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Roundtable: The Leafs want to be harder to play against

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Are they right? Does that even mean anything? Does anything in this world mean anything?

2019 NHL Draft - Round 2-7 Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

Toronto Maple Leafs General Manager Kyle Dubas gave a press conference yesterday on the state of the team and their upcoming busy week—the draft starts tonight, while free agency opens on Friday. In the course of it he gave one quote that quickly echoed around Leaf Twitter:

We decided to gather round the PPP Water Cooler and talk about it.

What does it really mean to be “harder to play against”?

Fulemin: I usually distinguish between “hard to play against” and “hard to win against”, two things that are interconnected but not the same. Obviously the latter is priority one. I read a description once of Shea Weber being hard to play against, and that contributing to his reputation—he’s obviously an excellent player, but further to that, playing against him is goddamn miserable. You’re left taking big hits when he’s defending you and blocking howitzer shots when you’re defending him. Whether that has added value that isn’t captured by current measurements is a live question. I buy there can be some.

Teams that are hard to play against make it harder and more unpleasant to play the way you want, and succeed in imposing the way they want to play. The series against Columbus was disconcerting because for the majority of it, it looked like Columbus’ preferred kind of series. The Leafs weren’t awful, by any stretch, and they might have won, but the series nonetheless mostly looked how John Tortorella would have preferred it rather than Sheldon Keefe. There’s the simple fact that the Leafs don’t hit very much, but more than that, they seemed to get disrupted.

Arvind: I view being hard to play against as opponent-specific, in part. In general, I think a team needs to be able to assert its style of play on the game in question... but they also need that style of play to be unwanted by their opponent in order to really be ‘hard to play against’ for their opponent. To that end, I think Edmonton very often imposes their style on their opponent — specifically, firewagon, end-to-end hockey with lots of special teams. But against Chicago, that didn’t make them harder to play against because that’s also how Chicago has to play in order to win, since their defence is garbage. Conversely, at times in their 2019 series, I think the Leafs were hard to play against for the Bruins because they managed to drag them into a type of game that Boston didn’t want to play (the converse also happened, of course).

There’s a delineation between hard to play against and hard to win against, as Fulemin discussed above, and they’re obviously related because a team that can impose their preferred style is likely imposing a style they’re good at. In general, I think the hockey media paints ‘hard to play against’ as physical, defensive, and difficult teams that don’t let you have what you want. I think that also fits the paradigm I’ve elucidated, but I do believe it’s possible for primarily offensive teams to be ‘hard to play against’ as well.

Brigstew: Whatever you want it to, baby. It’s a free country! It could mean you play very physical and beat the other team up. It could mean you’re very fast so you never let them have a breather to make a play. It could be that you’re pesky and borderline dirty to lure them into take penalties. It could mean that you’re defensively sound and never let them have scoring quality scoring chances. It could mean you’re just a good hockey team that’s hard to beat.

Katya: I’ll take Fulemin’s distinction to heart, even though I think one of those is much more important than the other. Merely being hard to play against creates the kind of team that stirs the heart (and places further south in some) and provides opportunity for commentators who grew up with the hockey of a bygone era to extol the virtues of someone like Shea Weber.

Being hard to win against gets you home ice in the playoffs, and exhausting your opponent through sheer power isn’t the only way to be hard to beat. You can be too fast to catch, too good with the puck to ever give it up, too slick with the offensive cycle to ever get a change against. You can be so deep that line matching doesn’t matter, or have one line so stupendous there is no counter for it. But some of the things traditionally seen as “grit” will get you points in all of those categories of hard to win against.

Hardev: I think a lot of being hard to play against comes down to the players, not the personnel. A guy who’s 5’9”, 173 lbs can be as detrimental to you playing your game as someone who is 6’3”, 233 lbs. If you’re big, you can throw your weight around and force opponents to work harder to stay on their skating line and make plays. If you’re quick, you can throw your stick and body between the puck and your opponent and make it hard for them to move with the puck and make plays.

The two players I stole bios from are Yanni Gourde and Erik Cernak and both do those jobs really well and it affects the game positively when they’re on the ice. The Lightning are a possession and shots team because they don’t let their opponent even breathe on the puck. I’ve always considered the Leafs to be the Lightning but five or so years behind on their path. From when I joined Raw Charge four seasons ago to now, there has been a very obvious shift in how all 18 skaters work every shift. Every night they pretend there’s a zamboni driver behind them and they have to smother every puck that’s on the opponent’s stick because it might end up in the back of their net. The Lightning won because they have four or so superstars who played hard every night and everyone else behind them followed suit.

