Do The Leafs Need To Get Tougher?

Things got a little chippy at the end of last night’s game.  Hell, just about any hockey game gets a little chippy from time to time.  But tempers particularly boiled over late in the third, when Zach Hyman threw a questionable hit on Sabres defenceman Jake McCabe, which led to some retaliation from Zach Bogosian, and eventually one giant scrum that took a few minutes for the linesmen to sort out.

Now all that considered, it really wasn’t anything special as far as these sorts of things go.  But it did spurn Mike Babcock to make some comments after the game, suggesting that the Leafs will “look after” their supposed lack of toughness in the off-season.

This puzzled me.

Do the Leafs really have a lack of toughness?  I mean sure, they don’t have a tough team, but are they really that much tougher or less tough than anybody else?  Is it something the team needs to actively address in the summer?

The fact that Babcock’s comments puzzled me isn’t surprising.  It was like, “hey, wait a minute, the guy who coached the Red Wings for a decade wants a tougher team?  What’s going on here?”.

Take a look at Detroit’s roster over Mike Babcock’s time there.  Yeah, you have names like Tomas Holmstrom, Johan Franzen, Niklas Kronwall, and Todd Bertuzzi sprinkled in there.  Certainly guys that are a bit rough around the edges.

But the Red Wings were never a tough team under Babcock, at least not in the traditional sense.  The team barely if ever indulged in enforcers, with name’s like Brad May and Jordin Tootoo hanging around for a short time and not really getting a lot of usage.  It’s always been the guys who have more skill than grit that have made up the core of that organization – names like Datsyuk, Zetterberg, and Lidstrom.

The numbers back this up.  Over Mike Babcock’s ten years in Detroit, the Wings cumulatively ranked 30th in the league in major penalties, 30th in blocked shots, and 25th in hits.

These numbers align fairly closely with what the Leafs have put up this year: they’re 25th in the league in major penalties and 26th in blocked shots .  And in hits?  Toronto’s doing a lot better than Detroit ever did, currently sitting 6th in the league.

Now granted, we all know the NHL’s tracking of real-time stats is a little unreliable.  But to me these numbers at least mean that the Leafs don’t appear, at least by numeric and traditional standards, to be lacking in toughness relative to what Babcock’s had to work with previously.

So what gives?  Why is Mike Babcock so unsatisfied with the team’s “lack of toughness”?

My guess?  Babcock is referring more to an ambiguous kind of team toughness.  Every teammate sticking up for one another, teammates holding each other accountable, and a general attitude that whether you’re big or small, tough or skilled, you won’t be pushed around.  The Red Wings, I think, have encompassed a lot of that over the years.

And it’s not surprising, what with how old that team has seemingly been for such a long time.  All the players we’ve talked about already – Datsyuk, Zetterberg, Lidstrom, Kronwall, Holmstrom, Franzen, the list goes on – they’ve all been seasoned veterans playing under Babcock.  And with the Leafs, Babcock has quite the opposite.

But I don’t think this should be mistaken as Babcock simply saying, “this team needs to get old”.  He knows what he signed up for, and he knows he has lots of more young players on the way.

What I think it means is that he doesn’t want a team this young and inexperienced.  With the unprecedented amount of young players the Leafs have had in the lineup, especially since the trade deadline passed, it’s natural that you’ll have a group less accustomed to the sort of culture Babcock is looking for.

But the good news for Babcock, and the Leafs’ management team, and the fans who don’t want to see the team return to either the days of truculence or impatience, is that things should take care of themselves quite naturally.  The young guys whose head’s are spinning right now are going to be more willing and able to settle in the more experienced they get.  And you can bet that in spite of the Leafs’ youth movement, they won’t be icing a team in October that’s as young as the one that they’re icing right now.  That team wouldn’t be talented enough or ready enough for a full 82-game season in the NHL.  And let’s not forget that the Leafs actually put together a pretty experienced roster last summer – it was only at the deadline that the team recouped what assets they could and tore the thing down.  I think you’ll see a fairly similar approach this summer.

But continuity will be key too.  You can’t just sign a bunch of guys to one-year deals every year and then pawn them off at the deadline.  And again, the good thing for Babcock is that that won’t be the case forever.  Over time, as the team starts to slowly emerge from their rebuild, you’ll see a foundation set into place.  Names like Nylander and Marner will be a part of that, and likely at least a couple of guys currently on the roster will be too, and Mike Babcock will be able to further groom these guys and entrench the sort of attitude and culture that he wants in his hockey team.  The pain is temporary.

Let’s not forget either that the team is currently without much of its original leadership group.  The team’s captain was traded away, and alternate captains like Daniel Winnik, Matt Hunwick, and Tyler Bozak are all out of the lineup either via trade or via injury.  That sort of thing matters in this department too.

