After years of disappearing — or imploding — in big moments, the Toronto Maple Leafs are hoping gritty, veteran depth can finally get them over the post-season hump

Even in a pre-Zoom world, when hockey reporters milled about dressing rooms during specified times, observing and chatting and gathering a feel for relationships and dynamic and culture, we didn’t really know what went on. Even in the Before Times, the best we could get was a sense of whose voices ran the room, whose actions had impact, and whether the bond tying these athletes — arguably more important in hockey than any other team sport — was sturdy enough to go the distance.

And prior to 2021’s wire-to-wire cruise through the North Division as Canada’s top seed, one of those mysterious ingredients was missing from the Toronto Maple Leafs. They were fast and fun, young and talented. But when the going got tough or they had a chance to squash lesser opponents or the series was on the line, they shrunk from the moment.

After his final game as a Leaf in 2019, in the pall of another Game 7 loss in TD Garden, a hollow Patrick Marleau — he of the most NHL games played — lamented a lack of “killer instinct.” Auston Matthews would use that exact phrase in the wake of getting upset by Columbus in 2020 and booted out of their own home bubble. When I asked a former veteran of those Leafs rooms, not so far removed from a different Round 1 elimination, to describe the leadership dynamic in Toronto in those captain-less years between Dion Phaneuf and John Tavares, the player searched for the right words.

“Hard to say. It’s interesting. That’s a good question,” he began. There was a long pause. “I don’t know if I have anything on that. Leadership on the team…” the source continued. There was another long pause, followed by a polite bail on a touchy topic: “I think whatever I say might get me in trouble.”

Yes, in constructing this older, tougher, more defensively responsible edition of the Toronto Maple Leafs over the 2020 off-season — and doubling down on that identity tweak with the Nick Foligno and Riley Nash deadline trades — general manager Kyle Dubas improved the on-ice product. The Maple Leafs’ 35–14–7 record and plus-39 goal differential are their best in decades. But Dubas also made a significant correction to the spirit of his group by rearranging the cast supporting his nucleus: Matthews, Tavares, Mitch Marner, William Nylander, Zach Hyman, Morgan Rielly, Jake Muzzin, and Frederik Andersen.

“The Maple Leafs’ room now holds 12 different players who have worn an ‘A’ or ‘C’ on their chest at some point in the NHL. Leadership is a touchy topic no more.”

Gone were younger offensive talents like Kasperi Kapanen, Andreas Johnsson and Tyson Barrie. Instead, Dubas focused his effort on recruiting or retaining hungry free agents who’d been through the wringer: Joe Thornton, Wayne Simmonds, Jason Spezza, and T.J. Brodie. These are grizzled veterans who’ve endured the worst, and who know they may be down to their last chase of a trophy they’ve been hunting their whole lives.

Zach Bogosian is fresh off Tampa’s 2020 title run, making him one of just two Leafs with a Cup alongside Muzzin. Thornton, Foligno, Simmonds, and Spezza will happily lug their reduced cap hits and 359 playoff games of combined disappointment into Game 1.

For the most battle-worn here, it’s no longer about a cheque. It’s only about their check. “Those guys have a real increased sense of urgency to them. Either time is running out on their career and they want to win — in the case of Spezza, Thornton and Simmonds — or they’ve faced great disappointment in the past, like T.J. Brodie and all the guys on our roster,” Dubas says.

“They’ve just been through a lot in their career. They’ve got some desperation, or they have lessons that they could pass along.”

All those unquantifiable elements that compose a dressing-room leader — accountability, experience, wisdom, communication, character — are “hugely important,” Dubas believes, to fostering a culture of improvement and development. And yet, installing and empowering enough of those leaders, the GM confesses, is something he didn’t value enough early on in every one of his stops, be it in the Soo, with the AHL’s Marlies, or in his first two seasons at the helm of the Leafs. “Why, after the first time, I just didn’t realize it and learn it then, and then apply it every time moving forward, that’s just a mistake on my end,” Dubas admits. “Shame on me for that.”

The Maple Leafs’ room now holds 12 different players who have worn an ‘A’ or ‘C’ on their chest at some point in the NHL.

Leadership is a touchy topic no more.

Thornton instantly endeared himself to his fellow Leafs. "Everybody wants to go to battle and win for him,” says Jack Campbell.

Funny. The sense in Toronto is that the same team that lacked killer instinct on the ice also needed to lighten up a bit off it.

Enter 41-year-old nickname machine Joe Thornton and his jumbo personality. “I got no stress, man, honestly,” Thornton said upon arriving in hockey’s most scrutinized market. “I feel good, I feel comfortable. I tend to play with no stress, have a smile on my face and stay hungry. I think that’s when I perform the best.”

Whether he’s orchestrating pants-free sketch comedy to celebrate Marleau’s milestone or belting out Britney Spears standards during joyrides around the Swiss Alps, the NHL’s oldest forward brings a zest to the workplace that is contagious. The normally clean-shaven Alexander Kerfoot sprouted a raggedy, itchy beard in Jumbo’s honour. Marner looks into Thornton’s eyes and sees the kind of hockey lifeforce he aspires to have in 17 years. Matthews lights up whenever Thornton glides in for post-goal hug time.