Why are the Leafs easy to play against, if you think they are?

Fulemin: It’s because of that William Nylander, I tell you what, and you know who else is ruining this country, that Justin Trudeau, and—

The Leafs don’t have a lot of players who initiate contact. They’re bottom three in hits, and this seems about right. The stock answer from statheads has always been that teams that hit a lot do it because they don’t have the puck, and that’s true to a point, but the Tampa Bay Lightning were fourth in road hits this year despite being an excellent possession team. Maybe worse, because Toronto takes few penalties, they draw few in return, and so it’s easier to take liberties against their players in the make-up-call world of the NHL.

I wouldn’t care all that much about that if the Leafs were nonetheless dictating play. For stretches they did. But I think Toronto doesn’t have all that much of a Plan B when their cycle game isn’t getting results, and while players like Tavares and Nylander do get to the net front and shoot close, I won’t pretend I’ve never dreamt of getting a power forward who might cut a road to the crease and throw around there. This is, I’ll admit, eye-testy.

Arvind: Well, I think we’re not really good enough. We want to play a game where we possess the puck a lot in the offensive zone, where we attempt to attack the zone with speed, and where we prioritise puck control. Sounds good, except two thirds of our defence can’t pass, and two thirds also can’t defend. Our depth forwards were just about useless this regular season, and even our star forwards look like a toddler who lost their parents in a mall if you keep them in the defensive zone for long enough. I wouldn’t say no to being more physical or intimidating, to the extent that I think that would help us get better defensively and better at maintaining control of the puck. But I wouldn’t say no to many things that achieved those items for the Leafs. Ultimately, I think we’re just not that great a team right now, and against Columbus, we didn’t give ourselves enough of a margin to withstand terrible shooting / great Blue Jackets goaltending. That’s not just a defensive problem, to be clear. The offence was horrible, and not just the depth. Mitch Marner and William Nylander were particularly culpable.

The natural comparison is Tampa Bay, because they’re the team everyone wants to be. Obviously, people have made a lot of Tampa getting ‘tougher’ this season, with guys like Barclay Goodrow, Blake Coleman, and Patrick Maroon. Those guys are all pretty solid hockey players who also happen to be gritty / tough. I don’t think anyone is saying no to acquiring good hockey players, regardless of style. There’s something to be said for diversifying the style of your team throughout your lineup as a way to potentially minimize the downside of a bad matchup, but ultimately, I don’t think the particular style of the good hockey players your team has should be of as much importance as whether they are in fact, good.

Brigstew: Basically everything I listed above? They didn’t really do any of that enough. They weren’t that physical, they weren’t necessarily that fast in a way that mattered, they weren’t that pesky, they weren’t that defensive, and they weren’t that good. Not having any one of those by itself isn’t necessarily that bad. But they didn’t seem to have much of ANY of it.

Katya: Imagine you’re the Boston Bruins (yes, I know, but bear up, this will be over soon) and you’re on the ice facing the Leafs. They have you in their spin cycle while you fall back tighter and tighter to the net and block shots, block shots, block shots, while they pass it around and also skate the puck around like they do this for fun. And you haven’t had a change in too long, your legs are vibrating, you’re starting to stand too upright, you have no mobility and you couldn’t do anything with the puck even if you got it, it would be the biggest joke of a rush against since the one in the last period when you almost fell on your face.

The Leafs score on a sweet, sweet shot from Auston Matthews, and now it’s 4-2. For you. And chances are really good that with your top line out there after the faceoff, you can walk into the Leafs zone and they won’t fall back and block all your shots, their sticks will not be in lanes, they will not disrupt your passes, and you will get scoring chances. If they get the puck, don’t worry, they can’t exit the zone, and you’ll get it back. Just like that. Nice and easy. 5-2 Bruins.

Hardev: I feel like my answers are just one big rant. So continuing from there (and Katya’s comment), I think the Leafs are (more than average) more willing to give up shots and possession time. The forwards still have so much work to do in protecting and supporting the defensemen on the Leafs. Maybe they need to run a higher line like the Lightning have, which forces those five players together so it’s easier to work as a team in the neutral zone and catch those passes moving through the zone. You’ll occasionally see a Leaf forward do a great backcheck, hound the puck and steal it back. It’s lauded as a massive accomplishment because we’re not used to seeing it on every shift (say it with me) like the Lightning do.

How would you fix this?

