It’s true, this is long overdue, but you need to forgive me (as I know you all will) because after watching this “high end” core completely soil themselves against the Habs in the 1st round, before watching the Habs trot all the way to the Stanley Cup Final, I didn’t bounce back right away.
In fact, I still haven’t bounced back. I’m as disappointed, angry, disgusted and fed up with this team as I was the morning after Game #7. You see, I didn’t even finish watching that game. I started watching it, but could see early that the Leafs didn’t show up to play, so I quietly turned the TV off and went to bed. Better to face the next day of work rested and angry than tired and angry, I assumed.
Fast forward to the Draft and Free Agency and all I could think about was how pointless it all seemed. Why? Because, let’s be honest with each other here, any article that discusses the Leafs attempt at success starts and ends with the exact same statement. That is, if Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner don’t show up in the playoffs, the rest of the team can play as hard as they want, but they aren’t going anywhere. Maybe you could imagine a scenario where they exit the 1st round. Imagine if John Tavares doesn’t get injured and helps to score one in overtime against the Habs. That alone get’s them there. However, John Tavares and William Nylander can only do so much. If this team wants to compete for the Stanley Cup they need their big horses pulling and so far, well, their big, fat horses seem to have fed too heavily on stardom, hype and the belief that they were destined to win, but then forgot to put in the work.
We’ll have to leave that discussion for now though, because what I really want to see is if this team’s addition’s and subtraction’s have landed them a net positive result.
Out (minimum 7 GP and/or were on season ending roster)
Zach Hyman, Joe Thornton, Alex Galchenyuk, Nick Foligno, Zach Bogosian, Frederik Andersen
In (doesn’t include 2-way contracts, as I expect them to play for the Toronto Marlies for most of the season)
Nick Ritchie, David Kampf, Ondrej Kase, Michael Bunting, Kurtis Gabriel, Petr Mrazek
In order to properly assess the wins and losses here, we need to admit that the best player that came in or went out is absolutely Zach Hyman. He’s a player that can help your powerplay, penalty kill, forechecking, defensive play and can play anywhere in your top 9 on either wing. His versatility, tenacity and 2-way play isn’t about to be replaced by Ondrej Kase (who doesn’t kill penalties, regardless of how he was advertised by some after he signed here), David Kampf (why oh why did I read that his faceoff prowess would help the powerplay? He should NOT be on the powerplay), or Michael Bunting (unless Michael Bunting is as undervalued as some would have you believe, which is WAY undervalued).
However, what they did manage to do was replace all of what Zach Hyman did throughout the lineup, while shaking free of some dead weight and adding some pieces of value to the roster.
Let’s start with Nick Ritchie. This team has said for years that they need to be “harder to play against.” Which, to some, meant adding more fighters/muscle to the lineup, while others have guessed that it simply means adding players that don’t give up on a play.
Up to this point I would say that Kyle Dubas has failed to add enough players that do either of those things. I argued last year that the team wasn’t physically tough enough. That notion was met by scoffs and recoils. Silly, preposterous, ridiculous notion, I was told. Of course I was right, they weren’t tough enough, but they’re inching towards righting that ship. It’s my belief that they need 2 more pieces to the toughness puzzle, but that’s a discussion for another paragraph. Simply put, this team has needed more players that are willing to approach the opposition after the whistle and tell them to shut up or put up, such as Wayne Simmonds did on multiple occasions last year. Afterall, we see now just how soft this team appeared after Simmonds broke his wrist and was less capable of doing what was necessary to pick up for his teammates. They didn’t play the same. They were smaller and softer all over the ice without Simmonds, regardless of their record with and without him. Joe Thornton and Zach Bogosian, while being big and, in Bogosians case, willing to clear the net and push guys around, don’t fight very often. So their physical “toughness” stops at their size (not that I’d say that to their face, they’d mop the floop with me).
This isn’t the case with Nick Ritchie.
Ritchie is a big body, standing at 6’2″, 230lbs, and he can play in your top 9. He’s part of the group that I’ve been referring to as “skilled goons” for a while now (others include Tom Wilson, Jamie Oleksiak, Josh Anderson and Josh Manson), and it’s that type of player that I’ve been begging management to bring in for, oh, I’d say around 15 years. A skilled goon, for the 99.9% of you that have been ignoring me, is a player that can play in your top 9 forward group or top 6 defensive group, can contribute to at least one of your special teams and is willing to fight 3+ times a year (that’s an arbitrary number). This does not include Ryan Reaves, Matt Martin, or the Leafs’ very own Kurtis Gabriel, who are players that can not play with skilled players, do not help your special teams and are simply paid to fight. That’s what separates Nick Ritchie and, to a lesser extent, Wayne Simmonds, from Ryan Reaves. Neither of those players are a match for Reaves in a physical altercation, but they can stand up to the vast majority of the heavy weights in the league. This is something that no player (not even Nick Foligno, who isn’t a heavy weight) the Leafs lost could have done for the team and I’m excited to see if it works out. Afterall, my theory has always been simple; what’s the point of having muscle on your team when it’s sitting at the end of the bench? Nick Ritchie could very well be on the ice if/when a dirty hit is laid and can serve up an immediate response. It’s that immediate response that breathes fire and passion into the hearts of your teammates and fans.
