Over the past few seasons, Marc Bergevin had been a patient general manager. He fostered his prospects, accumulated draft capital, and refrained from spending. But you can only suppress a burning competitive desire for so long. So, when the 2020 playoffs revealed a Habs team on the upswing, Bergevin let himself loose. He broke in the trade and free agent market, bullied his way through the aisles, stocked his cart full, and took off the way he came.
Joel Edmundson, Jake Allen, Josh Anderson, Tyler Toffoli, and new contracts for Brendan Gallagher and Jeff Petry. Some of those pieces proved expensive, but that’s the thing with being patient; the Habs had the space to afford them, under the cap and on the actual roster. They could crank up their buying power at the right time to give the team a needed boost, one that — if all goes according to plan — could have them compete with the better formations in the league.
Depending on what you appreciate most in a team, any of the acquisitions above can give you reasons to be excited. Edmundson hits, Anderson rams the net, and Allen stops more than his share of pucks. But if you ask me, considering his contract and his specific talents, Toffoli will end up as the off-season’s best value move.
I admit I had the wrong idea of the goal-scorer when the signing was announced. Maybe it’s because he hid in the Western Conference or because he won a Stanley Cup with the big, bruising Los Angeles Kings, but I pictured Toffoli as another power forward who barged in the slot and slammed in rebounds.
It is quite far from reality. While he can impose himself on the odd defender and score in tight, net-front scoring is not really the right winger’s game. On a style spectrum, Toffoli stands closer to Nick Suzuki than Anderson.
Toffoli’s resemblance to the young centreman first comes from his size and skating. The winger’s legs similarly refuse to come back completely under the center of mass after a push, giving his stride a stepping in wide tracks look. This inefficiency is compensated by a deep knee bend that provides the forward enough power to threaten defenders off the rush.
But Toffoli’s stride defects limits his explosiveness. The former King accelerates in even wider fashion, creating a pronounced side-to-side motion that diminishes momentum and forces him to work hard to get up to top speed. On top of that, he either raises his torso too high, which directs his acceleration towards the ceiling, or hunches over, forcing his feet into rapid but ineffective short strides to stop a faceplant.
Those mechanical problems, when compounded, make for a slightly below average NHL stride. Even if Toffoli can follow and get ahead of the attack with relative ease, you shouldn’t expect him to burst out of the gates to create odd-man attacks, cut passing lanes, or steal the puck from defenders.
Off-puck and Shot
Skating does not hold the winger back. He makes up for it with a superior awareness and anticipation, by planning his movements better than most NHLers, and by doing the grunt of his offensive work away from the puck.
This preference for setting up away from the disc is never more evident than when he purposely lets it slide past his stick, untouched, making you question his intent for a split second. But it becomes clear when a teammate standing behind him catches the loose pass and Toffoli stands in an open area, stick in the air, ready for a deflection or a one-timer.
At peak form, Toffoli’s brain seems plugged into the game’s mainframe. He is one move ahead of the opposition and an evident option. He passes early to teammates, identifies where space will open, and attacks it while lining up his feet to immediately spring the puck on net as it returns to him. He has a hunter’s vision and patience. He watches the play unfold from the periphery, and when an opportunity arises, skates down the perfect path to strike.
The winger can fire in stride, on awkward puck positions, or with his backhand. When the opposition affords him more time, he can also change the angle on his release and use screens to his advantages.
Of course, Toffoli is not an every night scorer; his 13-goal season will tell you that. But few in the NHL are. Like many of his counterparts, he phases in and out of games and blends into the background only to pop out again later for a timely goal.
What limits his scoring consistency is that his shot isn’t a grade-A weapon like some of the top marksmen in the league. He rarely outpowers or deceives goalies one-on-one and he hasn’t shown a knack for repetitively scoring from the same spots on the powerplay or from very limited space.
Toffoli’s scoring doesn’t come from a pure technical shooting mastery, but from an ability to anticipate and position. And for that reason it can be more teammate dependent. The winger needs to be paired with playmakers who have the composure to look over their shoulders to find him even under the pressure of defenders.
Just because Toffoli likes to hide away from the play doesn’t mean he can’t break it open when given a chance. His hand-eye coordination might be the best on the Canadiens and his ability to manipulate ranks near the top, too.
Toffoli can softly intercept wobbly or aerial passes with either his forehand and backhand, and instantly transform those catches into elusive stick moves. He doesn’t lose track of options and rarely locks into a single play. He scans his surroundings, waits for the right lane to open, and uses the threats of teammates to fake out defenders.
Take the first clip in this video below as an example.
Toffoli skates up the ice, receives a stretch pass, and faces an opponent one-on-one. There is space for the winger to attack the faceoff circle and fire, but an approaching teammate gives him the advantage of a two-on-one. So, Toffoli slows down, waits for support, and prepares a pass. This accomplishes two things: it makes the goalie go down slightly to prepare an explosive lateral push and it forces the defender towards the mid-line of the ice, opening up space for Toffoli to walk inside the dots and fire.
