Toronto Maple Leafs Missing Their Grit
If you looked at the Toronto Maple Leafs record you would think they have little to worry about, the team has compiled a 6-3-0 record. Dave Nonis was one of the busiest GM’s in the league this offseason re-signing key players like Kadri, Franson and Kessel while also pursuing players through free agency and trade. All of Nonis’ moves have looked good early on, especially the 1 year $1 M contract given to Mason Raymond. So with all these moves going the Leafs way why are some fans starting to get concerned?
The Maple Leafs are a team that has begun to stray from their identity, and it has begun to be noticeable across the league. Last season Randy Carlyle force fed the rest of the NHL his version of the Toronto Maple Leafs, a team that will punish you physically finishing every check and each player standing up for one another. Carlyle is notorious for instilling a tough ‘take it for yourself’ attitude with his teams and is not one to shy away from using enforcers to regulate his message.
The results? It gave their skilled players the time, space and confidence to get the job done and raised team moral to levels not seen before the 1st NHL lockout. Toronto made the playoffs in the 48 game season for the first time since 2004 and pushed one of the league’s best teams, the Boston Bruins, to a thrilling overtime in 7 games before losing in heartbreak fashion. It was the physicality and not the fights that made Toronto such a hard team to play against. In the playoffs Colton Orr looked to settle into a 4th line energy role and gained Carlyle’s confidence to play a regular shift.
The season opener in Montreal had a fevered pace with both teams finishing every check, but since then the Toronto Maple Leafs have looked utterly lacking.
The physicality has diminished and the 4th line regularly sees a dismal 3-6 minutes a night, often not seeing enough time to make any kind of physical impact. The Leafs are sorely missing the two way back checking skills of Kulemin and Paul Ranger has done little to inspire confidence in Mark Fraser’s absence on the third pairing.
The Leafs were an anomaly at the start of the season, composing an impressive winning record while being sorely outshout and having one of the lowest possession percentages in the league. Their bad habits are starting to catch up to them and fans are starting to realize you cannot win the game when you don’t have the puck the majority of the time.
There is hope that the return of Kulemin and the much anticipated debut of Clarkson will help kickstart the stagnant forecheck the Leafs have had this season. Clarkson has always been a physical player who creates his own space and has decent possession stats from his time in New Jersey.
It has become clear the Toronto Maple Leafs can’t go around hoping to win games shooting 14 shots a night and being hesitant on the forecheck anymore, the time to change these habits is now or it will be a long season in Toronto.