The Toronto Maple Leafs Desperately Need to Establish an Identity

Toronto Maple Leafs v San Jose Sharks
Toronto Maple Leafs v San Jose Sharks / Ezra Shaw/GettyImages

The Toronto Maple Leafs operate as a known quantity in terms of personnel usage. Yet, their style of play has been somewhat of a wild card.

Toronto Maple Leafs head coach Sheldon Keefe loves puck possession, sets that involve stretch passes, and cross-seam set ups on the power-play.

He tinkers with the lines here and there - including sitting talented, young forward Nick Robertson - but the Leafs roll out pretty much the same group of guys every couple of nights.

Most recently, though, aided by matching up against competition that probably won't qualify for the post-season for a few more years in the Anaheim Ducks and San Jose Sharks, the Leafs seem to have carved out an identity built on hustle, greasy goals, open-ice hits, blocked shots and swarming to the puck as a five-man unit.

Then they played three superior teams and that seemed to go away. The Leafs despreately need to establish the style of play their flirted with on their West Coast trip as THE style of Maple Leafs hockey.

The Toronto Maple Leafs Desperately Need to Establish an Identity

It could be a mirage but the fine print suggests that it could be the type of hockey that will make the Leafs difficult to beat come playoff time. There's one caveat and it's been apparent for quite some time: the Toronto Maple Leafs will only go as far as Mitch Marner takes them.

Marner is the joker in the deck. He's the identity of this team.

Yes, Auston Matthews is a freakish goal scorer, who seems to be on a heater since opening night and is on pace to score close to 70 by the end of the Leafs' 82-game schedule. William Nylander certainly has had a career year that he has parlayed into a lucrative extension and is amongst the top-five point getters with a few games in hand on the leaders.

Yet, Marner is the Leafs most complete skater, who contributes in every facet of Keefe's game plan. He's on the top penalty killing unit, rolls over the boards with the first five on the power-play and has the highest goals for expectancy at 5v5 on the team. The Markham native should never, ever be traded by this franchise and somehow there is an air of caution when it comes to watching his demeanor as drama unfolds.

Sometimes, like his much discussed reaction to the Matthews overtime goal versus the Ducks, it seems like Marner is not comfortable in his own uniform. He can be a magician out there at the best of times and when things go bad, it appears like he has a worse case of the yips than Kevin Costner in "Tin Cup". Nothing connects, Marner looks demonstrably depressed and his body language brings the rest of the team down.

If the Toronto Maple Leafs are ever going to make it deep into the Stanley Cup playoffs, Mitch Marner needs to be the one to take them there. Forget about the fact that he's over a point-per-game player - something that Toronto media and fans take for granted - and that he will retire with the most points for this storied franchise, if he remains a Leaf.

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Marner was billed as the second-coming of Doug Gilmour when the Leafs drafted him third-overall out of the Ontario Hockey League in 2015. Undersized, yet scrappy. Creative, yet fierce. It's about time for Marner to let go of any of those comparisons to carve out his own identity for this team and take them even further then Killer did thirty years ago.