After the Toronto Maple Leafs early exit from the postseason at the hands of the Columbus Blue Jackets last season, general manager Kyle Dubas made it a point to address the team’s veteran presence and leadership on the team.
While the team had captain John Tavares, Jason Spezza and Jake Muzzin, it still wasn’t enough to push the team forward and win a playoff series. This time around, the outlook of the team seems to be more dialed in and focused on the task at hand.
A strong veteran presence is critical for any team and the Maple Leafs have that now. They’ve always had the skill, but they lacked the depth of players for others to look for guidance and set the tone with their play on the ice. Here are five veterans on this team that are going to play a key role for the Maple Leafs when the playoffs start.
Tavares has had a long and successful career spanning over 12 seasons. Since signing with the Maple Leafs back in 2018, there was going to be a lot of pressure on him to be a key piece for this team. Now add the captaincy on top of that, the pressure mounts even more.
Last season, Tavares was to be relied on in the postseason, but seemed somewhat invisible at times during the qualifying round. This time around, things are looking different and head coach Sheldon Keefe is the main reason for the success that Tavares had this season.
“A part of what we had talked about in the offseason with John as our captain is for him to lead the way in a lot of these areas that our team needs to grow in,” Keefe stated in a post practice interview. “The fact is that we can’t grow in those areas unless our leaders lead the way.”
It’s comments like this from the head coach that shows he has confidence and trust in his players. Especially when it comes to his captain.
A big reason for Tavares’ success this season as the leader of this team is his consistent play at both ends of the ice. Whatever was affecting him last season is behind him. You can see more competitiveness from him and the ability to provide strong defense in his own end. He’s among the lowest on the team with a 1.98 goals against per 60 minutes, showing his impact defensively.
Tavares has gone through cold streaks at times this season. Despite that, he remains third on the team in scoring with 49 points. His five-on-five goals for percentage is in the top 10 on the team at 57.38, showing that he still has an impact offensively. If this season was adjusted for 82-games, Tavares would be on-pace for 79 points according to Hockey Reference. That’s well above the 60 points he had last season. That kind of production is nothing to be upset about.
This kind of play is the mindset that the team should have heading into the postseason. Right now, we’re seeing a rejuvenated and motivated Tavares. With the captain at the helm of the ship leading the way, everyone is expected to follow his lead.
The Maple Leafs are very familiar with what Nick Foligno did with the Blue Jackets in the playoffs last season. It was a tight checking series and they took away every lane and option possible leading them to being victorious and winning their series.
Dubas must’ve taken note of that series as he acquired Foligno to bring that same style of play and physicality to a team that was lacking in that department in the playoffs.
Seeing as the Maple Leafs have the point producers in Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner, William Nylander and Tavares, bringing in a well rounded player in Foligno gives the team a lot of depth in more ways than one. Folgino knows his role.
“What I bring is that physical presence, nothing flashy,” Foligno said according Mark Zwolinski of the Toronto Star. “I think I’m obviously able to play on the offensive side of it, but (I can be) a steady presence out there. I hope to help. I think it will play itself out as we go along.” (from ‘New Leafs forward Nick Foligno says there’s ‘nothing flashy’ about his game, which might be just what his new team needs’, The Toronto Star- 04/22/21)
The Maple Leafs didn’t need another high-end skill player for this playoff push. Adding another player like Zach Hyman to provide that hard-nosed play is what this team needed. It was nice to see Foligno get four points in four games with the Maple Leafs, but the production isn’t going to be like Hyman’s. Foligno is going to be physical, play responsibly in his own end and also being an asset on the penalty kill.
What’s impressive in Folgino’s playoff resume is that he was part of another major upset in the playoffs before. The Blue Jackets shocked the Tampa Bay Lightning, sweeping them in four games in 2018-19. If there’s anyone who can help motivate this team when they need a spark, it’s Foligno.
It’s safe to say that Thornton is coming into playoff form at the best possible time. He is definitely ready for postseason hockey. He was brought in to be a mentor and leader for this team. Production wasn’t going to be as high as in past seasons, but his attitude is making a lasting impression on the current roster.
The young stars have taken a major liking to him and they love having Thornton on the team. There were times where his age started to show and Keefe said that he wanted to get more out of his veterans, including Thornton.
