SAN JOSE – Wayne Simmonds is the best kind of hockey paradox.
A beautiful soul unafraid to play an ugly game.
The ultimate gentleman who will punch your head into the 24th row.
And, seven weeks into the Toronto Maple Leafs season, an athlete who is proving that you can grow old in a young man’s game with both some fight and some grace.
Only the strong can get humbled and remain undaunted.
Wayne Simmonds is this rare breed.
It’s one thing for a banged-up, scar-faced, tooth-deprived winger to slide from 30-goal scorer to fourth-line checker. That happens.
It’s quite another for a proud guy to not only accept but take ownership of a condensed role.
For the first time in his 14-year career, Simmonds has (a) been healthy scratched, (b) seen his average ice time fall under the 10-minute mark (9:34), and (c) been completely stripped of power-play opportunities.
These are elephant pills to swallow, but the son of Scarborough has chewed them up and spit back venom.
"The game's changing,” Simmonds says. “And the way that these guys play now, it's extremely fast, and you don't have that much time. So, you gotta figure out a way to buy yourself an extra second. Through working with our development team, I've figured that out."
Adapt or fade.
After having his 2020-21 campaign derailed by a fluke broken wrist, Simmonds re-upped in Toronto and set about the hard work of remodelling his game to fit his hometown’s needs.
With his rehab completed, a slowing Simmonds zeroed in on his stride and his puck protection over the summer, upping his skating sessions to twice or thrice weekly under the tutelage of since-departed skating coach Barb Underhill. He tapped development consultants Denver Manderson and Nik Antropov to help his strong, wiry frame retrieve pucks quicker and hang on to them longer.
"A lot of that stuff is new to him, and it took him a while to get comfortable with it," says coach Sheldon Keefe. "While his role is reduced, we've added more reps to practices, before and after for him, and I've seen a lot of transfer for him. It's nice to see that: his role has reduced, but his chance generation has increased greatly."
Forming a fixed fourth-line duo alongside Jason Spezza — the posterboy for offensive studs finding alternate routes to relevancy – Simmonds finds himself on the plus side of the ledger (+1) for the first time in five years.
And although he has been limited to just one goal and six points, the Wayne Train forecheck is being clipped by a coaching staff and used to show a developing checker like Pierre Engvall how to use his body in one-on-one battles.
Moreover, Simmonds is averaging three more shots per 60 minutes (11.4) than last season and ranks top three among all Leafs in the category.
Surely his poor puck luck and career-low 2.8 shooting percentage will spike any day now.
“I still am getting chances, so there is hope for me. It's up to me to bear down," says Simmonds, whose no-BS approach to life means shunning superstitions.
"I don't change a thing. I've been using the same stuff for 14 years, going through the same routine. I kind of feel like that's desperation when you start changing things up, and that can mess with your mind a bit. Because if it doesn’t work, then you're left in no-man's land."
Fittingly, it was Simmonds’ fierce truth that provided an intermission spark during the club’s turning-point game.
Losing to a bad Chicago team and in danger of extending an early-season skid to five games, Simmonds commanded his teammates to give their collective head a shake, quit feeling sorry for themselves. They needed to drag themselves out of the mud.
Comfortable being himself in the spotlight, Simmonds’ quotables per 60 are off the chart. He has a flair for the right phrase at the right time.
When Leaf Nation was piling on a slumping Mitch Marner, Simmonds cackled and called him a “pretty boy,” lightening a heavy slump.
Simmonds word for Jack Campbell’s season? “Brilliance.” Marner and Auston Matthews create “autogoals.” Ondrej Kase is “a kamikaze fighter,” and Kase and boyhood pal David Kämpf are as inseparable as “the Bobbsey twins.”
Simmonds will take it to the mattresses and settle scores, but he’ll also decline an unfair fight, as he did by refusing to throw knuckles at a temporarily blinded Mark Borowieck.:
Behind the scenes, you see the warm welcome he gets from trainers, rink employees and media types during his returns to old stomping grounds like Philadelphia and Los Angeles.
Respect is earned through giving it.
“I mean, he just works hard every single day. He's a true professional. He’s worked on different aspects of this game,” says Matthews, wowed by Simmonds’ two-assist performance in L.A. on Wednesday.
His toe-drag gift for Engvall was a flash of the ol’ top-six hands.
“Just a beautiful pass. He was dancing tonight. He’s been playing really well for us.”
Spezza particularly appreciates Simmonds' diligence in practice and dedication to structure, which has taken on more importance with decreased game action. If you only play a sixth of the game, you better make it count. And not screw up.
“We're both in a different role now, and it takes some adapting. it's important that we don't judge ourselves on production, and I think Simmer’s learning that. His game has been really good lately,” Spezza says.
“We like seeing the puck go in, obviously, but when you're winning games the way we are and we're giving good shifts, that's our role.
“He's brought tremendous energy for us.”
One of the things Simmonds and Spezza discuss all the time is their first shift and how that will set the tone for their line’s whole game.
Drive a puck to the net early. Crush a hit. Get engaged off the hop.
“We’ve got to be really direct,” Simmonds says.
“We don't have any time to mess around.”
One-Timers: The undefeated Joseph Woll (2-0-0) will get his first non-back-to-back start Friday in San Jose, as the Leafs ease Campbell’s workload…. Ex-Leaf James Reimer starts for the Leafs.... Kase will not play Thursday; Simmonds will move up to the third line, and Kirill Semyonov will join the fourth line… Kämpf, who absorbed a headshot in Wednesday’s win over L.A., is expected to play…. Travis Dermott will be a healthy scratch for a fourth consecutive game.