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Tyler Toffoli’s hat trick was games in the making

It was only a matter before he started converted his chances, and Wednesday was that day.

Montreal Canadiens v Vancouver Canucks Photo by Rich Lam/Getty Images

It is often said of stay-at-home defencemen that they are effective when you don’t notice them. The same adage applies to the offensive game of Tyler Toffoli. If you only see the ex-Vancouver Canucks scorer in flashes during games; if you only see him pop on your screen to connect a transition play and fire pucks on net, he is doing his job — tuned into the game and primed to score.

Toffoli has had an impressive amount of scoring chances since the start of the season, way more than you can expect out of a newly acquired player. There was no adjustment period. He stepped on the ice against the Maple Leafs and started playing his offensive game away from the puck right from the start, disappearing behind defenders, finding pockets of space, and supporting the plays of teammates

I thought the shooting gallery that is the Habs offensive zone presences would be detrimental to the style of the scorer. It can be hard to set up slot shots by hiding away from the play when you always have to rush net-front traffic to tip shots or pounce on rebounds, but Jesperi Kotkaniemi and Joël Armia have controlled the play low in the opposing end and allowed Toffoli to create scoring chances his way.

Toffoli has also found a ton of scoring opportunities off the rush as the ‘‘stretch man’’ on the breakout, gunning ahead of his teammates, beating defenders off the mark to receive passes. The camera doesn’t always catch his movements, but I suspect the winger is toying a bit with the line of defence, changing speeds, and drawing wide arcs until he finds an open spot to receive a pass.

The winger sometimes walks a fine-line between offence and defence — the kind of thing that Max Domi got punished for in previous seasons. But since the start of the 2021 campaign, Toffoli’s anticipation of turnovers and his sprint up-ice have been on point, well-timed, and more often than not the correct decisions, a testament to his experience. It helps for such a scorer to show defensive responsibilities when needed; his hard backcheck as F1 and battles low on the defensive boards buy him the leeway to sometimes push the pace on the attack.

Here are some actual and potential scoring chances of Toffoli I clipped since the start of the season. Focus on the movement of #73.

Watch for the way he uses the width of the ice to get lost behind the back of defenders and attacks a passing lane as his teammates turn to use it. Watch him follow an opponent off the rush, dip behind him and abruptly stop to create separation and shooting space. And watch him purposely position himself in between defenders to confuse the opposing coverage.

Those are all high-level talents and they often go unnoticed — sometimes even by teammates. Toffoli doesn’t always get the puck in those sequences. Granted, passing to him was challenging in a few plays, but as chemistry builds between Kotkaniemi and Toffoli, the centreman will start to anticipate the movement of his scoring winger and trust that, if the puck is sent to the slot, Toffoli will be there to receive it. His hat trick Wednesday night will certainly help reinforce that notion.

The three sequences showed the same elements that make his success: his anticipation, his ability to hide, and offensive timing. Toffoli is not an elite finisher per se — he scores much more with good choices of movement — but the first goal was also a nice release. He got his hands away from his body, his elbow elevated, and fired in-stride, kicking his outside leg back to instantly get weight into the shot. It surprised Braden Holtby.

If Toffoli can continue to combine mental and technical skills like this, he is primed for a productive goal-scoring season.

As an aside, let’s talk about Cole Caufield. It’s reasonable to have doubts about the prospect's ability to translate his offensive game to the NHL, but when I look at Tyler Toffoli, I think that many of the concerns are unfounded. Their games share a lot of similarities and the main divide between them is defensive responsibility and experience. Size doesn’t factor in Toffoli’s game much if at all. Caufield might in fact be a more elusive player along the boards. It might take time, but I think the diminutive scorer can manage to emulate many of the patterns we see in Toffoli’s game.