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January 27, 2020


An Opinion and Analysis: [email protected]

Sheldon Keefe has been reported to have said the following in a recent newspaper article:

  1. “Can the team be more physical? Yes, I believe that it can. Is it built to be a physical team? No, it’s not.”
  2. “I believe there’s another level of physicality, where we are using our body intelligently, not to be predatory or to be the aggressors.”
  3. “I don’t think that’s ever going to be who we are. You choose a way to go and you build your team that way”
  4. “Do I believe we can win without having more of the Jake Muzzin types? I absolutely do.”
  5. “… While we’d love to be a little more physical and have more physical players, there’s other teams out there that are very physical, and they think, man, I wish we had more skill.”
  6. “In time, hockey is going to evolve where hitting is going to be devalued. But it’ll never take away from the fact that you need to utilize your body to create advantages for yourself”.
  7. “ The whole thing about finishing your checks and all that stuff – I don’t see as much value in that as there used to be. The skill level is so high that a lot of times, when you’re going to finish a check, the puck has already gone by you and you are well out of position. So what do you value more? Finishing the check or the puck?”

Now, if you were a Leaf player and you heard your head coach say stuff like the above would you value physicality very much in winning pucks or would you tend to play less physical in just about all puck battle situations which believe me is a lot easier on your body night after night?

Many great Stanley Cup teams in the past played both physically and less physically with different style players. Simply, they had highly skilled goal scorers who didn’t play physical alot and they had other skilled players whose skill was not scoring but winning puck battles and being very hard to play against, and they played physical much more.

Let’s be clear. Nobody wants the old Philadelphia Flyers back, but Keefe’s above comments send way too soft a message.

Physicality is a skill the Leafs need in all players in varying degrees either by developing the players who buy into the standard Keefe and the players set for themselves, and is measured, or through trades for those who don’t buy in.

Consider some real hockey situations:

  1. Sometimes a player can’t get ahead of the puck carrier they are back-checking against to lift his stick around the puck and take the puck but can get just shoulder to shoulder with the opposition. Taking the body in this situation or riding him out as we say to get him off balance or out of comfort in either making a pass or shot or dislodging the puck gets the checking job done. The Leafs many times forego these opportunities. Many like Matthews and Nylander do a good job getting in front of the opposition player with speed and lifting the opposition’s stick off the ice and taking or dislodging the puck. Players need to use both techniques at the right time.
  2. Making contact with the puck carrier and finishing your check while he is making or just after he has made a pass can be the very tactic that stops the passer from participating in a give and go and receive passing play. So, no absolutes in the yes or no in finishing checks. Sometimes finishing a check is effective and sometimes it isn’t. The Leafs seem to choose the latter far too often.
  3. On an aggressive 2 player forecheck when the Leafs can create a 50-50 puck in the corner on a dump and chase with speed or after a shot that missed the opposition’s net, it is very useful for the first Leaf player to get to the puck at the same time as the opposition to play very physical and not try to fish for the puck but rather to tie up the opposition’s body and stick so the Leafs’ second forechecker or F2 can win the puck in a very physical battle.
  4. Many times when a big tall opposition player is lining up a smaller, shorter Leaf player with the puck or close to a loose puck in close quarters the Leaf’s puck carrier jumps back or spins away allowing the checking player to win the puck many times. Not what we want in all players.
  5. As the opposition begins to gain speed with the puck in their zone it is very useful to gain position and angle when you can so the puck carrier will lose the puck on contact or partial contact or be sufficiently slowed down or challenged to spoil the flow of the rush. We want that. The Leafs tend to have too many flybys in the neutral zone. By hesitating and not being aggressive early enough before the opposition gains speed Leaf players are forced to back up and play strategic defence in a 2- 3 or a 1- 4 in the neutral zone. Not what we want all the time.
  6. Overpowering players physically net front in our zone is very important in allowing our goalie to see the puck, getting their stick off the ice, preventing deflections and winning rebounds. Vice versa in the offensive zone net front. Many times above average offensive defencemen and forwards lack the physical skills to do this. Need a good mix of both on a team.
  7. Playing the other team’s defence or best goal scorers physically all game can wear them down somewhat in the third period both physically and mentally, particularly smaller less physically strong players. This is particularly true in a seven game playoff series. Even in back-to-back games in the regular season sometimes it quite apparent that speedy skilled goal scorers are not quite as speedy and effective.
  8. The mentality of a non physical or “soft” team gives the other team a psychological edge and a real advantage. The opposition doesn’t have to be as concerned with getting into corners first to win pucks or having their rush flow disturbed by contact or hard check finishing. We see this a lot with very good teams going wide on Leaf defencemen, or winning corners or half-wall battles, flying through the neutral zone or enjoying net front presence without too much physical concern. This makes it easier for the opposition to screen, get rebounds and dominate net front too often.

If the Leaf team isn’t built the “physical” way as Keefe says, that’s OK with 2 great offensively skilled puck possession scoring lines and one outstanding offensive D, but not with the rest of the team who aren’t gifted scorers who aren’t better than average two-way physical players who win more puck battles than they lose everywhere and block shots fearlessly the right way so they don’t get injured.

Dubas needs to rebuild part of this team the right way balancing great offence which he has now with great hard to play against defensive 3rd and 4th line forwards and D who can handle a puck and pass it well, but who aren’t gifted goal scorers like many Stanley Cup winning teams have done in the past. Trades need to be made to get there.