TORONTO MAPLE LEAFS—01/31/04—Tie Domi, wearing a visor, checks Wade Redden as the Toronto Maple Leafs Take on the Ottawa Senators at the Air Canada Centre in Toronto, January 31, 2004. (Photo by Steve Russell/Toronto Star via Getty Images)

The 2018-19 Toronto Maple Leafs are a lot of things. They are fast, highly-skilled, deep down the middle and most of all, promising. This is probably one of the best teams they have iced in the last few decades. In all of Mats Sundin‘s years spent playing for the Leafs, he never had as deep of a core as the Leafs do now. That being said, most of the best teams he played on were very physical. He shared with the ice some physical juggernauts. Opponents always had their heads up when Tie Domi and Darcy Tucker were on the ice. This made Toronto a team to be feared. Today’s Leafs have physical players such as Nazem Kadri and the newly acquired Jake Muzzin, but outside of that, the Leafs have very little in terms of physicality. Maple Leafs general manager Kyle Dubas should look to change that.

Now that the business of getting Auston Matthews signed to a contract extension has finally been taken care of, the Leafs front office can focus on the trade deadline. On paper, the Maple Leafs are one of the better teams looking to push for a deep playoff run. They have some small holes that would be nice to address. There have been one media pundits have been talking about. This is the lack of a top-four right-handed defenseman. Obviously, a defenseman of that stature never comes keep, which is why the Leafs went with Muzzin. As mentioned above, another liability is their lack of toughness.

By no means am I saying the Leafs are a weak team. But, it sure seems that Toronto could use a Tie Domi type of player to lay the big hit and change the momentum in the game. As many could see in Toronto’s games against Ottawa and Anaheim, Muzzin’s big hits changed the momentum around in Toronto’s favour. Not to mention, they slowed the Ducks down and allowed Toronto to use their speed and skill to get pucks in the net and secure the game.

Why do the Leafs need toughness?

Watching the Leafs play all season, one will notice how top tier teams will have a habit of making Toronto defend against the cycle. Those teams will use the cycle to wear down Toronto. To the point where players like Mitch Marner and Auston Matthews can no longer have an impact in the game because they are playing keep out and trying to regain puck control. Since Toronto usually trades toughness and physicality for speed and skill, it is hard for anyone outside of Nazem Kadri, Connor Brown and now, Muzzin to make a hit that can stop the cycle.

Of course, there are other ways to go about stopping the cycle. Toronto can aggressively forecheck and backcheck even more aggressively. That being said, when the Maple Leafs are playing a stronger and more physical team, like let’s say the Boston Bruins. It is easier to get burned. This is because Boston can use their size as an advantage and start the cycle all over again by finishing checks and winning the key puck battles.

Make no doubt about it, Toronto has started to win more and more of those small puck battles this season. However, in the playoffs, puck battles become a lot more physical. This is where size will come into play. Last year in the playoffs, Toronto’s biggest problems were defending against the Bruins cycle and winning the puck battles.

What adding size would do

If Toronto had that another player that could finish their checks and have the opposing players staying honest in the physical department, it would open the doors for the Leafs to use their speed and skill to dominate the game. Much like what they did against the Ducks. Not forgetting to mention, it will open the ice up for the players like John Tavares, William Nylander, Marner, and Matthews to make plays and pick their spots. When Toronto’s stuck defending against the trap game and the cycle, it is hard for the stars of the team to find those spots. When they are down by two or three goals, it is hard to make up that much ground. Especially, when they have nothing to work with. This has been the Leafs demise in most of their losses this year.

Alternatively, open ice allows the Leafs defensemen such as Morgan Rielly and Jake Gardiner to join the rush and create some offense. Toronto’s success comes when they can control the puck and control it effectively. This is when fans will see a player like Matthews get hot.

Digging deeper

Not being able to defend against the cycle is more of a systematic problem than anything. However, in Toronto’s situation, it feels like it is more a lack of size. That being said, Toronto has those gritty puck grabbers. Guys like Zach Hyman, Andreas Johnsson, and Connor Brown. They all do a good job of playing bigger then their size depicts. It would not hurt them though to add another player who actually has size. As many hockey fans know, those players truly do come in handy during the playoffs. Just look at any team that has won the Stanley Cup in the last decade. Every team had at least one tough and gritty player with size and a little bit of skill. The Capitals had Tom Wilson and the Penguins had Patric Hornqvist. Heck, back on Sundin’s best teams, he had Tie Domi and Tucker that played similar roles.

Who exactly could Toronto acquire?

With the Muzzin trade completed, Toronto has parted with their 2019 first rounder and prospects Sean Durzi and Carl Grundstrom, leaving not too much left for the Leafs to offer. In a perfect world, it would make sense for the Leafs to go after the Flyers Wayne Simmonds or the ‘Canes Micheal Ferland, but the sense is that the price is too steep and since this looks to be a seller’s market, things are not going to get any cheaper. This is where Maple Leafs GM Kyle Dubas has to get a bit creative. They do not need a splashy trade. Maybe take a run at the Flyers defenseman Radko Gudas like I proposed in my last article?

Nonetheless, a little bit a toughness and physicality could mean the world for the Maple Leafs in the playoffs. The stars could focus on their roles, feel safer knowing that they have players who can protect them. Maple Leafs head coach Mike Babcock could rest a bit easier knowing that he has players who can stop the cycle and use their physicality to swing the momentum in Toronto’s favour.

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