TORONTO – The decision to healthy-scratch a star player — or should-be star player — is not one made lightly, nor in a vacuum.
Stuffing a proud veteran into the press box can be justified as a young, quicksilver game gaining a step on a fading front-line talent now puck-battling Father Time. (Toronto’s Jason Spezza, Boston’s David Backes, Chicago’s Brent Seabrook, and Ottawa’s Bobby Ryan are but a few brand names subjected to that fate already this season.)
But scratching a skilled, long-serving, Stanley Cup–winning 27-year-old when your club is starved for both youth and scoring raises a different set of questions, and a red flag.
“It was obviously a pretty big shock for all of us,” says Drew Doughty.
“Tyler Toffoli’s been a great player for us for [seven-plus] years. He still is a great player for us. So it was a shock, but Ty came back and had two points in a great game last game. I guess you gotta give great kudos to Todd in a way, but you never want to see Tyler Toffoli get scratched.”
Todd McLellan is the Los Angeles Kings’ new authoritative boss behind the bench. He’s ramped up the pace in practice, overhauled systems and cracked down on accountability.
Yet the coach said Monday he stressed over scratching Toffoli before doing it last week against Vancouver.
Yes, Toffoli had mustered just a single point and had been a dash-4 over the Kings’ troubled 2-6 stretch, but he’s a top-six fixture and a former 30-goal scorer on a roster that ranks just 22nd-overall in offence.
On one hand, Toffoli has a track record of excellence: three 20-goal campaigns, a league-best five shorthanded in 2014-15 that helped squeeze him onto a few Selke ballots, a league-best plus-35 rating in 2015-16, and of course an integral offensive threat in L.A.’s tear to the 2014 Stanley Cup.
On the other hand, Toffoli’s production plummeted by 14 points in 2018-19 (to 13 goals, 34 points) and he’s in danger of following up his first minus season (-16) with another one.
“You debate whether you’re doing the right thing or the wrong thing, but the end game is what it’s about when you’re making a decision,” McLellan explains.
“Toff started the season really well. He fell off a little bit, and we didn’t want to let it go.”
Toss in the facts that Toffoli had himself a career-best ironman streak (more than two seasons and running) going and the player should be inspired by his impending UFA status and a chance to showcase his worth to all 31 clubs, and it was a bold move on the part of McLellan, who had to know the scratch would fuel speculation that Toffoli might be traded midseason in an effort to further rebuild the Kings’ prospect program.
“I mean, it’s just the way it is,” Toffoli told Sportsnet Monday, acknowledging the trade noise. “It comes with not playing well and not winning games, so whatever happens, happens.
“I was definitely disappointed [by the scratch], but at the end of the day it’s not my decision. My job is to go out there and perform.”
That he did Saturday, with a two-assist performance versus that other sliding Western Conference superpower, Chicago, and he was rewarded with the most ice time (17:23) under the McLellan regime.
“Great individual. He handled it well. His practice habits were excellent, he had a tremendous game the other night, was rewarded for good play, and it’ll continue on,” McLellan says.
“He’s smiling again today, and that’s the Toff I know just from my brief experience with him, whether it was here or at the world championships.”
If the Scarborough, Ont., native is smiling during his annual work trip home — the Kings face the Toronto Maple Leafs Tuesday — he’s at least aware of the looming clouds.
As the Kings (5-9) attempt to rebuild a contender around Doughty and captain Anze Kopitar, Toffoli’s $4.6 million cap hit carries no trade protection.
Toffoli’s age and his upside paint his contract as the easiest to move of the leftover championship core, should GM Rob Blake elect to sell at the deadline, which he did last January, securing a first-round pick and Carl Grundstrom (now playing on L.A.’s top line) from Toronto for top-four defenceman Jake Muzzin.
Dealing a Jeff Carter, Dustin Brown or Jonathan Quick — each aged 33 or over, each with at least three more seasons of term at a minimum $5.3 million — would require a sweetener.
Toffoli, however, could well rebound from his underwhelming 2018-19, and it’s in both the athlete and the organization’s interest that he does.
“We’re all friends in here. We all want each other to do well. So that’s what we have to do every day is to be there for each other and find ways [to win],” says Toffoli.
Just because he doesn’t like that McLellan forced him to sit doesn’t mean he doesn’t understand the reasoning.
“I wasn’t performing up to expectations. That’s what happens. I think it’ll be the same way going forward for everybody on the team,” Toffoli says.
“The past couple seasons our team hasn’t done as well as we were expected, and now we’re in this position.”