The Toronto Maple Leafs kicked off their season with a 3-2 overtime win over the Montreal Canadiens. The game was closer than expected and the Canadiens showed surprising speed en route to outshooting the Leafs 36-26. Unsurprisingly, the Leafs were also out-hit by the Canadiens 34-19. One hit, in particular, drew a reaction from the Scotiabank Arena crowd, when Canadiens’ defenceman Xavier Ouellet drove Auston Matthews into the boards from behind in the third period.
It was not a particularly dirty hit, it wasn’t even a penalty. Matthews dusted off his jersey and was fine but it begs the question, what will prevent a third-liner from taking a run at Matthews, Mitch Marner, John Tavares or William Nylander? The Maple Leafs no longer employ any enforcers, so it’s up to the power play to strike fear into would-be aggressors.
Maple Leafs Do Not Have an Enforcer
This is not Lou Lamoriello’s Maple Leafs. It’s not Cliff Fletcher’s, or Brian Burke’s or anyone else’s. This is Kyle Dubas’ Maple Leafs and it’s full of speedy, skilled players. The consequence is that the Leafs will be out-hit in just about every game they play this season. The Leafs were 25th in the league in hits last season and these were their players with the most hits:
- Leo Komarov – gone
- Matt Martin – gone
- Roman Polak – gone
- Andreas Borgman – in the AHL
- Zack Hyman
- Nikita Zaitsev
- Nazem Kadri
Without Komarov, Martin, Polak and Borgman, the Leafs will likely finish last in the league in hits. Zach Hyman can throw his body around, Nikita Zaitsev gets physical, and Nazem Kadri has a temper, but none of these players strikes fear into the heart of an opponent. The Leafs do not have an enforcer, but does it matter?
Gone are the days when you would bump Wayne Gretzky and Marty McSorley would immediately punish you. With today’s enforcer, if a star player is bumped then three shifts later the other team’s enforcer fights one of your fourth-liners and possibly picks up an instigator penalty in the process. I fail to see how that will deter players from running down the NHL’s star players. The Leafs had a much tougher lineup last season and it didn’t stop Brad Marchand from taking all kinds of liberties in the playoffs.
If the Leafs don’t have an enforcer, what’s to stop someone from taking a cheap shot at Matthews or one of the other young stars? That’s where the power play comes in.
Maple Leafs Potent Power Play
The Maple Leafs have stacked their top power-play unit with Matthews, Tavares, Kadri, Marner and Morgan Rielly. That’s almost not fair. The Leafs’ first power play against the Canadiens resulted in a beautiful goal:
Matthews’ shot was amazing but even the passing play right before it resulted in a dangerous chance for Tavares in front. In general, the power play is a modified 1-3-1 with Rielly at the point, Tavares in front of the net and Kadri in the slot. Matthews plays on the left half-boards with Marner on the right. Marner can drop back to the point to collect the puck and quarterback the play. His primary options are down low to Tavares, into the slot to Kadri for a tip on net or one-timer, cross-ice pass to Matthews for an attack or back to Rielly to re-set and look for a different angle.
This power play is going to strike more fear into opposing players than any enforcer and opposing coaches will harp on their players to be extremely disciplined against the Leafs. That should result in a little less hooking, grabbing and charging at the Leafs’ talented forwards.
When Will the Leafs Miss an Enforcer?
Unfortunately, a power play only scares the opponent in a close game. If the Leafs are winning by five goals, for example, the game can get dirty and then it’s nice to have a big enforcer to help protect the stars. In lieu of that, the Leafs’ role players, such as Par Lindholm and Hyman, need to step up for the team.