It proved to be a lively conversation, centred on the first official signing announced July 1 during TSN’s “Free Agent Frenz” show.
The Maple Leafs had inked 36-year-old veteran forward Ryan Reaves, by all accounts a terrific team player on and off the ice and a true heavyweight in the physical play department, to a three-year, $4.05 million (U.S.) deal.
We normally tiptoe into these special shows with a broader view of what we might see that day, big- picture thoughts on team play, with an around-the-horn approach to who the top players are and where they may land. Not this year, and not with the Reaves signing. The proverbial gloves were off and our group was firing away with strong opinions on both sides of the ledger.
The signing of Reaves absorbed more air time than one of its like normally would. He brings an element of physicality in a part of the game many argue has largely disappeared from the NHL.
Yet in signing Reaves, Leafs general manager Brad Treliving was making a statement, one he would follow up with the subsequent signings of Max Domi and Tyler Bertuzzi. The Leafs are going to be different. Treliving had either seen or heard something he wasn’t comfortable with, and as the new boss he was going to change that.
The participants involved in the studio are an eclectic group: former NHL players, managers, talented scribes referred to as “The Insiders,” and broadcasters who have seen thousands of games.
I opened up with it being a good signing, fitting financially, and providing a level of swagger and physical support that’s a necessary ingredient on a championship-calibre team. Others disagreed. Vehemently. Some felt that this part of the game is simply not as important as it once was, and that in Reaves’ role with limited minutes, he wouldn’t have an impact. To be clear, this isn’t about fighting but more about playing hard and being difficult to play against. Fighting for the most part is on its way out of the game. Hitting and physical play are not.
I pointed specifically to the Florida series and a crucial goal in the second game in which Mitch Marner and then Auston Matthews combined for an egregious turnover on the same play that led to a critical Panthers goal. Sam Bennett, who to that point had finished every possible check in the series, was bearing down on Marner in the neutral zone and he dropped the puck to a handcuffed Matthews. The Panthers capitalized on the turnover and buried the eventual game-winner.
Why drill down on a specific play? It’s the physical superiority that stood out at that point. Florida was coming and everyone knew it. Can a single player change that? No. But a player like Reaves can instil physical confidence in a group, bring others with him, and deliver a counter hit to a key player at a critical time in a game.
Treliving, a veteran general manager coming off a nine-year run in Calgary, had two different reasons to initiate change with the pursuit of a Reaves-like player: He likely knew what was lacking from watching his new team while still with the Flames, and he had done his due diligence upon assuming his new post. He would have spoken with the head coach, assistant coaches, possibly the trainers (who often prove to be a great source of information), scouts of his own team and trusted sources around the league. What were other perceptions of his new team? Was it really all about the heralded Core Four of Matthews, Marner, William Nylander and John Tavares, or could change be enacted in other areas?
Initially, Treliving has chosen the latter. He has flushed out virtually the entire group of 10 unrestricted free agents that finished last season, choosing only to sign fourth-line centre David Kämpf. He has added the irascible pair of Domi and Bertuzzi on one-year commitments; both could potentially see themselves skating on a top-six line. The risk is low in a well-documented tight year for dollars around the league with short term, and despite the recency bias of strong playoffs for both, each are off their career years in points and will be hungry to prove their value.
The one player Treliving signed that didn’t quite pass the “snot” test he spoke of was John Klingberg. The talented offensive playmaker netted a one-year deal but isn’t known for physical prowess or being a defensive stalwart, and instead would look to be an offensive complement to Morgan Rielly and potentially help the power play.
With cap constraints and the ability to affect change not matching the willingness to do so, Treliving still has work to do at finalizing the goaltender position and fine-tuning the bottom of the roster. The often clamoured-for change at the top of the lineup does not appear to be happening. The early opinion, despite that, is that the Leafs will be different next fall.
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