Maple Leafs’ More Physical Play Hasn’t Yet Translated into Winning

When the Philadelphia Flyers were formed as an NHL expansion team in 1967, they became known as the Broad Street Bullies for their highly-aggressive physical style. What that team might have lacked in skill, it made up for in toughness. Recently, the Toronto Maple Leafs have upped their physical game. They might not become the Broad Street Bullies, but they might no longer be a team that fans think lacks toughness.

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They don’t lack toughness at all. Still, for whatever reason, regardless of how good or bad the team is playing, the Maple Leafs always seem to get a ton of criticism. One of the most noted problems fans call the team out for is its lack of physicality. 

Maple Leafs’ Management Has Sought More Physical Players

Management has gone about acquiring players with a certain degree of toughness. Players like Jake Muzzin, Wayne Simmonds, Kyle Clifford, Michael Bunting, and Ilya Lyubushkin. At the trade deadline this season they added Colin Blackwell and Mark Giordano. Still, the term “soft” has been used a number of times when referring to the Maple Leafs.  

Wayne Simmonds Toronto Maple Leafs
Wayne Simmonds, Toronto Maple Leafs (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

Then a  funny thing happened six games ago. The Maple Leafs were being embarrassed by the Arizona Coyotes to the tune of 3-0 and 4-1. Whether it was planned or just a result of them getting angry over losing badly to one of the worst teams in the league, the team began hitting. They battled (a term seldom used to describe this team) back to tie the game before losing it in overtime.  

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When the ice chips melted, the Maple Leafs had amassed a total of 42 hits. That’s more hits than they’ve had in a single game in over two years. Going into that game, according to statmuse.com, the Maple Leafs had averaged 18 hits a game, which at the time was 30th in the 32-team league.  

In the next game, the Tim Horton’s Heritage Classic outdoor game, a contest they lost 5-2, the Maple Leafs recorded 36 hits. The game after that they had 31 hits, the game after that, 36 hits again. They cooled down a bit in their last two games only registering 27 hits against Nashville then following it up with 28 hits in their win over the New Jersey Devils.  

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In total, they have a combined 200 hits in their last six games, an average of 33 hits a game. That’s more hits per game than the two top-hitting teams in the NHL this season. The Ottawa Senators lead the league with 29.5 hits per game while the Nashville Predators are second with 28.8.

What Maple Leafs’ Players Can We “Blame” for This New Physical Play?

So who exactly is doing the hitting? According to quanthockey.com, the top hitters in the last six games for the Maple Leafs are.

PlayerHit Total Over Last Six Games
Ilya Lyubushkin24
John Tavares17
Mitch Marner 13
David Kampf12
Rasmus Sandin11 (in four games)
Justin Holl10
Timothy Liljegren10 (in five games)
T.J. Brodie10
Auston Matthews9 (in four games)

It’s not surprising to see Lyubushkin leading the way with 24 hits. That Tavares in second with 17 hits might not seem all that unusual either. He’s seemed more physical this season; and, indeed he has the most hits he’s ever recorded in a single season with 65. His previous high was 59 in the 2018-19 season. 

Toronto Maple Leafs John Tavares Kasperi Kapanen
Toronto Maple Leafs center John Tavares celebrates a goal with right wing Kasperi Kapanen (AP Photo/Nick Wass)

The big surprise is Marner being third on the team with 13 hits. What is going on here? Is this something new Marner has added to his game? Has another player somehow influenced how Marner plays the game?  

Is Lyubushkin Impacting other Maple Leafs’ Players?

We can see Lyubushkin, and the way he plays the game, having an effect on the whole team. However, we question whether he’s taken Marner under his wing to teach him the physical aspects of the game. Whatever, or whoever it is, we like it.  

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Adding more physicality to his game hasn’t hurt Marner’s offense at all. He’s recorded four goals and three assists for seven points in those six games. 

Auston Matthews has been quite physical himself, with nine hits in the four games he has played. He also wasn’t shy about defending himself against Rasmus Dahlin of Buffalo to the tune of a two-game suspension for a cross-check to the Dahlin’s neck.

Auston Matthews Toronto Maple Leafs
Auston Matthews, Toronto Maple Leafs (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

By the eye test the whole Matthews, Marner, Bunting line has been very physical since the Arizona game. Altogether they’ve combined for 29 hits in those six games, a number we are sure would be higher if Matthews had not been suspended for two of them.  

What’s the Impact on Team Success?

As far as the effect it has had on the team itself their record over the five games is  3-2-1. That’s not great, but just so-so. The question remains if this new-found physicality will lead to increased winning; or, if it will translate to postseason success.

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There is an old hockey adage that states that if you’re hitting a lot it means you don’t have the puck. We’re sure Maple Leafs’ fans would like to see the Maple Leafs with the puck more. That’s the way this team has been constructed.

Still, adding more physicality to their game especially when it is being led by their best players, can’t be a bad thing.   

[Note: I want to thank long-time Maple Leafs’ fan Stan Smith for collaborating with me on this post. Stan’s Facebook profile can be found here.]