With all of that said there’s a definite drop in offensive production if you compare him to Zach Hyman. However, he isn’t worse than Foligno or Thornton and they were playing top 6 minutes at different times throughout the season (Thornton) and in the playoffs (Foligno). In fact, Ritchie was on pace for 38pts last season, so there’s nothing to say that he can’t add just a touch more to those totals and threaten for a 45-50pt season. If that’s how he performs then you have a power forward that can pick up for his teammates, is a hometown product and produces like a player that deserves to be played high in your lineup. That, combined with him cleaning up his act just a little to avoid stupid penalties, is my hope for him.
Which brings us to Ritchies long time teammate, Ondrej Kase.
Ondrej Kase is an interesting signing due to the potential he showed earlier in his career. He scored 20 goals and 38pts in 66 games as a member of the Anaheim Ducks in 2017/18. He followed that up with 11 goals and 20pts in 30 games the following year, which put him on pace to score 30 goals if it were a full, healthy season. His injuries piled up through the years though and the end result was him dressing for just 3 games last season, as a member of the Boston Bruins. At 1.25M on a single year deal, there seems to be little risk to the signing. In fact, if he can get and stay healthy, you could consider Kase a legitimate top 6 winger that can add 25 goals to the roster. That’s a terrific ceiling for any signing.
A complete wildcard, Ondrej Kase could be the biggest addition this team made in free agency. If we skip forward to a year from now, we could be discussing how you can afford to pay another 20+ goal scorer that helped make your 2nd powerplay unit a legitimate threat, while playing a responsible 2-way game. However, a year from now he could be an afterthought. He could be a player that didn’t receive a qualifying offer two years in a row, from two separate teams, whose NHL career is in jeopardy and one that wasn’t worth the risk in the first place. We’ll have to wait to see, because there are other players that have the potential to be described the exact same way.
Michael Bunting, with just 26 NHL games under his belt, is one of those players and is being hailed as The Little Engine That Could (by me and only me).
He has never played on the penalty kill in the NHL, but something tells me he’s about to get his chance. Bunting, like Nick Ritchie, is a former Greyhound who played under Sheldon Keefe and Kyle Dubas, so both the player and management know what they’re getting here. He’s a Toronto born player and likes to stir the pot a little when he’s on the ice. A pest has been missing from the lineup since the departure of Leo Komarov and Bunting is being hailed as The Best Pest In The NHL Since Leo Komarov (by me and only me). His scouting report is an amazing read. A player that never gives up on a play, brings effort every shift and does nothing but work. If he can bring that to the ice and combine it with a fraction of the goal scoring he enjoyed in Arizona last season (10 goals, 21 games played), he’ll have a terrific career here and could be in line for top 6 minutes.
One player that is not being paid to play in the top 6 is David Kampf. In fact, unlike Ritchie, Kase and Bunting, he isn’t even going to challenge for top 6 minutes. Instead, Kampf will be given a role on the 4th line and asked to give direction to a group that has not had a compass to follow since they arrived in Toronto. Players such as Ily Mikheyev and Pierre Engvall have been asked to start the vast majority of their shifts in the defensive zone, with middling success. It’s not that they’re overly bad defensively, it’s that they’ve never had a centre that could effectively help them with that particular task. In Kampf, they have a centre that is sound on the draw (52.8% last season) and can help move the puck in the right direction. He’s a shutdown centre that brings almost no offense, which sounds a lot like Mikheyev and Engvall. My expectation is that Kampf will play on a line with those two, similar to what Zach Hyman did last season, in an attempt to create a match-up line. With that said, between those three, Wayne Simmonds, Jason Spezza, Alex Kerfoot, whichever wingers lose out on top 6 roles and potentially Adam Brooks, Kurtis Gabriel and Joey Andeson, there are a lot of players on board to fill out the bottom six, so who slots where and what their role will be is anybody’s guess. All I can say for certain is that Kampf is the 4th line-faceoff winning-penalty killing centre that I’ve been asking for, and I’m happy to see him join the club.
Kurtis Gabriel and the Toughness Puzzle
So far I have been positive about the additions to the team. Bunting has the potential to break out here, Kase has the potential to bounce back here, Ritchie has the potential to flourish here and Kampf just needs to play his game to be effective. Kurtis Gabriel, on the other hand, is confusing to me. While I realize that Kyle Dubas has welcomed players to his teams that bring little to the ice outside of their ability to fight (Kyle Clifford, for example), I just assumed that his bases were covered by the addition of Nick Ritchie and by bringing back Wayne Simmonds, making Gabriel redundant.