Well, message received.
Since that comment on April 18th, Thornton upped his level of play and Keefe took notice. The physical play intensified and the offensive production came. After he went 17 games without a point, he turned things around when he needed to and went on a seven-game point streak recording two goals and five assists. In the process, he earned his 1,100thcareer assist.
This is the Thornton the Maple Leafs wanted when they signed him in the offseason. They got a glimpse of his play from the start, but now they seemed to have got an even better version of what they anticipated. He is at his best when the team needs him to be.
He has been in the playoffs 17 times in his career. His personal best in the postseason came in 2015-16 where he recorded 18 assists and 21 points with the San Jose Sharks. That was also the closest Thornton came to winning the Stanley Cup as the Sharks lost to the Pittsburgh Penguins in six games. That kind of experience is what’s needed on a team that struggled mightily in the past. He now has another chance to make a deep run and be that figure to lead the way.
Jason Spezza is another player that has longed to add a Stanley Cup to his resume. Re-signing with the Maple Leafs in the offseason to another league minimum contract, things seemed to be heading in the right direction, both for him and the team.
After recently cracking the NHL’s top 100 in career points, Spezza’s production has been absolutely impressive this season, considering the fact that he averages 10:57 per game. He currently ranks seventh in team scoring with 30 points in 52 games this season, good for 0.58 point per game. Needless to say, this is impressive that he’s top-10 in team scoring while earning fourth line minutes. Of his points, 25 have come at even strength, including nine goals.
He’s essential to their success in the faceoff dot as well. With a minimum 300 faceoffs taken in the NHL, Spezza ranks 13thin faceoff percentage (56.5%). His value to the team when he’s on the ice is absolutely critical and you notice every time he’s out there. Ever since signing with the Maple Leafs last season, like Thornton, they love to have him on this team. Keefe relies on him in key situations.
He leads with his play and leadership qualities on the ice, but it’s also noticeable off the ice. When the Toronto Marlies season was on hold due to COVID-19 protocol, Spezza led the way for the Maple Leafs to pool their money and help their affiliate earn their pay. Keefe even praised the character of this group to help others out.
Having players with this kind of initiative to step up will go a long way to bring a team together to form a bond. Combined with his own impressive playoff record, Spezza is going to have an important role in the playoffs.
It’s a quiet season production wise for the Maple Leafs biggest free agent signing, but T.J. Brodie’s impact is being felt as his defensive play is going to go a long way for a playoff run.
Keefe has said that this team’s success can be attributed to their strong defensive play this season. The Maple Leafs rank sixth overall in goals against with 140 and seventh in goals against per game with 2.59. Brodie, an 11-season veteran, is at the forefront of their success in their own end.
Brodie has been a welcoming addition to a team that needed to address an area of weakness in the past. He has the ability to provide strong coverage in his own end and be a reliable transitional player, making long stretch passes and moving the play up quickly. Not to mention he has been extremely effective at breaking up two-on-ones.
Considering the minutes that he logs on the top pairing, he’s 13th on the team in 5v5 goals against (26) with a differential of +29. In addition, he has a +90 scoring chances differential (515 for, 425 against). While lowering the scoring chances and goals against, Brodie has a positive impact offensively when he is on the ice.
In the playoffs, defensive play becomes more important as they are integral parts to a championship. If the Maple Leafs want to go far, they’re going to have to rely on the strong defensive game that Brodie has brought all season. The Maple Leafs haven’t fared well defensively in the past, but bringing him in and his two-way presence on the ice is going to help them this time around.
This is probably the most balanced team that we have seen from the Maple Leafs in some time. They have the offensive power up front, the strong defense on the blue line, but more importantly, they have a strong core of leaders that have a positive impact. While they’re impact on the ice is going to go a long way, they’re going to be there to provide the character and motivation that a championship team needs.
Peter is in his third year with The Hockey Writers, covering the Toronto Maple Leafs and heading the Draft and Prospects section. He has previously interned at The Hockey News and worked on Toronto Marlies broadcasts for Rogers TV. He currently is the co-host of the podcast Sticks in the 6ix and a frequent guest on Maple Leafs Lounge. Aside from hockey, he also enjoys drumming, animation and impressions/ voices.