But no, I don’t think the Leafs lack too much toughness.  I guess you could argue they do right this very second, but that won’t last long.  And the team doesn’t need to do much of anything differently as far as acquiring players go in order to get to what Mike Babcock is looking for.  Names like Komarov and Kadri and Van Riemsdyk and Laich, who all have a bit of sandpaper, are here to hold down the fort heading into the immediate future.  Yeah, maybe the team could stand to add a little bit more toughness to the roster.  But that comes through one or two smaller player adds.  It’s not something you need to go radically change course for.  The sort of toughness Mike Babcock wants is coming, and it’ll happen naturally over time.

  • JB#1

    I think Babcock has seen exactly what we all have seen.

    There have been a couple of occasions, last night’s game included, when scrums have developed and a Leaf player has been left to fend for himself.

    The solution for that is not a bunch of fighters but finding players who have a willingness to jump in and grab someone in a different sweater.

    Babcock has drawn a line in the sand – now – saying that lack of willingness to engage on behalf of your teammate(s) is not something that will be tolerated and it won’t be surprising to see some of the existing Leafs moved out quietly, via trade, strictly for this reason.

  • Gary Empey

    Intimidation is still a big part of hockey. Without enforcers in the game I think there is even more of it. With the Leafs icing a younger and lighter team (more to come)they will be tested to see if they can handle the physical end.

    As JB states the Babcock is not looking for “a bunch of fighters”

    It is not uncommon to see one Leaf surrounded by three opposition players all taken shots at him.

    There has been a great delay in anyone moving in to even the odds.

    The “All for one and one for all” attitude needs improvement.

  • magesticRAGE

    I too doubt that there will be major UFA additions to the lineup, but more of instilling the ‘defend your teammates mentality’. Maybe get Polak back and that’s it.

  • magesticRAGE

    Detroit had an enormous enforcer in for every game.

    The guy’s name was the “power play.” Teams didn’t try too much ruff stuff against the Red Wings because the power play was knock out lethal. Detroit would be polite, the other team would get the penalty and Bam! right at the goalie

    The current Leafs don’t have that elite deterrent, give them a few years and they might.

    In the mean time, Babcock misses Rich Clune who was a ok player and good soldier. Had Clune been in the line-up last night…guaranteed one of the Sabres would have to fight him when the rough stuff started. That threat might have kept the game more polite.

  • magesticRAGE

    I agree with this – Babcock leaves me puzzled at times. He is a bit of blowhard who says lots of stuff and you never know of what he says he intends to follow through on and what he is saying to appease folks.

  • magesticRAGE

    I mentioned this at the beginning of the season and got basically laughed at lol.

    This is not Europe. Attendees/customers pay big bucks and unfortunately want to see rumbles out there because they are illegal on the street. With UFC, football, etc, hockey has to compete on a base level imo. If toughness is defined in these arenas…heaven help us. What about the toughness about someone rotting in prison for a crime they did not commit, someone who continually works in minus 30 degree temps, or the person who works 3 jobs to put food on the table, or a roofer, or long haul trucker, or someone who stands up for their ideals and loses everything.

    Not saying being an enforcer is a desk job …but it is a temporary gig.

  • TGT23

    They don’t need enforcers, let’s dispel this notion immediately. Enforcers are dead.

    What they need is for the kids to stand up for themselves.

    Now, to their credit, we’ve seen guys like Soshnikov and Hyman start doing that. Throwing the body, unafraid to mix it up, talk back to the other team. Don’t let them dictate the physicalness of the game. These are skill players who know their role and aren’t afraid to mix it up if needed.

    The league is moving away from enforcers. Anyone who still thinks we need an Orr or a McLaren is living in the past.

    But, there will always be a place for guys like Bertuzzi and Lucic who have talent, but also throw down if needed.

    I expect guys like Sosh, Hyman, Gauthier, and Komarov to do that. I expect the smaller skill guys to learn to stand their ground. Don’t be afraid of the NHL players, you’re one too, don’t back down to them.

  • @ShawnMacLean

    I honestly wouldn’t be surprised if the Leafs added someone specific for toughness.. But with Babcock coaching you bet your ass that player will also be able to play hockey well enough to stick on and contribute to a 3rd line at least.

    Perhaps one of the pre-season team building exercises will be learning to box? It’s not as much about strength anymore, but about speed and precision so everyone can benefit whether they are 170lbs or 240lbs. At least then everyone will know how to throw a proper punch without breaking their hand.

    Everyone is preaching strength for these young guys so they can handle playing with men.. Which is important for the actual playing of the game. But no one needs to worry about some heavyweight trying to fight Nylander if the second he looks at him funny he has the rest of the line in his face.

  • magesticRAGE

    Babcock does want a scary guy he can sit on the end of the bench and play only 5 or 10min.
    He just has to be able to skate and be defensively responsible.