Before I continue I’ll quote my earlier statement from this post:
“It’s my belief that they need 2 more pieces to the toughness puzzle, but that’s a discussion for another paragraph.”
Welcome to that paragraph.
I don’t believe in the pure enforcer anymore. I feel like the NHL could be (slowly) trending back towards that type of player, if for no other reason than a few players like Ryan Reaves hanging on to NHL jobs, and opposing GMs feeling that they need to protect their own players any way they can against them. So I see why you would want a guy like Gabriel in your system, if only for a few NHL games against the right opponents. However, I think I’d still chase the “skilled goon” to find a solution. One that is available is Erik Gudbranson.
Gudbranson is a terrible hockey player, but so was Zach Bogosian when he made anything above 1M per season. If you realize that performance in this league is directly related to a player’s paycheque, you can effectively begin to see a player for exactly what they are. What Gudbranson has been is a guy that was drafted higher than he should have been, played higher in the lineup than he should have been and paid more than he should have been. For years. His overuse has hurt his numbers, but that doesn’t mean he’s useless. In the right situation, with the right linemate (Sandin?) and with the right minutes, I believe he could be an effective hockey player. On top of that, he’s a 6’5″, 220lb mammoth of an individual that isn’t afraid to fight. If you want to add an enforcer to this team, this is the type of guy I would add instead of Kurtis Gabriel.
With all of this said, it doesn’t appear that a player like Gudbranson is in the cards this year, so my tune can change depending on the teams game plan. If Gabriel is sent to the minors and brought up for spot duty, then I can get behind this. However, if waiver eligible players with any kind of potential, such as Adam Brooks, but moreso Joey Anderson, are waived and lost to fit Gabriel onto the roster, I don’t think that’s an acceptable move.
The final piece to the “toughness puzzle” that I would look for is a 3rd line, checking centre. That guy is Boone Jenner and nobody else will do. This piece doesn’t need to fight, but a big, physical centre that can help down low and on the score sheet, while being an effective penalty killer? Yes, please!! (sorry to any Alex Kerfoot fans, I love the guy, but he wouldn’t be my 3C if I’m running a team)
The final free agent is Petr Mrazek. His numbers have been terrific in Carolina and his injuries, it would appear, are the reason he could be had for 3.8M per season. If he were healthy and continued to play like he did through 12 games last season, I expect his price tag would have been much higher.
I also feel like the discussion was wrong from the moment Mrazek signed in Toronto, so all I can say is that Jack Campbell needs to continue what he started here, because if he does Mrazek only needs to be a reliable backup. It doesn’t matter if Mrazek is better or worse than Frederik Andersen, it only matters that Campbell plays better than Andersen did. For all the debates about whether this tandem is better than last years, what nobody is talking about is just how good Campbell was last season. If, as I say, he continues that and Mrazek can play 30-35 solid games, then yes, this tandem is absolutely better than what they had last year.
Your Inconclusive Conclusion
If we roll all of this into one and ask ourselves if the Leafs came out as a better team, I would say that they should have a better forward group. However, their defensive depth has taken a hit and they’re a smaller blueline. I hold steady to the belief that you need plenty of size and skill on your blueline. So, while many point towards the fact that Morgan Rielly is 220lbs and Justin Holl is 6’4″, I can only retort with the obvious. They play small, so they are small.
Rasmus Sandin isn’t about to change this, nor will Timothy Liljegren, as jacked as he is, because he also plays a small game. I like the defenders on this team, each and every one of them, however, the unit as a whole, in my opinion, is fatally flawed.
So, if I were to judge the changes as a whole and how it will effect how well the team will do this year, I would call it status quo. They lost an important element from the blueline, that Zach Bogosian brought lots of, but added some size and good role players up front. They lost a legitimate top 6 forward and replaced him with potential, which isn’t really a knock on Dubas considering how little they had to spend. Lastly, they added a good, but not a great goaltender, while they lost a good, but not a great goaltender.
All in all, I wouldn’t say that they did anything that would give anybody reason to make great proclamations, such as “they’re poised to take the next step” or “they plugged some obvious holes in the lineup.” Instead, they simply retooled, tinkered, and are gambling their jobs on the hope that the kids can finally stop acting like kids, and can start playing a grown up game.
Remember what I said at the top. Any and all discussions about this teams success has little to do with everything you just read. Because, if Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner don’t show up in the playoffs, the rest of the team can play as hard as they want, but they aren’t going anywhere.
Author’s Note: I’m not sure how much more writing I’ll be doing this summer. It’s been a hectic one, but an enjoyable one. Try to enjoy what’s left of it and I’ll be back with you all this fall to hate this team more than ever before, just like every year. Also, remember, while everybody is getting vaccinated and things are opening up again, COVID isn’t over, stay safe and be good to each other.
GO LEAFS GO!!