What conference finalists can teach Leafs about not getting too ‘heavy’

Maple Leafs head coach Craig Berube joins Kyper and Bourne to discuss the next steps in his new gig, including figuring out his staffing, starting to create relationships with his players, and details how positive his first meeting with Mitch Marner was.

If we learned anything from Craig Berube’s initial soundbites in Toronto, it’s that fans are going to be served the same dinner as the players. You’ll get meat, you’ll get potatoes, and if you try to make it into a stew with rosemary, thyme and Worcestershire you’ll be told you’re overthinking it.

Dinner is for sustenance, after all.

It seems the Maple Leafs are going to make a concerted effort to be “heavier.” I don’t want to overstate that too much, but the theme between Berube, Brad Treliving and Brendan Shanahan is that the team needs a bit more of a north-south, no-nonsense type game.

That all sounds great, but it also comes on the heels of three consecutive playoff series where the Leafs struggled to score more than two goals in a game, accomplishing that apparently lofty feat just once in their past 14 tries. They took the Bruins the absolute distance in their best-of-7 series by scoring these totals by game: 1, 3, 2, 1, 2, 2, 1.

They couldn’t score for the life of them, and I’m not sure the pivot they seem to be planning here comes at the right time for the direction the NHL is heading.

Under Kyle Dubas, it seemed as though Toronto’s plan was to get ahead of the curve — thought to be pure speed and skill — to head where the NHL was going to be, like the mythologized Gretzky quote “Go where the puck is going, not where it’s been.” In theory, when the game finally got there, the Leafs would have been at an advantage while the neanderthal teams would still be banging their skulls together like fools.

Except, the curve came much more slowly than they expected. Big and heavy teams continued to win in the post-season, and now the Leafs are deciding to lean into the adjustment they’d already been making the past few years by talking about heaviness. This despite actually outhitting their last playoff opponent, who got better goaltending and scored just a breath more.

Looking at how the NHL has pivoted to speed and skill maybe more slowly than Dubas assumed some years ago, it would be naïve now to say that change hasn’t at least happened somewhat, though maybe just a little differently than we once thought.

Of the four teams left standing in this year’s Conference finals, three ranked better offensively than defensively in the regular season, with Florida being the outlier. In the West in particular, Dallas and Edmonton were the second- and third-best offensive teams respectively from that conference. In the playoffs, when it gets harder to score, it helps to have more players capable of creating.

What stands out to me most is that the Leafs spent a lot of their past trade deadlines getting “heavier” on the back end (literally finding themselves eighth in raw size on defence). It’s been Ilya Lyubushkin in, Joel Edmundson in, and Luke Schenn in, while they traded out Rasmus Sandin, and scratched Timothy Liljegren, TJ Brodie, Mark Giordano and Conor Timmins.

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That’s not to say those individual moves were wrong, but zooming out, it left the Leafs “heavy” but less able to make plays, which absolutely handcuffed their offensive players’ ability to get chances. A few more good slip passes on the breakout means fewer defensive zone shifts and more at the offensive end, a luxury only afforded to teams with defencemen who can make plays.

During the NHL’s regular season, the Edmonton Oilers got a ton of points from their back-end, more than any team in the NHL besides Colorado. The Avs were number one with a bullet in that department in the regular season, getting 243 points from their blue line, good for an average of 2.94 per game. That’s the most offence from a back-end in 30 years:

Most Points by Defencemen in a Season since 1993-94:
1. Red Wings (1993-94) – 252
2. Avalanche (2023-24) – 243
3. Rangers (1993-94) – 241
4. Red Wings (1995-96) – 240
5. Avalanche (2021-22) – 238

Edmonton’s second-place total this season was 215, good for 2.62 points per game average by defencemen, followed by the Canucks in third at 2.54.

It’s not hard to draw the line from big team totals to an elite offensive individual in each case. You’re looking at Cale Makar in Colorado, Evan Bouchard in Edmonton, and Quinn Hughes in the Vancouver.

Here’s the top quarter of the league in points by defencemen. You won’t be surprised to see all eight are playoff teams:

And in the bottom quarter of the league, you find just two playoff teams:

In this department the Leafs finished tied for 16th with the Pittsburgh Penguins at 2.11 points per game from the defence.

In the playoffs, though, when Toronto got “bigger and heavier,” they were dead last per game, 16th out of 16 teams by getting 1.29 points per game from their defence (nine points in seven games).

By contrast, the Oilers have 36 points from their defence in 12 games, good for 3.00 points per game. Even if Bouchard were putting up just pedestrian numbers their blue line would still be light years ahead of the Leafs, and most other teams.

The reality for the Leafs isn’t that they need to be “heavier,” or more north-south or anything of the sort. Rather, this past season they could’ve used better goaltending and better injury luck and a few more guys who could make a play.

That’s not to absolve the team from responsibility when it comes to this implication about being direct. They definitely need to get to the inside more, but I’ve been beating this same drum for years: You can tape whatever “heavy” players you want to the core, but if the core of your team doesn’t play that way, it barely matters who surrounds them. It might matter more to have more players who can make plays than stick up for them in scrums.

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If Berube intends to make Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner and William Nylander and John Tavares more meat-and-potatoes players, I suppose that’s a fascinating experiment we’ll all get to witness. But they shouldn’t convince themselves that previous losses have been because of a lack of grit around the core. They can’t turn their defence into a bunch of butchers and farmers and leave themselves without any chefs. Someone has to get the puck up into the hands of their forwards, and right now few on their back-end can.

Treliving got the authority figure he wanted behind the bench, but he should be wary of what he does next to a team that needs to score more, not less. The shape of the Leafs hangs in a tenuous balance right now, and it’s all good for them to commit to honesty and accountability and, again, meat with potatoes. But the curve of the game is still gradually changing, and while it didn’t come to the Leafs as quickly as they’d hoped, it would be silly to watch these Stanley Cup Playoffs and decide to prioritize getting out of the speed and skill game.

Heavy or not, the teams who win can score. The proof is in the pudding.

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