“Teams, for sure, try to come in and kind of bully us around.” — Kasperi Kapanen
By Luke Fox
TORONTO — John Carlson only needs a few words to drive to the heart of the matter.
“It’s in our DNA,” says Carlson, plainly.
The Washington Capitals defenceman (and 2020 Norris Trophy frontrunner by, oh, about two laps) is explaining the makeup and mindset of the 2018 Stanley Cup champions.
This is a club whose most famous player, Alexander Ovechkin, blocks shots and throws his body around like a wrecking ball and still finds a way to get his cookies.
This is a team that wears “hard to play against” like a badge of honour, proving even harder to play against a couple Junes ago than the Vegas Golden Knights, who fancied themselves that way as well.
This is an organization that invested $31 million for six more years of Tom Wilson when his career high in goals was 14, then doubled down on intimidation and edginess over this past summer by trading for the bearded knot of nasty that is Radko Gudas, the Caps’ leader in both PIMs and plus/minus.
“That’s our strength,” continues Carlson, who also has a team-high 29 blocked shots to go with his ridiculous 21 points. “It’s not a decision that we’re going to play physical or not. That’s in our DNA. That’s what we like to do. At the end of the day, we’re going to do that regardless.”
Which brings us down the hall to Washington’s opponent Tuesday, the Toronto Maple Leafs, and a roster engineered with a much different DNA.
Save for a shelled goaltender, you will never hear the opposition compliment the Leafs for being “hard to play against.” Visitors to Scotiabank all read from the same list of pleasantries: Toronto is fast, skilled, creative, and can burn you with an odd-man rush or a man-advantage.
“You know what they are: They’re fast, they’re skilled,” Wilson says. “I don’t think they’re gonna… you never know, but they’ll make you pay with their with their finesse and with their skill.”
But, outside of crossing the blue line with your head down in the general vicinity of Jake Muzzin, there isn’t a great deal of fear here. The Leafs rank 24th in hits per game (18.5) — their next major penalty will be their first.
Toronto’s grit deficiency was thrust into the spotlight with the players’ disturbingly quiet response to a pair of vicious (yet clean and unpenalized) open-ice checks to its star players. San Jose’s Brenden Dillon sent Auston Matthews to the quiet room Friday, and Montreal’s Jeff Petry crunched Tyson Barrie’s chest Saturday.
Neither Dillon nor Petry, who appeared to ready himself for retribution after levelling Barrie, received so much as a face wash or a chirp for their actions.
Maple Leafs had no pushback to Barrie and Matthews getting crushed
Matthews’ wingman, William Nylander, was asked how the Leafs should respond to seeing their most dangerous sniper sent to the ice with what Matthews believed to be a high check.
“To be honest, I don’t know how to answer that question. It’s just part of the game and happens,” Nylander said. “Obviously it’s a dangerous play and coming forward you’d like to see something maybe happen, especially a penalty, for sure.”
Frederik Gauthier — a six-foot-five, 239-pound gentle giant who once turned down a fight offer from Zach Bogosian that would’ve given the Goat a Gordie Howe hat trick — was asked the same question.
“I saw it on the replay. It doesn’t look too good, but whenever you play, there’s nothing you can do about it,” Gauthier said.
Toronto’s enforcer is its power play, but lately it’s fighting with one hand tied behind its back. The Leafs’ power play is 1-for-13 over the past six outings, falling to 16th in the NHL.
Mike Babcock was blunt when the notion of the Leafs sticking up for one of their own superstars was raised.
“Who’s going to do that?” the head coach snapped back, rhetorically.
The ensuing three seconds of silence screamed volumes.
Some might interpret Babcock’s retort as a shot at GM Kyle Dubas’s roster construction, but it was Babcock who healthy-scratched Leo Komarov and Matt ‘He Keeps the Flies Off’ Martin in their last days.
We interpret it as a gauntlet being thrown down. The Maple Leafs are the test case for an incredible on-paper roster winning in real life.
The organizational bet is that talent will triumph, that the old school has traditionally overvalued and overpaid for grit — that unquantifiable human quality — and that white-collar hockey players can pick up blue-collar habits when crunch time arrives.
“Hopefully they’re gonna learn. It’s up to them how they want to do it,” Ovechkin says. “If they want to play for themselves or if they want to win a Stanley Cup, they have to play differently.”
The one leader in the Leafs room with a ring is doing his best to calm the noise.
“It’s a bit more the outside world making it an issue more than what it was. I know some [critics] like to see guys step up and fight or what have you, but we’re not too worried about it,” says Muzzin.
Discussing the all-in-on-skill proposition, an executive who built a recent Cup finalist insists that a GM must be committed to his viewpoint.
“And if you are, and you’re right, you’ll have more opportunities to win. You may run into the wrong opponent, in the first round even, and it may challenge your conviction about what you’re doing, but you have to believe in something,” he says. “It’s just too difficult to change course.”
Barrie concedes Petry’s hit was fair, that he should’ve kept his head up. And yet…
“It’s important to stick up for each other. We have a skilled team. We’re not the biggest team in the league, but we got to have each other’s backs. And if something goes sideways, we have to have guys who are willing to get in there for each other,” says Barrie. He concedes that the dressing-room turnover and the unfamiliarity it’s caused is playing a factor here.
“When you get to know guys and when you start getting along and you become buddies and best friends in a lot of cases, you’ll find you’ll do a lot more for a guy on the ice when you really care about them. It goes a long way.”
So, it was not insignificant when Matthews brought up the idea after Saturday’s loss that the players should look towards November’s road-heavy schedule as an opportunity “to mesh more.”
There’s a disconnect here that won’t show up in any spreadsheet, but you feel it when you walk into the room and speak with the characters that compose it. That band-of-brothers atmosphere that bled through the Bruins and Blues quarters last spring, that you sense around the Capitals? It takes time to develop.
“It’s different when you have new guys coming in, and we’re still early in the season. So maybe guys are trying to find their game or find their way in the system,” says Muzzin.
“It’s nice to get away from everything and just be on the road with the guys. You go for dinners, lunches, movies, whatever it may be, to get away from the city, and just kind of be on our own and do our own thing is always nice.”
Maybe that bonding can spark some tangible passion here.
Certainly, for his own career’s sake, Garret Sparks wasn’t the right person to speak it aloud, but the discarded backup goalie’s infamous plea from last season still echoes in this city: “We need more emotion from everybody. We need people to get angry. We need people to step up and get mad and take it personally.”
Perhaps the most “emotional” core player on that 2018-19 squad, Nazem Kadri, was also moved. Did he leave a void?
“We got to stay on top of that,” Kapanen says. “I mean, Matty’s one of our best players, and I’d like to show a little bit more emotion. I’m not saying you got to fight the guy, but just to stand up for one another and be there.
“From here on out, I think we’re family here, we’re brothers, and we’re here for one another… we can take a step up in that area.
“It’s important because teams, for sure, try to come in and kind of bully us around and be heavy on us, because they know we’re a talented team. So, if we show a lot of grit and effort like that, it sends a message, and it’s good in the long run.”
Capitals coach Todd Reirden has spent hours thinking about the grit-skill composition. He studied repeat champions in other sports. He determined that if Washington is to frolic in the fountains again, they’d need to give their opponents fits on the breakout, make them pay around the blue paint, and finish all checks.
“You’ve got to see what personnel you have, and you’ve got to coach it properly,” Reirden says.
“We think [physical intimidation] is a pretty important advantage that we have and not many teams in the league can match up with. We have some speed, for sure, but we’re also not that fun a team to play against.”