The Toronto Maple Leafs have been one of the top-five teams in the league so far this season, currently sitting tied for second in points with the second-best goal differential.

To date, there have also been two consistent criticisms of the team: their defense and team toughness.

The defense discussion will be saved for a later date, but toughness was discussed by General Manager Kyle Dubas this week and has been a prevalent topic of late.

As part of addressing the question, Dubas said:

“For whatever reason, that takes on a life of its own, that toughness question. I look at Tampa Bay there, eight or nine points ahead of us now, and they’ve built their team their way. I understand, at every level — whether it’s Sault Ste. Marie (SOO) or the Marlies — it’s been the same question. I just don’t buy it myself. I know that there are a lot of pundits that say you have to have it, but I look at the teams that have had success and I don’t think that bringing in one big person is going to change our culture and it is not going to have us carry on with the process we’ve started.”

What I found interesting about the comment is the reference to this perception that has followed him basically his whole career.

In his first ever press conference as GM with the SOO, Dubas actually addressed how his family did not like soft players, particularly his grandmother:

”If we ever have a team that is not absolutely fierce in their level of competitiveness, the fans may be upset but I’ll be more fearful of what I’m going to hear when I go home. She doesn’t like it when they’re a bunch of floozies.”

His first draft pick, roughly a month after those comments, was Darnell Nurse. His teams in the SOO also had players like David Broll, Carson Dubchak (over 100 PIMs), and players like Alex Gudbranson, Brandon Alderson and Tyler Ganly, to name a few. Nobody would confuse his teams in the SOO with being the Broad Street Bullies, but they weren’t completely devoid of pushback.

The Marlies are in a similar boat. Richard Clune is a great story, but he’s also an enforcer that has been on the team for years now. There was a whole collection of physical players that walk the proverbial line on the team last season, too – Mason Marchment, Andrew Nielsen and Kerby Rychel, plus a bunch of players with size and jam including Colin Greening, Carl Grunstrom, Frederik Gauthier, and Andreas Borgman. The team had a ton of skill, but it was absolutely not a team that relied purely on skill. They grinded and cycled and had physical elements to their game.

Dubas did also say:

“We want to have skill. We want to be fast. We want to be competitive. I don’t really think that with the way that the league is going, having someone that can come in and fight or anything like that — if that is what you are inferring — is going to change that. We’ve got a way we want to play and we are just going to carry on with that. In the end, people will judge whether it was effective.”

This is the team he has. There’s no getting away from that and it would make little sense to trade skill guys such as Kasperi Kapanen just to get tougher. That’s being openly acknowledged here, and it’s right on the money. I also don’t think he’s completely oblivious to how heavy the top teams play.

On that note, Lightning head coach Jon Cooper made interesting comments on the topic of toughness last week on the FAN590 in reference to how Tampa beat Boston in last year’s Eastern Conference semifinals:

“We tried to get into a little bit of a freelance hockey against them in Game One and they just smoked us. We had to really become a physical team against them and I thought is what gave us a chance to beat them… The game changes in the playoffs and everyone finishes hits.”

Mike Babcock has referenced being heavy and playing heavy for years now. I don’t think this is news to anyone. Dubas is also stating pretty clearly he’s not just changing a player or downgrading skill to do this. At some point, I think they will look at their options, and it might even take another playoff run before they do (depending on how it goes, of course).

Dubas’ teams have a history of being skill heavy — and history would show that — but history also shows they aren’t completely soft, either. Not even halfway through his first season as GM, I think it would be a little early to just say he’s not aware of this, he doesn’t care, or he won’t do anything at any point to address it.


Notes

– The Leafs have introduced some new players to the penalty kill this season in Kasperi Kapanen fulltime, Par Lindholm, no Roman Polak, and the addition of Travis Dermott. They are 18th in efficiency at 78.9%. Here’s their percentage by month so far:

MonthPK Percentage
October78.8
November77.4
December80.8

Let’s look at a few other stats for the season while we’re here:

StatCorsi against/60Goals against/60Expected Goals AgainstSave Percentage
Rank11142518

It’s middling across the board, except in expected goals against, which possibly speaks to the Leafs’ emphasis of allowing point shots and collapsing to the slot. This will require a deeper dive.

– With a few seconds left in the game against the Panthers, there was a high stick by the Leafs with the puck in play and Florida was about to touch it. Auston Matthews touched the puck instead and that created a late defensive zone faceoff. He should know better than that; in a bigger game against a better team, that’s the kind of little play that becomes a big play.