Fulemin: Assuming Calgary never gets back to me about my Matthew Tkachuk trade? Try to bargain buy. Unfortunately gritty star players in free agency cost money and age hard, and I don’t want to go shopping in that market. But a few players with a complementary style to those we already have—I wish Radko Gudas were three years younger, but what can you do—wouldn’t be a bad idea. Despite what the Facebook Uncles would have you think, the Leafs’ star players are good. I’d rather try to solve this through the low end of the complementary market. I’m thinking of buys like Pat Maroon was a couple of years back.

Arvind: Fuck if I know. The reality is, the Leafs have made a bet that their star players are truly stars. And I don’t mean that they’re good, I mean that they’re STARS. We need the three guys we’re paying 8 figures annually to be among the best in the league, not just be solid first liners. We need the winger we’re paying $7M to consistently produce high end individual offense and play driving. When you commit to paying your stars, they have to be true stars, because the bottom of your lineup is probably going to lose their matchups.

I’d like our depth to do better, and to find bargains there that push our team upwards along the margins, but that’s hard, given the variance associated with depth players generally and the fact that we can’t afford any player who inspires a bidding skirmish, let alone a bidding war. And that change is just that... on the margins. It’s very possible that we’ve committed a lot of money to guys who just aren’t good enough at this point to be part of such a top-heavy team and make them contenders. So in that sense, there isn’t a lot we can do besides wait and evaluate if that’s the case. If you can develop someone who plays a big role while on their ELC, that’s probably the panacea, because it lets us be a little more efficient, cap-wise. If not, well, we’re spinning our wheels.

Brigstew: I mirror what Arvind said, but I think I have an idea of what Kyle Dubas wants to do about it. He is moving out their depth for defensemen — whether that’s a star defender like Pietro or a rugged one like Gudas. He’s bringing back guys who have some defensive reputation like Rodrigues, and a prospect who has been compared to Hornqvist in Hallander. The style of hockey they shifted to under Keefe involved maintaining more possession to keep the puck off the other team’s sticks, even if that means sacrificing on shot/scoring chance volume and quality. I get the idea they want to become a team that’s smothering, and annoys teams by having the puck all the time so they’re on their heels. Even if they do get it, they’ll have players responsible enough and physical enough defensively to still be “hard to play against” even if they aren’t the best defensively or the most physical.

Katya: Two things can be true. The roster can have weaknesses, missing skill sets, a lack of board-battle winners and forwards who aren’t totally clueless defensively. And the best forwards on the Leafs can be too slack in the defensive zone. The fix isn’t magic, and it isn’t finding the most famous defenceman or seven more third pairing Justin Holls. It’s dealing with both problems. Other teams don’t have to shelter their fourth line like the Leafs have been doing for years. Other teams have a third line that can either match up to top lines some of the time or it can score on the bottom sixers they face instead. Other teams have the occasional top-six player who doesn’t need breadcrumbs and a map to find his way out of the defensive zone. Other teams do have defenceman whose most appropriate nickname isn’t “Blown Coverage”.

And now for the third thing: if the roster needs tuning to fill in the gaps, so does the systems employed by the team. One way the Leafs are easy to play against is that you can drop back and block shots and totally stymie their offence. Once again, while we focus totally on the defensive deficiencies, we miss entirely that the regular season offence that looks sparkly and wonderful on average fizzles into nothing against disrupter teams. So unless the Leafs are going to be fed a playoff diet of Oilers and Blackhawks, maybe they need to look at that problem too.

Hardev: I think the Leafs had it right in their summer self-evaluation to the media: internal growth. Jake Muzzin hinted at it several times and I think he’s on the right track that it will come from a mindset shift and being more desperate for the puck. Auston Matthews has showed that mindset sometimes, I want him to be offended that he doesn’t have the puck all the time, not just on the rare occasion he’s been insulted by a non-goal call. William Nylander has it in the forward half of the zone and it’s there in the defensive zone, he just needs to limit the big mistakes and use his size off the puck more. John Tavares is not someone I’m going to worry about.

Mitch Marner, on the other hand, works hard in the defensive zone but I don’t know how helpful that effort is, if at all. He’s a pretty significant negative in PK Goals Above Replacement, a contrast to the likes of Hyman and Mikheyev. I don’t think Marner has the intensity, or at least it’s not in the right place, to be a possession leader in the neutral zone on both sides of the puck. He gets pushed out wide or out of the zone too easily and it’s become indicative of who the Leafs are. Like Katya said in her second answer, weathering storms from Marner aren’t hard when you’re attempting to play defense. I want Marner watching Brayden Point video from now until the season starts. I think it’ll do him a lot of good. Get him some tree-trunk thighs, get him moving his feet and get him between players and the puck at all times. No more stupid blocking shots, steal the puck first.