He scores with a precise shot above the netminder’s left shoulder.
The winger relies on these unexpected downshifts, changes of lanes, and fakes to beat opponents and break in the slot. As he can’t increase the pace of play to create breakdowns or resist back pressure due to shaky balance, keeping defenders in front of him and deceiving is his formula for success. That, and using teammates. They remain Toffoli’s best tools. With give-and-go partners, the winger can fluidly move through the defence and set up his shot before they have any chance to adjust.
All in all, Toffoli is an offensive driver. He might not control the flow of the play in the traditional sense (carrying the puck up ice, cycling it in the offensive zone...), but as he rapidly passes to better situated teammates and easily positions himself in-between checks as a return option, his line consistently out-chance opponents.
Interestingly, this offseason Montreal has horded some of the most prolific canons in the league. The team now has three players in the top 20 in shots per sixty minutes over the last two years: Gallagher (1st), Toffoli (13th), and Anderson (17th).
With the exception of his rookie and 2017-18 seasons, not only has Toffoli outshot opponents, but he has suppressed them defensively more than the average player (as you can see from the graphs above).
The winger’s defensive game isn’t really based on constant pressure and recovery speed. Instead of launching himself towards opponents and re-checking them if he misses a second later à la Anderson, Toffoli conserves defensive position, scans the ice, and takes away options with his stick, forcing opponents to make saucer or slip passes to move the puck around him.
He creates turnovers by intercepting pucks much more than by directly separating opponents from it. And for that reason, he is best fitted with linemates who can engage the opposition and shoulders the blunt of the F1 role, although he can do it relatively effectively with his own skill set when needed.
In other words, the winger plays defence like he plays offence. Ideally, he isn’t its main actor and his effectiveness is derived from his patience, reads, and timing.
Suzuki is probably the pivot who could best complement Toffoli’s talent. As the young playmaker uses the same pace shifts and defensive manipulation, you can easily picture them making short work of overaggressive defenders.
Fitting them on the same line might require some tinkering, but as the right-winger reportedly can play the other wing if need be, the coaching staff has options.
That being said, I would be careful in placing Toffoli on the left. Players tend to oversell their versatility. Playing off-wing, a forward’s stick rests in the middle of the ice, which opens up opportunities to cut to the middle for wrist shots and more one-timers. You can certainly see how this disposition would benefit Toffoli’s game.
But to get in position to use those advantages, the winger would have to battle through breakouts sequences where his stick is instead glued to the boards, which complicates puck receptions, and then adapt to completely different passing angles in transition, forcing a heavier use of the backhand.
Not that he can’t pull it off. Toffoli has a deft touch. But the harder execution of transition plays might nullify the offensive zone advantages.
Ultimately, it comes down to preference and just trying it.
If Toffoli can’t play the left side, does he move ahead of Anderson?
It likely won’t happen considering how much the organization values the power forward. But I would try the Toffoli-Suzuki matchup first due to their similar qualities and opposed nature (shooter and playmaker). The matchup could help both players get the most out of their skill set.
If it doesn’t work, Toffoli could also fit well with Jesperi Kotkaniemi, another puck-controlling centreman who shoots from the opposite side. Kotkaniemi plays a relatively similar type of game as Suzuki and his mirror handedness with the new winger could open up more passing plays.
Only rarely do free agents outperform their contract, but Toffoli could be the exception. The Evolving Wild model is far from perfect but gives relatively accurate contract projections for productive forwards like the winger. His most likely outcome was a seven-year deal at $6.545 million. On a four-year agreement, the data predicted a rate of $5.550 million.
When viewed through the lens of the EW model, the actual contract signed — four years at $4.250 million — seems very friendly. If the scorer can put up between 20-30 goals for the duration of it while contributing to special teams, it will be a clear win for the Habs.
And that scenario seems likely.
Even if Toffoli doesn’t fit the team’s high-speed, high-pressure, counter-attack style perfectly due to a lack of high-end skating ability and more passive tendencies, his skill set fills a need in the lineup.
Toffoli brings goals. He approaches the game like a scorer. When he receives the puck, he looks towards the net first and teammates second. This will be appreciated by the Habs’ numerous playmakers who do the opposite. The winger will help turn their passes into shots from the high-slot — an area that wasn’t exploited as much by the team in their in the past seasons.
And as he brings defensive value, he could hold a spot next to the Habs young playmakers even as the quality of their competition rises in the coming years.
Toffoli’s game shouldn’t suffer too much from the passage of time as it is based on reads and not pure tools. His skating might decline, but the winger is an adaptable player. As long as he continues to be paired with effective transition and setup players, he could fall back on his deception and manipulative abilities to feed them the puck and reposition in scoring areas. He will also only turn 33 at the very end of the last season of his contract, an age where many scorers retain at least part of their effectiveness.
All in all, with his excellent contract and his scoring skill set, Tyler Toffoli is primed to provide a lot of value to the team in a top-six role in the next four years.
- Scoring instinct
- Adaptability & manipulation
- Defensive awareness
- Engaging opponents