The Maple Leafs Big Trade Deadline Question: To Grit or Not to Grit?

Jul 13, 2020; Toronto, Ontario, Canada; Toronto Maple Leafs general manager Kyle Dubas (left) and team president Brendan Shananhan watch a NHL workout at the Ford Performance Centre. Mandatory Credit: John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports
Jul 13, 2020; Toronto, Ontario, Canada; Toronto Maple Leafs general manager Kyle Dubas (left) and team president Brendan Shananhan watch a NHL workout at the Ford Performance Centre. Mandatory Credit: John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports /

The Toronto Maple Leafs are going to add to their lineup in the coming weeks as they prepare for the NHL Playoffs.

The Toronto Maple Leafs are a first place team who is said to be “all-in,” in their pursuit of a championship, and the question on everyone’s mind is how best to do that. Should the Leafs pursue even more speed and skill, or should they go the other way and build a roster for “playoff hockey”?

I love playoff hockey.  The intensity goes up.  The pressure goes up.  The desperation goes up.  The game, overall, just really increases in terms of quality.  Guys don’t take shifts off.  They play hard as heck.  The other thing that guys do when the playoffs start?  They hit.  They hit a lot.

There is a real spread when it comes to trade rumors and the Maple Leafs right now.  A top six forward?  A top 9 forward with versatility and toughness?  A #3 center?  A depth defenseman?  A new goalie?  A depth goalie?  Take your pick, it’s enough to spin you around in circles.

Toronto Maple Leafs at the Trade Deadline

Dubas has said publicly that he wants to make this team harder to play against, but what does that mean?  Connor McDavid is hard to play against.  Connor Helleybuyck is hard to play against.  Other teams will surely tell you that Morgan Reilly is hard to play against, or Mitch Marner.  You don’t have to be big and mean to be hard to play against.  You have to be good, you have to be competitive, and you have to be relentless.  I will add though, it is definitely really nice if some of those same guys are also big and mean.

I often talk with stat heads about a number of different analytics, and one thing I always ask them is, what about the stat of winning?  It’s one thing to look at 31 teams over the course of 82 games and seek out advantages, but it’s a whole other thing to look at what separates the 16 playoff teams from each other.  What stat does the team that wins the Cup excel at?  What is the stat of winning?  The obvious answer is SV%, but the less obvious answer is a higher level of physicality.

Physicality is defined as having a physical presence, or the involvement of a lot of bodily contact or activity.  Does this describe this Leafs team?  If you answered no, then please keep reading.

I have long been an advocate for making the Leafs a more physical team.  In my mind, the playoffs are such a grind, that if you can hit the other guy more, you wear him out.  You gain an advantage.  Not every guy is willing to pay the price of physical contact, even in the playoffs.  Sometimes you need to go out and get a few of those guys, like Tampa did last year when they acquired Barcly Gudrow, Blake Coleman, and, yes, Zach Bogosian.

Tampa led the playoffs in hits/game last year.  Tampa won the Stanley Cup last year.  I dug up the last 5 Cup champions and took a look at how they ranked in a simple stat like hits/game during their playoff runs (all stats from  I put together this table of the Stanley Cup finals from the last 5 seasons (the Leafs are in there for a comparison):

Year                    Champion (rank)     Runner-Up (rank)             Maple Leafs (rank)

2019-2020      Lightning (1st)          Stars (2nd)                          Lost in qualifier (24th)

2018-2019      Blues (10th)              Bruins (12th)                      Lost in first round (8th)

2017-2018      Capitals (5th)            Golden Knights (2nd)       Lost in first round (7th)

2016-2017      Penguins (14th)       Predators (12th)               Lost in first round (2nd)

2016-2016      Penguins (12th)       Sharks (6th)                        Didn’t qualify

I have to be honest, I really thought I was going to find a more consistent advantage here for teams that reached the Cup final, especially because it seemed like both the Blues and Bruins hit everything that moved in 2018-19, but it wasn’t the case.  Does that mean that the Leafs don’t need to get more physical?  They definitely do.  Let me explain.

In sticking with the 2018-2019 season, even though the Blues and Bruins didn’t accumulate as many hits as I thought they did, I definitely remember how hard they hit when they did.  Hits are just a total stat.  The kinds of hits that hurt don’t show up any differently than the kind that probably shouldn’t have even counted.  The Bruins brought the hurt and I know Leafs fans remember this well.  In the final, the Blues brought the hurt to the Bruins.

A good friend of mine is a Bruins fan and he was texting me constantly about how the refs should never have let that happen or this happen.  My response to him?  “How does it feel?”  Exactly.  The point here is that both of those teams were very hard to play against, and they were both big and mean on top of that.

All fans should know how the Capitals played in 2017-2018.  They were absolute bullies en route to a championship.  Also in the Cup final, the Golden Knights, were ranked 2nd in hits and were an incredibly aggressive team.  That was a very physical series.  There was no way that Maple Leafs team could have survived 7 games like that.

Now we get to the major outlier, the Pittsburgh Penguins.  Yes, the same team that has Sidney Crosby on it.  They had a lot of other good players as well, including somebody named Evgeni Malkin, but having Crosby IS an outlier.  Good luck trying to break down that team as a comparable to anybody…you can’t.

That leaves us with the most recent Cup champ, the Tampa Bay Lightning.  The Lighting outhit everybody, including the incredibly physical Dallas Stars in the final, and were absolutely dominant in the series.

Now, you may bring up the point that they had a bunch of all-stars, an NHL scoring leader, a 60 goal guy, a Vezina goalie, a Norris defenseman, and, you would be right of course.  But then I would ask you, if they had all that firepower, all that talent, why did they hit everybody so much?  Why did they decide, as a team, that they were going to run you through the boards every shift?  Because they wanted to win.

Last year, the Maple Leafs were dead last in hits out of all 24 teams that made the play-in round.  Dead last.  They need another physical element, another player that is relentless and hard to play against.  They need another guy, or two, that will push back when pushed.

I really like this team.  They have shown a ton of growth in their game since last year.  They are a more difficult team to play, but, I have to say it, even with adding veterans like Simmonds and Bogosian, this team just isn’t physical enough.

Next. 3 Veterans the Leafs Could Potentially Acquire. dark

The stat “hit” is really just a generic way of quantifying which player, or group of players, is willing to pay the price necessary to win.  They will sacrifice their body.  They will make you feel more pain than they feel.  In the playoffs, most of the players are good players because the weak teams are gone.  When enough good players decide they are going to sacrifice themselves for the benefit of the team, it means they want to lift a trophy.

That trophy, is the Stanley Cup.