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Addressing the Leafs physicality “problem”

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Word on the street is the Leafs are soft.

NHL: Toronto Maple Leafs at Boston Bruins Bob DeChiara-USA TODAY Sports

It started in the opening minutes of Saturday’s game after Charlie McAvoy knocked Mitch Marner down in the corner. The hits and jests from the Boston Bruins continued with Chris Wagner finishing a check on Andreas Johnsson. Then the game flew off the rails:

Kadri fought Brandon Carlo, Hyman hit McAvoy and shortly after fought Matt Grzelcvk in response, and Wagner threw a couple with Ron Hainsey after his hit on Morgan Rielly.

The Leafs dropped the game 6-3 and many have jumped at the chance to share their opinions on why they had difficulty defeating a Boston without Patrice Bergeron and Zdeno Chara. Besides blaming William Nylander for messing up the mojo, the team’s physical presence has received the pointed finger of shame, but this isn’t the first time.

Mike Babcock was asked earlier in the week about the team’s response to the Luke Glendening hit on Auston Matthews to which he replied:

You look at our personnel, you look what we got; we are what we are. Our toughness is our power play; take all the penalties you want.

I think that’s a fair statement to make considering the Leafs are fifth in the league with a 27.3% power play. Yet there are still rumblings pushing management to add something the team lacks: physicality. A physical presence. Someone the opposition must look out for to protect themselves and their star player teammates. And the loss to Boston only made those takes all the hotter and more frequent.

“The Leafs need to look at how a team like the Washington Capitals are built if they want to put themselves anywhere close to the mantle of a Stanley Cup Contender”, some say. Alexander Ovechkin, Devante Smith-Pelly, and Tom Wilson received a lot of praise for the things they did without the puck during the team’s run to the Cup. Who’s going to do that for Toronto? Hyman? Kadri? Hainsey!?

But here’s the thing: who cares? The NHL is a copycat league sure, but I’ve yet to read the ten step guide on how to win a championship.

The Leafs are built on speed, skill, and offensive pressure and those who haven’t been able to fit are slowly pushed to the wayside. Did Matt Martin stop other teams from targeting Matthews, Marner, or Nylander? Would adding Antoine Roussel, Zack Kassian, or Ryan Reaves (2nd, 3rd, and 9th respectively in penalty minutes) make that much of a difference?

Ever since the Bruins won the cup in 2011, they’re mould of heavy and physical play became the standard. The Kings’ victories in 2012 and 2014 further hammered the nail down to the point where other teams in the Pacific attempted to become them. Strength, grit, and grind, that was the LA way. And look at them now.

The Kings had the broom handed to them by the Vegas Golden Knights in the first round of last year’s playoffs and are responding with a lottery-bound 2018-19 season. Their offence is underwhelming, they have few players who can move, and are on their way to an era Drew Doughty probably didn’t consider when choosing to extend for another eight years. They have players who can throw their weight around when it counts, but nothing else to warrant any danger to their opponents.

Youth and speed is where the game is at and the Leafs are knee deep in it. Imagine they make it to the final one day and win on the strengths they’ve worked with in the Shannahan era.

The Leafs played poorly in Boston. They were outworked, outplayed, and let their frustrations inhibit what’s made them a special team to watch this season. And one loss or team archetype shouldn’t take anything away from that.

Every player on this team has shown they have a mean streak. We wouldn’t be talking about the lack of response from Matthews if Rielly wasn’t being held back by two Detroit players for example, and we wouldn’t be talking about the Leafs having a physicality problem as much if they scored another three goals and won the game in overtime.

We’ve seen what happens to teams who try to be something that they’re not. So to address the Leafs and their physicality problem, it’s not. The Leafs do have their issues and the deeper rooted observations of Saturday’s contest show it well. However, I think we’re choosing to focus on the wrong thing.