TRAIKOS: Auston Matthews injury another reminder that the Leafs are in need of some toughness

Add another item to Kyle Dubas’ wish list ahead of March 3 trade deadline.

No, it’s not a top-line centre who can replace Auston Matthews’ spot in the lineup. Although Matthews’ latest injury, which occurred during a game in which the New York Rangers were taking healthy runs at the Maple Leafs, does highlight a familiar need for a team that still appears far too soft to win a Stanley Cup.

You are reading: TRAIKOS: Auston Matthews injury another reminder that the Leafs are in need of some toughness

Forget about getting a top-four defenceman. Or another forward who can provide secondary scoring. Both would certainly be welcomed.

But what the Leafs really need these days is some good, ol’ fashioned toughness.

They will need it if they are going to beat Tampa Bay in what looks like an inevitable first-round playoff series. And they will certainly need it if they are going to meet Boston in the second round. Without it, Toronto won’t ever win a championship. Not with Matthews constantly looking over his shoulder, wondering where the next hit is coming from.

That’s not to say that Matthews’ knee injury was the product of a lack of toughness. At the same time, it might not have been a coincidence that he was hurt in the same game in which the Rangers outhit the Leafs 35-14 and Toronto blueliner Timothy Liljegren was drilled from behind into the boards by New York’s K’Andre Miller without anyone coming to his defence.

That is, unless you consider Mitch Marner briefly grabbing hold of Miller’s arm a form of retribution.

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Can you imagine that happening against Boston? Or Tampa Bay? Or anywhere but Toronto?

For the Leafs, who have put an emphasis on puck skills over pugnacity, this is nothing new. Ever since the team bid goodbye to Nazem Kadri, there has been a lack of nastiness to their game. Now, with Wayne Simmonds having played his way out of the lineup and Jake Muzzin looking like he’s done for the season, it’s only gotten worse.

Toronto ranks 24th in hits this season. As a team, it is in the bottom-five with six fights. But with the second-best record in the Atlantic Division, it’s difficult to argue that either stat is affecting the Leafs in the standings.

And yet, Tampa Bay has reached the final three straight years with a roster that includes two players who have each already fought six times this year. Boston, which owns the best record in the NHL, has fought 17 times.

So much for the idea that you can’t punch your way to the top.

The bad news for the Leafs is that if they are going to reach the conference final, chances are they will have to get past both teams. And as we’ve seen in the past, it’s going to take more than just skill to beat them.

Does that mean that the Leafs should put Simmonds, who has played in just 11 games this season, back in the lineup on a full-time basis? Or try and acquire an enforcer such as Philadelphia’s Nicolas Delauriers to handle the cheap shots that keep coming their way?

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Not exactly. But if Dubas is going to acquire someone at the deadline, he may want to make sure that whoever he acquires comes with fight straps attached to his jersey.
Maybe that is why the latest rumours out of Toronto are that the Leafs are reportedly interested in Chicago defenceman Jake McCabe. Or why a reunion with Vancouver defenceman Luke Schenn, who ranks first in hits this season, makes perfect sense.

McCabe, who is 6-foot-1 and 204 pounds, has two goals and 14 points in 44 games this season. But perhaps more importantly, he also has 96 hits, which would put him behind only Zach Aston-Reese and Rasmus Sandin in that category. And based on his size, you can bet those 96 hits were felt more than Sandin’s 97 hits.

You can also bet that McCabe or Schenn would have stood up and fought Miller. Or, better yet, would have drilled one of the Rangers players as payback.

Until that happens, guys such as Matthews, Marner and William Nylander will continue to skate around with a bullseye on their backs.

After all, the word is out on the Leafs. If you’re an opposing team, forget about trying to skate with them up and down the ice. You’re much better off slowing things down by finishing each and every check.

It’s what the Leafs can expect from the Bruins when the two teams meet next week. And it’s what Matthews can expect when he eventually returns from injury.

That is, unless Toronto goes out and gets him a bodyguard. Or at the very least, someone who is unafraid to get his hands dirty and lay out a body.

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