WASHINGTON, D.C. — Saturday’s must-see showdown between the reigning Stanley Cup champs and the greatest show on ice, the oddsmakers’ new favourites to go all the way, will be as much a clash of philosophies as it will be of excellent hockey teams.
Those edge-of-your-seat, touchdown-scoring, Wayne Gretzky–and–Bobby Orr–record-breaking Toronto Maple Leafs, as currently constructed by think-outside-the-box Kyle Dubas, will take one of two paths over the next eight months.
Option A: They will continue to buzz and zoom, piling up goals by the bushel and executing so smartly on special teams that their deficiencies grow moot. They will change the way we think about how far speed and skill alone can take a group and, perhaps, inspire copycats. Consider how Mike D’Antoni’s Phoenix Suns or Steve Kerr’s Golden State Warriors boldly deployed talent in a manner that revolutionized the way that other arena sport runs offence.
Option B: They will find out the hard way (again, but under loftier expectations) that all their run-and-gunning, which looks so cool in winter, cannot survive spring’s thaw. That the playoffs are a meaner animal, one much more suited to a burly bunch like Saturday’s opponent, the Washington Capitals.
Privately, some members of the Vegas Golden Knights — the defending Western champs and losers of five straight to those fountain-frolicking, Cup-kegging D.C. superheroes — have admitted they skated intimidated during the Cup Final, primarily due to the Tom Wilson factor.
Fourth-liner Ryan Reaves (not one of the intimidated, we should note) is still perplexed that Pittsburgh traded for him in June 2017 to give Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin some extra muscle, only to deal him away before the actual playoffs, where Washington eliminated the Penguins.
“They got pushed around again,” Reaves told the Spittin’ Chiclets podcast last month. “I don’t know what [expletive] happened.”
How important is nasty in a league on track to see a significant scoring bump for a third consecutive year?
More specifically, how important is a more physical game to the Leafs, out-sniping the league by averaging five strikes a night (minimum three games played)? (No slouch, the Caps rank second with 4.5 goals per game.)
This summer, Washington GM Brian MacLellan outlined to The Athletic’s Craig Custance the five ingredients necessary to survive four rounds in sport’s toughest tournament: great centres, a game breaker, offensive defencemen, a core hardened by the playoffs, and size.
The Maple Leafs get an A+ in those first three categories. Surely, they’re more determined after back-to-back Round 1 exits to meaner, more experienced opponents. But are they big and rugged enough?
Let’s talk physical intimidation: Washington’s players committed five times as many major penalties (20) in 2017-18 as the Leafs did (four).
“The league’s changed a lot, where there aren’t as many fights anymore and whatnot,” Zach Hyman reasons.
Those nights when Brian Burke insisted Colton Orr be dressed are so distant they read like a myth.
“[Players] are more muscular than they’ve ever been, but the size of their bodies isn’t what it used to be. We used to draft way more [big] guys,” Leafs coach Mike Babcock said.
“Yet, you look and the Washington Capitals were the biggest team in the NHL last year. There’s a reason you win, too, right? Especially at playoff time. Let’s not get carried away. We need big men.”
The beefiest, nastiest of Leafs had no place on Dubas’s roster.
Toronto ranked 26th overall in hits last season, averaging 19.9 per game. Then it subtracted its four most frequent checkers: Leo Komarov (211 hits), Matt Martin (147), Roman Polak (131), and Andreas Borgman (121). The latter, now with the AHL Marlies, is hopeful his embracing of the physical arts could help earn him a recall at some point.
We wonder if Dubas rents some physical insurance by the trade deadline, but his next addition will likely be yet another skill guy — William Nylander.
The Leafs’ fifth-best hitter was Hyman, Babcock’s dirty-work posterboy. Hyman is now the blue-collar complement to the dynamic Mitch Marner–John Tavares duo, and Toronto’s most physical player standing. He dished 117 checks last season and paces the blue and white with 11 this month.
“Hyman kinda sets the tone for us. We’re not a big, physical team. He’s the forechecker. We lost Leo in that regard,” Babcock said. “So those are things we’re missing.”
By point of sharp contrast, seven Capitals matched or exceeded Hyman’s hit count last season. Wilson alone had 250, ranking him fourth league-wide. Already this season, the Capitals are throwing the shoulder 7.25 times more per game than the Leafs — and that’s with Wilson in the press box.
Toronto, frankly, is deviating from the recipe of champions.
Yet, every player we ask sloughs off the theory they may not by tough enough to last.
“I know there’s no soft guys on this team,” Nazem Kadri said. “They might not play with a super-high level of physicality, but there’s no soft guys. Every guy is willing to get in there and get their nose dirty. And you know, I think that’s part of winning — not being afraid and sticking up for each other. And I think we do have that.”
Kasperi Kapanen’s speedy puck-hunting has earned him a promotion to Auston Matthews‘s top line, and Babcock has challenged the skilled winger to model his game after Hyman’s.
“It’s not about making a huge, open-ice hit, I don’t think,” Kapanen said. “That’s not the most important thing for the team. Physicality and forechecking, backchecking — we got all that. We got enough speed, and we’ve got size, so I don’t think we’re going to have any issue there.”
One Leaf from the 2017-18 looks at the current lineup card and sees several “sneaky physical” guys whose choices don’t always make the stat sheet.
“There’s no question they lost big bodies,” he tells us, before stressing the upside. “Connor Brown comes underneath people, strips them on the backcheck. Zach Hyman throws hips all over the rink. Auston Matthews is a very physical offensive player. He wants to bring it tight. John Tavares is very physical offensively. Mitch Marner’s game is very bump-and-run, touch-and-spin. Go down the list.
“Jake Gardiner’s a new dad. Maybe he’ll have some dad strength, an angrier cross-check.”
But in an era where Vegas gives Reaves (average ice time: 11 minutes) $5.55 million over two years in order to outbid Calgary for his services, at a time when a 14-goal scorer like Wilson can haul $31 million as a restricted free agent because he intimidates with his shoulders, can dad strength and stick lifts and shot accuracy cut it?
Do you turn the other cheek next time Brad Marchand licks it?
Wilson himself concedes the game is trending smaller, younger, faster and fancier. We all see it.
“But it’s still a hard-hitting, physical sport, and you gotta be tough to play against. If your first line doesn’t have the sandpaper, there’s going to be third and fourth lines that can play against that line nowadays. You have to have every element or it’s just not going to work,” Wilson said during a recent dig into the debate.
“If you ask [star centre Evgeny Kuznetsov], he’d rather me go get the puck so he can do things with it. If he’s going to get the puck, arguably he’s taking two hits and he’s not coming out with as much energy, as much poise. So, you have to find the balance.”
The wild way in which the Leafs have won four in a row is the furthest thing from balanced, tipping the scales to a dazzling level. Conventional wisdom screams it’s not sustainable, that it’s fun for October but not the path to playoff success.
But what if it could be? Wouldn’t it be fun to find out?
Trying to outrun Dubas’s horses in a track meet is a fool’s strategy, so even a sprinter like Washington, loaded with weaponry and confidence and jewelry, will rely on a heavy game and relentless hard work to carve an edge.
“That’s just the way it’s gonna have to be,” one Capitals player says. “We’re not gonna go out there and out-skill the Toronto Maple Leafs.”