Then, of course, he was traded to the Pittsburgh Penguins and helped them win two Stanley Cups. Funny thing, hockey.

What’s Next for the Maple Leafs?

Things seem quiet right now with the team. Something has to be brewing, but what it is I can’t even guess. It seems like a trade of some sort – perhaps a big one – is coming. But who knows who and when?

The next few days could be interesting. Too quiet too long.