This past week, Sportsnet’s Luke Fox shared insights from veteran hockey analyst and former-NHL head coach Ken Hitchcock. Hitchcock specifically believes the Toronto Maple Leafs are a Stanley Cup contender this season. He bases these beliefs on the team’s strong checking game.
Maple Leafs’ fans might not have joined those who believe this team can compete in the postseason; and, no wonder. It has yet to occur. The team has tried several times over the past few seasons, but without success.
Hitchcock and Others Believe This Team is the Real Deal
That said, hockey people believe the Maple Leafs are the real deal. Over the past year or so, I’ve read that Mark Messier and Denis Savard have specifically pointed to the team as being in the middle of the hunt. Furthermore, recent rumours that the Chicago Blackhawks star Patrick Kane would be willing to head east to Toronto suggests that current NHL stars also see the chance for success north of the border.
It’s interesting to hear from a veteran coach like Hitchcock. He’s been around long enough and has been such a successful student of the game. He’s earned some trust about such things. His view about what makes a team a genuine Stanley Cup contender focuses on hard play and attention to detail.
For Hitchcock, it’s all about a team’s ability to check all over the ice, pay attention to detail, and play “right through people.” He lists several teams he believes exemplify that skill and determination. Those teams include the Seattle Kraken, Dallas Stars, the Tampa Bay Lightning, the Carolina Hurricanes, and of course the Maple Leafs.
What Checking Is All About?
All these clubs check well. When Hitchcock talks about a team’s checking game, he refers to its ability to prevent the opposing team from scoring by disrupting their offensive plays and limiting their scoring chances. This can be done through effective forechecking, backchecking, and defensive positioning. Teams that consistently execute these defensive strategies can limit their opponents’ scoring chances and keep games close, even against highly-skilled opponents.
Hitchcock doesn’t hesitate to add the Maple Leafs to that list of good teams. He notes that this current team has improved its ability to check this season. He also notes that most of the team’s players “play right through their opponents.” For him, this is a significant change from previous seasons. Before, many criticized the Maple Leafs for having a “soft” lineup that wouldn’t be able to win in the playoffs.
Hitchcock credits the Maple Leafs’ coaching staff for being able to pull off this transformation with the same personnel that in the past had been called “soft.” He believes this newfound propensity to check hard will make Toronto a tough team to beat come playoff time.
As a Student of the Game, Hitchcock Knows a Thing or Two
Hitchcock remains employed by the St. Louis Blues in an advisory role. He’s a student of the game, and he had this to say about the Maple Leafs:
“Toronto now checks. Those teams are incredible. And you look at Tampa — they check like crazy. The teams that check are going to win. And the teams that check pay attention to detail. And those are the two things that still matter, no matter the skill level.”
Hitchcock then elaborated on the Maple Leafs’ growth in this area of the game.
“They’ve got at least two-thirds of their lineup that play right through you. That is what checking is. You have to play right through people.”
“Toronto, all of a sudden, players where people said, ‘This guy is too soft, that guy is too soft, and you’ll never win with these guys,’ they go right through you. That’s a real accolade for that coaching staff to pull that off with the same personnel. They did it. Now they’ve got something that they know is going to be a tough out in the playoffs.”
What to Make of Hitchcock’s Insights?
There’s no question that Hitchcock is a highly respected veteran NHL coach. As a result, his opinion carries weight in the hockey world. His insight that the Maple Leafs are a Stanley Cup contender this season would be based on his assessment of the team’s overall play, including their ability to play strong defence and check effectively.
For the Maple Leafs, Hitchcock’s assessment of their checking game reflects the team’s recent efforts to improve its defensive play. In recent years, the Maple Leafs have focused on building a more well-rounded roster that can play both strong offence and defence. That includes both the blue line and the forwards like Mitch Marner and Auston Matthews.
Overall, while many factors go into a team’s success in the playoffs, if Hitchcock is correct, having a strong checking game is one of the keys. If the Maple Leafs can continue to play strong defence and limit their opponents’ scoring chances, they might just have a shot at the Stanley Cup this season.
It will be fun to see the journey unfold.