Use your imagination and go back to Monday, May 3rd. Instead of the New York Rangers playing the Washington Capitals, it’s the Toronto Maple Leafs. Instead of Pavel Buchnevich getting stuck in the crease after the whistle, it’s Auston Matthews. Instead of Artemi Panarin trying to help a teammate, it’s Mitch Marner. This is not a pretty picture and it gets worse. Imagine the Capitals’ Tom Wilson forcing Matthews down to the ice with a stick to the back of his neck and then punching him in the back of the head. The punches continue until Marner jumps on Wilson’s back. Wilson pulls off Marner’s helmet, grabs his hair and slams him headfirst to the ice – twice. Relax, Leaf Nation; this type of situation won’t happen to the Maple Leafs’ dynamic duo for one reason – Wayne Simmonds.
When Wayne Simmonds was added to the roster in the off-season, many questioned the acquisition. His numbers were considerably down, and he was missing more and more time due to injury. Even as the season went on, his roster position has been questioned. After a good start, he missed six weeks with a broken wrist, and his production has stalled since. But in the wake of actions on Monday night, the League’s response and the chaos that ensued the next game, his position on the team could not be more critical.
The Enforcers are “Few and Far Between”
The Rangers did not have a Simmonds-type player in the line-up on Monday night, “we’d love to have it,” said Rangers head coach David Quinn. “Those guys are few and far between; certainly the League is going in the direction where there is not a lot of those guys in the league, it’s just part of the situation we are in.” These guys Quinn is referring to are so rare, a retired enforcer volunteered to help. George Laraque, who hasn’t played in more than a decade, offered his services to the Rangers in a tweet that caught a lot of attention.
Quinn’s right, the role of the tough guy, the enforcer, has been drastically reduced in the NHL as it moved toward a much more mainstream and advertiser-friendly sport. Teams, including the Maple Leafs, have been building around that model. One of the first moves Kyle Dubas made when he became general manager in 2018 was to trade away tough guy Matt Martin. The following year he got rid of the aggressive Nazem Kadri. The results of those trades did not move the team anywhere closer to contending for a Cup.
Mark Messier Says Toughness Wins in Hockey
Six-time Stanley Cup champion, Mark Messier, chimed in about the situation and how rosters are built now compared to when he was playing. “In my opinion, if you’re going to win, you got to be able to win in the street and the alley,” Messier told ESPN’s The Michael Kay Show. “The Rangers aren’t built in that manner. They don’t have players in order to protect the players in that way. “The Hall of Fame player admitted the NHL has been altered since he played, “But I don’t think the game’s changed to the point where you can leave your players exposed and not have protection.”
Until this past offseason, Messier’s comments could’ve been describing Toronto’s roster. Dubas corrected his earlier mistakes by signing Simmonds, Zach Bogosian, Scott Sabourin and even Joe Thornton. He then paid the price at the trade deadline to acquire Nick Foligno. The Maple Leafs’ roster has been transformed into a much tougher team. They will need to be. The playoffs are always significantly more physical. There is the possibility of facing Wilson and the Washington Capitals in the third or even the final round. If that happens, I doubt we will see Tom Wilson flexing in the penalty box. This time the Maple Leafs are ready.
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.