The appeal is obvious, even from social distance: Thornton is predictable in his unpredictability. “Just having him in the room and in the training room, whenever I’m getting worked on and he’s in there, I don’t think I’ve ever laughed so hard in my life,” says Jack Campbell. “He’s a legend. There’s not much more to say. He’s such an amazing hockey player and just brings so much joy to our room, and everybody wants to go to battle and win for him.”

Adds Marner: “There’s ups and downs, and Jumbo is a guy that’s always in the same mood every single time. He’s a guy that just makes me think of the good things, and that’s something I’ve really taken from him. There’s going to be bumps in the road and some down times, down games, but just making sure you’re always the same person, and coming in with the same mindset and mood is very important.”

“It’s great. Those veteran guys act the youngest, I would say.”

After 15 seasons in San Jose, Thornton endeared himself to and entrenched himself within the young Leafs well before training camp opened. Renting a rink-equipped quarantine home in Toronto, he celebrated Christmas with Matthews, Nylander, Rasmus Sandin and Mac Hollowell in a sort of flophouse for hockey stars. It was there, stuck in communal isolation, that Thornton christened Nylander with the moniker “Willy Styles,” which the fashionable playmaker then had stamped on the shaft of his sticks.

“You just get close to him right away. He’s that special guy,” says 21-year-old Sandin, on target for his post-season debut. “It’s great. Those [veteran] guys act the youngest, I would say.”

With the forward core finally at full health for post-season puck drop, Thornton will join Spezza and Simmonds on a unique fourth line that will feature two of the top 100 all-time scorers and a ridiculous 3,007 combined career points.

In 2019–20, head coach Sheldon Keefe, a contemporary of both players, noted that Spezza’s voice stood out as one of the only ones he’d hear in-game on the bench, calling out encouragement, outlining instruction, pumping morale.

Today, there is a chorus.

“They’ve brought a lot of spirit to the group,” Dubas says. “All of the players acquired in the off-season have really improved the spirit of the team. Unlike in previous seasons, where you go through a bit of a stretch where it’s not going well and you feel the group start to sag, I haven’t felt that right now.”

“We signed these guys with great expectations … They’ve definitely delivered.”

Before his first game with Toronto, Foligno, 33, wore a Maple Leafs Starter snapback from his dad Mike’s deep run with the organization in 1993 and addressed the room with a speech about how excited he is to be pulling on the same rope.

Thornton isn’t shy, of course. And neither is throwback Simmonds — a Scarborough-reppin’ freight train whose fists speak just as loudly. Then there’s the penalty-killing, puck-eating Bogosian, whom partner Travis Dermott credits for improving his own defensive prowess.

The vets’ contributions aren’t coming only in the room and on the bench. In the shadow of Matthews’s Maurice “Rocket” Richard Trophy–winning campaign, Thornton became the oldest Leaf to score a goal and just the fourth 41-year-old to launch a seven-game point streak (Teemu Selanne, Igor Larionov, and Jaromir Jagr are the others). Spezza surpassed Richard in all-time points, climbing to 99th in NHL history and established himself as the league’s best bang-for-your-buck acquisition, producing 30 points from the bottom six. (To say nothing of his altruism toward Toronto’s Marlies brethren in tough financial times.) Meanwhile, Brodie is a plus-23 workhorse drawing the most difficult defensive assignments, and Bogosian’s smart, simple style has added a dependability and edginess that wasn’t there with Cody Ceci last season.

A soft-spoken exception among the new additions, Brodie lets his deft stick and dependable positioning do the talking

“I’d say it’s gone to plan. I mean, we signed these guys with great expectations. We have great respect for what they’ve done in their careers and felt strongly that they would be able to make an impact with our team,” Keefe says. “I don’t say they’ve exceeded anything necessarily, but they’ve definitely delivered, both in their performance and their personalities and what they bring to our team — just really filling necessary holes for us in all regards, whether it’s the personality of the team or the performance of the club on the ice.”

Among the new, noisy staples, the soft-spoken Brodie would be the exception. He prefers to let his deft stick and dependable positioning do the talking. (Keefe has now tread into Thornton’s nickname territory, christening Brodie “Mr. Consistency.”)

“With Brodie, Thornton, Simmonds and Bogosian, I do think that that’s a real important part of helping the team chemistry and the culture and environment of the group,” Dubas says. “Those guys don’t change day to day, and they’ve added a lot to us so far.”

The true test for these leaders, these handpicked, complementary components — and the real reason for bringing them in — is now here: The Stanley Cup Playoffs, the best time of year. It’s a time when things gets ugly and uncomfortable, when skill depends on will, when it’ll help to have your oldest guy acting like the youngest. And vice-versa.

“I feel great,” Thornton says, spring in the air and in his step. “On a buzzing meter from one to 10, I think I’m like a 10-and-a-half.”

Muzzin, meanwhile, has that seven-year itch, and he knows as well as anyone on the outside what a contending team feels like. A Cup champ in 2014 with the L.A. Kings, the defenceman spots something special churning in Thornton and the group. “He’s bringing some fire. He’s leading the way up there. It’s beautiful. It’s contagious throughout the room. And when your oldest guy on the team is doing that every night, guys are following — and it’s paying off,” Muzzin says.

“I feel like this is the tightest group since I’ve been here that we’ve had. So, it’s been a lot of fun. Guys are gellin’.”

Photo Credits

Getty (4); Kevin Sousa/NHLI via Getty Images; Mark Blinch/NHLI via Getty Images.
Header design by Drew Lesiuczok.