– Against the Devils, Kasperi Kapanen had a shift at the end of the first where he gained the zone with speed, backed off the defender, curled, put the puck up top, and the Leafs worked it around for a good shot on net. I have talked about this over the past year, but early in his career, Kapanen skated himself into corners often; even though he is one of the fastest players in the league, a good defenseman could angle him off easily. He’s added this curl play to his game, as well as the ability to read when to curl and when to drive the net. When you have his speed, you only need those two moves.

– I would not have guessed going into the season that Nazem Kadri and Kasperi Kapanen would be averaging the same amount of even strength time on ice per game. I also wouldn’t have guessed that Patrick Marleau would be playing more at even strength than Kadri and Zach Hyman. Let’s see where that ends up once the season is over.

– We have seen the Leafs use William Nylander on faceoffs on the right side of the ice to pull on his backhand. Against the Devils, he lost the draw, confusion ensued (particularly Nylander, who was caught in no-man’s land as Marleau dropped too low to help), and it resulted in a goal against. Part of that is just the process of continuing to get his game back, but we’ll have to monitor if Babcock goes out of his way to avoid those situations. The right winger on the play was Kadri, who has played with Kapanen the most so far, and Kapanen has taken just three faceoffs all season.

– The five players that have taken the most faceoffs on the Leafs so far are all lefties. I bet Babcock wants to be able to trust a righty.


Quotes

I think we are always looking to improve the team wherever we can. We would like to continue to move the puck better from our own zone. I think some of that falls on our forwards to get open and available, and on the defense to execute when they are open and available. It is an area that we continue to want to improve upon. I think it is an area where we can make great gains and continue to improve as a club. If that isn’t something that is happening as we get closer to the end of February, I think we will certainly look to improve.

– Kyle Dubas on areas for improvement

In other words, they’d like to improve internally and think they have the pieces to do that. It makes sense, but I’ll say it with the asterisk that they are a good enough team to justify going out and aggressively buying.

“We just didn’t seem sharp, execution wasn’t very good. We know teams are pre-scouting and sense what we’re doing. Obviously you’re trying to make adjustments, but you’re not trying to do too much either. It’s just finding that right balance.”

– John Tavares on the Leafs struggles on the power play lately

We talked about this for months. Teams have finally just sold out on the slap pass play. Mitch Marner is so good at sucking defenders in and making them think he’ll shoot, but we’re seeing opponents completely back off him now. With a lefty up top, it’s not like he can drop it for a one-timer, either. The big thing for the Leafs will be making them respect the shot, and once teams start biting again, we will go back to seeing silly goals (or if teams don’t pre-scout at all, we’ll continue to see it).

“I don’t know… I might’ve been at a different game than you guys. We had the puck. That must be just about it. See ya guys.”

– Mike Babcock at the end of the post-game from the Tampa Bay game, when asked whether there are more positive plays to take out of the game tape than negative

I still cannot believe some of the analysis coming from that game — Tampa is the class of the East… Leafs learned a lesson against the top team… That’s the standard, and so on. What game were people watching? It was very clear the Leafs dominated the game. Tampa’s goalie had one of the best games he’ll have all year, if not his best game of the year period. Pretty simple stuff. It happens.


5 Things I Think I’d Do

1.  I think the forward lines are a fluid situation at the moment and Babcock is smart to ride what’s working. Eventually, Auston Matthews and William Nylander will be reunited and Kasperi Kapanen will bump down to play with Nazem Kadri, but right now, Nylander is still getting his timing back and Kapanen is making the most of his opportunity. These are good problems to have.

2.  I think I’m not ready to change the power play units. The first unit has generally been lights out and they deserve some rope. But adjustments have to be made – particularly by shooting more.

3.  Conversely, I think Kasperi Kapanen should make his way to the second power-play unit sooner than later. He should replace Ennis on the other half wall. While his one-timer isn’t a bomb, I think it’s slightly underrated and worth respecting.

4.  I think the Leafs have quietly done a good job of pushing Ron Hainsey’s ice time down and should take it one step further by resting him for the odd game. He’s fourth on the defense in average ice time per game while averaging under 20 minutes per night, and his shorthanded ice time per game is down by over a minute. I think part of this is how much he’s aged from last season to this one in his game. It’s not the Leafs style or the style of the league, but sitting him out the odd game, giving Travis Dermott a top-four look, and getting another guy in to see what he can do (potentially Calle Rosen?) makes all sorts of sense to me if you’re looking at the big picture.

5.  When looking to tinker with the forward group for certain situations, I think I’d like to see the Kadri – Matthews – Nylander put back together on occasion. Babcock used to play them together after penalty kills for a power shift and it was consistently dominant. It’s a nice trio to have in your back pocket depending on the situation.