Collisions were the big topic around the Toronto Maple Leafs on Friday, both on and off the ice.
The one off the ice involved Kasperi Kapanen and William Nylander, who were in a car together and involved in a minor accident as they left the MasterCard Centre in the west end of Toronto after Friday’s practice. Neither player was injured, according to a team official, and both will play in Saturday’s game in Boston against the Bruins. It was not known which player was driving.
The other collision came in the second period of Thursday night’s 5-4 overtime loss to the Detroit Red Wings and involved the Leafs’ big star, Auston Matthews. Wings defenceman Niklas Kronwall sent Matthews into the boards and it looked as though his shoulder took most of the impact. But once again the Leafs were fortunate and Matthews, who recently missed 14 games with an injury to his other shoulder, was not injured.
Presumably, the other driver in the Nylander-Kapanen fender-bender either exchanged information with the Leaf wingers or gave their side of the bump to the police and went on their way. In Kronwall’s case though, that was not the end of it, according to at least some of the Toronto media.
TSN radio in particular was baying on Friday morning. A couple of hosts of one show spent a good deal of time wondering why none of Matthews’s teammates rendered Kronwall senseless for the effrontery of throwing a bodycheck in an NHL game. What’s next? Screening goaltenders?
It wasn’t just Kronwall’s check, of course, which was not a dirty one. It was from the side, was more of a glancing blow and just happened near the boards, where Matthews can take part of the blame for leaving himself in a vulnerable position. No, it was who Kronwall hit.
For decades, frontier justice in the NHL decreed that anyone who levelled a star player such as Matthews with a dirty hit could expect a return shot in similar fashion. The job of revenge went to someone on the offended party’s team who was not exactly a fancy skater, of which there were plenty in those days.
Then, 25 years ago or so, the rough justice was expanded to include avenging any hard check on a star player. Stars who staggered back to the bench after a bone-rattling, but clean, hit were no longer greeted with chuckles and admonishments to “keep your head up.” Now, a one-man lynch mob would go over the boards looking for the perp and any team that failed to do this heard many loud questions about its “character.”
This is where Friday’s media howls for revenge came from. There were wistful musings about how nice it would be to have someone such as Edmonton Oilers linebacker Milan Lucic on the Leafs roster to roll over Kronwall. Left unasked was exactly how the ponderous Lucic would keep up with the young and speedy Leafs on every other shift in the game.
But those days are almost gone, too. Thanks to the increasing emphasis on youth, speed and skill, it takes an egregious blind-side hit to spark any retaliation.
Kronwall’s hit did not measure up in that regard. This from no less an authority than Matthews himself, who said the only damage he suffered was having the wind knocked out of him.
“I haven’t seen a replay of it, really,” Matthews said. “I don’t know. Stuff like that is going to happen when you’re battling. Sometimes you think a play’s dirty and maybe it’s not or maybe a play doesn’t seem so dirty, you watch it on replay and it is. I haven’t seen it.”
Given the culture change both in the NHL and with the Leafs, there is also the question of just who on the current roster would deliver any retribution. Colton Orr and Frazer McLaren, the twin torpedoes from the Brian Burke-Dave Nonis era, are long gone. Matt Martin and Leo Komarov, hard-nosed checkers rather than fighters, but the last remnants of tough guys on the team, were shipped out last summer.
Now, as Leafs head coach Mike Babcock pointed out by bringing up the boarding penalty Kronwall received, there is a different kind of toughness on the Leafs.
“I just think you look at our personnel and you look at what we’ve got. We are what we are,” Babcock said. “Our toughness is our power play. Take all the penalties you want.”
Well, as Matthews ruefully observed, sometimes that doesn’t work despite the high-octane Leafs unit.
“We got a power play from it and our power play wasn’t any good last night anyway,” he said.