In a Sportsnet video from two days ago, Jason Spezza announced that ‘We’re built for the playoffs.” Last season, the team wasn’t; this season, they are. What’s the change? What are the differences on this team than last season’s team that experienced yet another first-round postseason knock out?
Point #1: The Maple Leafs Play Solid Defense from Top to Bottom
When Spezza said that this team was built for the playoffs, he specifically was speaking about how the Maple Leafs had made defensive play part of the team’s identity. And, he’s right. The Maple Leafs finished 26th in goals against during the 2019-20 season; however, the team improved to seventh overall this season.
Why is this team built for the playoffs? As Maple Leafs’ captain John Tavares stated, the loss to the Columbus Blue Jackets was a wake-up call so changes were made. This current Maple Leafs’ team now uses its strong team defence to propel its offence.
Tavares added, “You saw that blend together nicely as we grew our identity.” And exactly as Tavares noted, defense is now their identity. That’s point #1. This team plays really solid team defense.
Point #2: The Maple Leafs Are One Year Older
Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner, and William Nylander are exactly the same players they were last season, but they’re not at all the same players they were. Huh? Last season, Matthews and Marner were skilled, smart, and 22-years-old and 23-years-old respectively. This season they are more skilled, smarter, and are 23-years-old and 24-years-old respectively. They are both very different and more mature players today than they were in August 2020 when they were beaten out of the bubble by the Blue Jackets.
First, they’re more experienced than last season against the Blue Jackets. In addition, they’ve had an entire season of playing together and both Matthews and Marner have taken a leap forward, both offensively and defensively. They are stronger, wiser, tougher defensively, and more in synch offensively.
Then, there’s the enigmatic William Nylander. Nylander is also a year older and is coming off a really strong second-half of the season. He’s also playing more mature hockey and is less prone to the inconsistencies that plagued him earlier in his career. He tries, almost all the time. From what I’ve seen, he seldom floats on the ice and – as the saying goes – he goes to the “hard places” to score goals.
Point #3: The Maple Leafs Have Added Physicality
Finally, during the offseason the Maple Leafs added those pieces that made them tough to play against. Most fans list Wayne Simmonds first. Simmonds is a well-known and hard-nosed player who will make his presence felt on the ice. However, Simmonds is far from alone. Zach Bogosian also plays physical hockey. At the trade deadline, the team brought in Nick Foligno. He plays with an experienced edge.
Finally, but not to be forgotten is Jumbo Joe Thornton. Thornton has been amping his game up recently and plays with an edge that I hadn’t seen before. He’s big and not afraid to get into someone’s grill. He doesn’t let things go unnoticed. As coach Keefe noted, Thornton has been the team’s most physical forward.
Sometimes We Forget How Intense the Playoffs Can Be
It could be argued that the Maple Leafs have lacked playoff success because the team kept trying to make the same philosophy and system work playoff season after playoff season. It didn’t. But after last August, as Tavares noted, changes were made.
If teams are expecting to see the same Maple Leafs in these playoffs that they saw during the last playoffs, they’ll be surprised. This team is completely different. In many ways the team is more mature and more ready for the redundant scrums, face washes, and physical play that is likely to come its way.
Obviously, if the Maple Leafs are going to have playoff success, matching the intensity of other teams will be a key. There’s little doubt that the Montreal Canadiens have looked at their first-round opponents and decided that trying to skate with this Maple Leafs’ team would end in failure.
As a result, wise money suggests that the Canadiens must play a physical game and hope their great goalie Carey Price can be the best player on the ice. He was last season against the Pittsburgh Penguins. And Price could do it again.
However, as noted, this Maple Leafs’ team is different. It will be a much harder team to beat this postseason than last. We’ll know one way or another by he end of four playoff series.
The Old Prof (Jim Parsons, Sr.) taught for more than 40 years in the Faculty of Education at the University of Alberta. He’s a Canadian boy, who has two degrees from the University of Kentucky and a doctorate from the University of Texas. He is now retired on Vancouver Island, where he lives with his family. His hobbies include playing with his hockey cards and simply being a sports fan – hockey, the Toronto Raptors, and CFL football (thinks Ricky Ray personifies how a professional athlete should act).
If you wonder why he doesn’t use his real name, it’s because his son – who’s also Jim Parsons – wrote for The Hockey Writers first and asked Jim Sr. to use another name so readers wouldn’t confuse their work.
Because Jim Sr. had worked in China, he adopted the Mandarin word for teacher (老師). The first character lǎo (老) means “old,” and the second character shī (師) means “teacher.” The literal translation of lǎoshī is “old teacher.” That became his pen name. Today, other than writing for The Hockey Writers, he teaches graduate students research design at several Canadian universities.
He looks forward to sharing his insights about the Toronto Maple Leafs and about how sports engages life more fully. His Twitter address is https://twitter.com/TheOldProf