In the Toronto Maple Leafs’ last game, they lost to the Boston Bruins by a score of 5-2. Interestingly, looking at the analytics doesn’t tell the whole story of the game. The advanced statistics would indicate that the Maple Leafs played better overall than the 5-2 score would suggest.
According to Naturalstatrick.com, in all situations, the Maple Leafs had 60% of the Shot Attempts, 63% of the Scoring Chances, 65% of the High-Danger Scoring Chances, and 59% of the Expected Goals. Given those numbers, what was the difference between the two teams?
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Reading notes at the end of the post I wrote after the game, readers believe the difference between the two teams was the measure of toughness. That perception seems worth exploring seriously.
The question that emerges for me as a writer who covers the Maple Leafs is whether the Bruins might have exposed the Maple Leafs Achilles heel. Are the Maple Leafs tough enough to compete when the postseason rolls around?
Tough Play Has Always Been Part of Hockey
Almost since its inception, hockey has been a rough and tough game. On the heels of a hotly-contested battle between the New York Rangers and the Toronto Maple Leafs in 1949, the great Conn Smythe was reported to have stated about winning in the NHL: “If you can’t beat ’em in the alley, you can’t beat ’em on the ice.”
Ironically, the statement comes from the longtime owner, general manager, and head coach of the Maple Leafs. His is name is also attached to the Conn Smythe Trophy awarded annually to the most valuable player of his team during the NHL’s Stanley Cup playoffs.
The comment emphasizes the importance of physical and mental toughness in winning in the NHL. Smythe believed a winning NHL team would necessarily combine aggressiveness, intensity, and toughness – both on and off the ice. Otherwise, it would be difficult to win.
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Smythe’s philosophy has been followed by many successful NHL teams. These include the Philadelphia Flyers, who exemplified tough physical play during the 1972-73 season, or even the Montreal Canadiens of that same era.
It’s also been the mantra more recently of the Bruins, who are known for their tough and aggressive style of play. During Wednesday’s game before the All-Star break, that toughness was evident. The Bruins simply out-toughed the Maple Leafs.
That begs the question: How much of a deal is that? Should the Maple Leafs adopt this same approach and play with the same level of toughness and intensity as the Bruins? If they wanted to, could they?
Or, Should Wednesday’s Game Be Taken in Perspective?
For those who believe that what happens during the regular season doesn’t specifically impact the postseason (and I’m mostly one of those people), Wednesday’s game could be chalked up to “one of those games.”
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Sure, our goalie Ilya Samsonov had a bad game, and the Bruins beat him high over his glove for a couple of suspect goals. After all his wins and on his seventh game in a row, he let in a couple of stinkers. As well, although the defensive pairing of Mark Giordano and Justin Holl handled the Bruins’ pressure and forechecking just fine, the two young Swedish defensemen Rasmus Sandin and Timothy Liljegren did not (from “The Leafs have a week to think about what went wrong in loss to the Bruins,” Rosie DiManno, Toronto Star, 01/02/2022).
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Still, the Maple Leafs outshot the Bruins, and Sandin and Liljegren could have been split up early in the game. They had a bad game. It happens. Shouldn’t this game be considered from its bigger perspective?
The Other Side of the Coin – The Maple Leafs Lack Toughness
But there’s another side to the coin. That side suggests that the Maple Leafs have a talented group of forwards but lack other key elements such as grit, secondary scoring, a strong defense, and consistent goaltending. These issues are exposed by the team’s inability to respond to the play of strong physical teams that meet them with aggression and intensity.
As a result of these shortcomings, the Maple Leafs are challenged to beat teams like the Tampa Bay Lightning, who come at them with a well-rounded roster loaded with both offensive and defensive skills – including physicality and intensity. Because the Maple Leafs lack these key components, success becomes difficult against teams like Tampa Bay and now the Bruins.
The Fact Is The Bruins Dominated the Physical Part of the Game
On Wednesday, the Bruins dominated the physical aspect of the game; and, the Maple Leafs seemed unable to stop them. Is that because the Maple Leafs’ roster lacks physicality and players, who are willing to do the “grunt work” to win the game?
If that’s the case, does the Maple Leafs’ management need to address this issue before the postseason? And, if that’s the case, what might the organization need to do? How radical an issue is this lack of toughness?
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Should the team consider trading players like Sandin, Nick Robertson, Alex Kerfoot, or Pierre Engvall for a physical defender or a skilled power forward, who’s both skilled and difficult to play against? Would adding players with these qualities help balance the Maple Leafs’ roster and make the team more competitive against tougher opponents?
What we have seen is that for all his heart Wayne Simmonds has become a more one-dimensional fighter than a tough power forward. He might provide a momentary spark on this team, but he can’t give the team the toughness it needs game-in-and-game-out during the postseason.
So, What’s the Solution?
True, it seems that the Maple Leafs are challenged by teams that have an aggressive forecheck. But do a few regular-season losses mean the Maple Leafs won’t be able to win again during the postseason playoffs?
I might be in the minority, but I believe it’s important to remember the regular season is long, and teams often go through ups and downs. The Maple Leafs have overcome a ton of injuries and have maintained a strong record. This is a good team.
I also might be in the minority, but I’m looking forward to the team meeting the Lightning during the first round of the playoffs. It would be a huge monkey off its postseason back if the team started its quest buoyed by the momentum such a win would bring.
All that said, it would be interesting to see how the organization addresses these issues and how it chooses to make any improvements before the playoffs.