It was a priority for the Toronto Maple Leafs offseason – get tougher to play against. Shortly after the free agent signing window opened, that box has been checked. Welcome home, Wayne Simmonds.
Related: THW’s Free Agent Tracker
The team announced that Simmonds had signed a one-year contract worth $1.5 million. The deal also has a full no-movement clause. Simmonds told Sportsnet, “I’m born and raised in Scarborough, a proud Torontonian, I think this was a perfect fit.”
For many in Toronto, this is two years past due. In the 2018-19 season, the Philadelphia Flyers where shopping Simmonds and the Maple Leafs were rumoured to be a suitor. Observers said they needed Simmonds to add a level of grit that the club was missing. Doesn’t that sound familiar? Toronto passed on the opportunity to beef up and stayed the course with speed and skill over strength and power. Since then, they’ve exited the playoffs early, and the “not tough enough” narrative continued.
He Took the Scenic Route Home
Instead of going to Toronto, Simmonds was traded to the Nashville Predators at the deadline and played 17 games for the team. On July 1, 2019, as a free agent, he signed a 1 year, $5 million deal with the New Jersey Devils. He played 61 games in New Jersey before being acquired by the Buffalo Sabres at the trade deadline.
There is no doubt that Simmonds’ numbers have been sliding down. During his 12 seasons, he has notched two 60-point campaigns, the most recent was 2015-16. Last season he combined for 25 points in 68 games between the Devils and Sabres. Those are not the numbers Toronto cares about. Simmonds recorded 145 hits last season – he’s a welcome addition to a team whose top hitting forward was Frederik Gauthier with 66.
I can already hear the debate; Simmonds is a throwback to an old NHL. The new league is about speed and skill. Sure, Toronto has lots of that. But it’s been painfully obvious that Toronto is ill-prepared when the old school hockey shows up during tightly contested games and in the playoffs. Jason Spezza dropped the gloves during the series with the Columbus Blue Jackets. Since Matt Martin left, Frederik Andersen has been run at more than his fair share and why not, all you’ll get in return are a few choice words from the Leafs bench.
Maple Leafs Studied Different Analytics
Toronto general manager Kyle Dubas is a self-professed “hockey nerd” who studies analytics. As his team was knocked out early, he had a lot of time to watch the successful clubs. The final four teams averaged around 40 hits per 60 minutes, the most by any of the 24 teams in the bubble, while the Leafs average the fewest with just 19.
Those who believe there’s no room for big, intimidating forwards like Simmonds should take a look at Pat Maroon. The “Big Rig” has been pushing his way around the ice for as many years as Simmonds. His physical, menacing play has earned him back-to-back Stanley Cup victories.
Will #17 Be Back on the Ice?
The only issue that remains is what number the newest Leaf will wear. Since being drafted to the Los Angeles Kings in the second round, 61st overall, Simmonds has worn number 17. However, that number hangs in the rafters – retired to the great Wendel Clark.
Although he listed Sergei Federov as a favourite player growing up, Simmonds must’ve watched a lot of Clark as he has a similar playing style. Will #17 get another trip around the ice?
Bigger than Hockey
Simmonds is as big off the ice as he is on. He is on the executive committee of the Hockey Diversity Alliance. The HDA’s mission is to “eradicate racism and intolerance in hockey.”
Simmonds, now playing in hockey’s biggest market, will keep this ongoing movement at the forefront and perhaps inspire the next young kid in Scarborough to follow his dreams, too.
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.