Maple Leafs already reaping rewards of evolving identity

Jake Muzzin flips the puck at Matthew Tkachuk at the end of the game which causes Tkachuk to lose his temper on the ice, and as he heads off it.

“Sometimes when we go up, we just want the easy game. It’s not supposed to be easy. It’s not gonna be easy.”Jake Muzzin, Feb. 5, 2020

We are nearing the anniversary of the most brutally honest reflection of what ailed the 2019-20 Toronto Maple Leafs. And, boy, what a difference a year makes.

Muzzin’s necessary words came from a place of love last February. But if they sounded harsh, if the champion’s public indictment struck a nerve or sucked some of the carefree fun out of the run-and-gun edition of this hockey club, well… truth hurts.

“We have to find the urgency, the passion, the love of the game, the love to compete for each other. All that needs to come,” said Muzzin, trying to ground his teammates amidst 2020’s wild rollercoaster of inconsistent performances. “I don’t know why it’s not there. We want the easy game, and when you play good teams, it’s not going to be easy.

“It’s everything. Physically, we need to be stronger. Mentally, need to be ready. Having that intensity in our game. We have to take a look at ourselves.”

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The world’s priorities have changed dramatically over the past 12 months. And, if we are to judge by a small eight-game sample, it appears the Maple Leafs’ have too.

We’re two weeks into this sprint/marathon campaign, and Toronto hasn’t had a single easy game yet.

Are we surprised to see the Leafs atop the Canadian division as their second two-game miniseries versus Connor McDavid and the Edmonton Oilers looms? Nah.

Are we surprised how they’ve burst out to their 6-2 start? To a large extent, yes.

These Maple Leafs are a perfect 4-0 in one-goal games. Their other two victories would’ve been one-goal games too, except Toronto potted late empty-net insurance markers. They’re also 3-1 when their opponent scores first.

The 2019-20 Leafs didn’t win their fourth one-goal contest until Game 28 and had a losing record (10-15) whenever the margin was its slimmest.

“It’s a grind every night, every shift. You can’t give up anything to your opponents,” Mitch Marner said, following Tuesday’s second straight one-goal triumph in Calgary. “For our team, it’s just making sure to play with confidence when we have leads.”

Marner labelled it “a gritty win.” Goalie Frederik Andersen and defenceman Justin Holl used the phrase “character win.”

“This season I think we’ve won a ton of one-goal games,” Zach Hyman says. “We’ve played 5-on-6 a lot more than we have in the past, so I think being in those tight games and being able to close out games has definitely been an improvement this year.”

Jeff Marek and Elliotte Friedman talk to a lot of people around the hockey world, and then they tell listeners all about what they’ve heard and what they think about it.

The Leafs still won’t bodycheck you through the glass, but the signs of becoming “harder to play against” and “comfortable being uncomfortable” — buzz phrases in these parts — are budding.

The road from easy to gritty involved importing fresh characters with something to prove (Joe Thornton, Wayne Simmonds, Zach Bogosian, Jimmy Vesey, T.J. Brodie). Perhaps more importantly, it has involved a greater defensive commitment from the guys who’ve been here for years.

Auston Matthews is backchecking like a beast and using his big frame more than ever. Marner’s point total is fetching headlines but he’s an influencer in all three zones. John Tavares looks healthy and determined out of the gates. And a confident Holl has taken yet another step toward bona fide top-four status.

Yes, the Maple Leafs’ elite power play (41.7 per cent) is humming along like a Ferrari fresh from an oil-and-lube. But even in the North — easily the NHL’s highest-scoring division — Toronto’s offence has yet to erupt five-on-five.

Did you know the Leafs’ offensive output (3.25 goals per game) only ranks fourth in the North and 11th overall? That they’re generating the fewest shots on net (30.4) amongst the Group of Seven?

So, yes, there is math to support the trade rumours that Kyle Dubas is looking for a forward, not a defencemen.

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On the flip side, Toronto’s oft-criticized goals-against average (2.75) ranks second-best in the division, and its shots against (27.0) is tops in the North and seventh-best overall.

These feats are all the more impressive when you consider the mounting man-games lost to injury (one game for Matthews with a sore hand; weeks for Thornton, Nick Robertson and Jack Campbell) and the fact starter Frederik Andersen is operating with a sub-.900 save percentage.

“We’re doing a pretty good job at keeping [teams] to the outside,” Muzzin says. “There’s still obviously areas that we need to clean up, but for the most part we’re stopping the cycle and trying to make quick exits.”

The Muzzin-Holl pairing has been one of the most consistent in the sport. Rielly-Brodie has held its own against some of the game’s top lines. And meat-and-potatoes Bogosian is looking like a $1 million bargain, whether he’s with Travis Dermott or Mikko Lehtonen.

Multiple times, coach Sheldon Keefe has praised his group’s ability to keep tight gaps and control the neutral zone. Boring fundamentals like structure and effort have been just as important to securing these one-goal wins as game-breakers like the Core Four making good in the clutch.

“We talked about it after the game,” Holl said late Tuesday night. “These are character wins, and they’re positive for a team finding its way.

“But I don’t think we’ve really touched how good we can be, and we’re not rolling yet. Once that happens, we’d like to have a little more comfortable lead heading into the third period — or at least have it not be such a nailbiter. I would like that, at least.”

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