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Tyler Toffoli’s defensive impact has been just as key as his offensive production

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So far this season, Toffoli has demonstrated his skills in various parts of his play.

Ottawa Senators v Montreal Canadiens Photo by Minas Panagiotakis/Getty Images

This off-season, Marc Bergevin knew what he was doing targeting Tyler Toffoli instead of another scorer like Mike Hoffman. Hoffman’s whole game is built around his main skill — his shooting ability. That skill is one of the most technically impressive in the NHL. It probably would have spawned a few analysis pieces over the course of the season, but Habs management were looking for more than a powerplay and occasional five-on-five weapon. They wanted to add a scorer, but one who could also help in diverse facets of the game.

In this start to the season, Toffoli has been sensational with and without the puck, offensively and defensively, on special teams, and at five-on-five. On Micah Blake’s charts below, the bright red colors of the above half that represent his heavy high-danger shot generation, contrast perfectly with the dark blue colors of the lower half. Toffoli’s unit has stifled the shot attempts of the opposition, only allowing a volume of those from the periphery and often from awkward angles — the kind of chances the defence can easily live with.

The winger’s impact has also extended to the penalty kill. The sample size remains extremely small, his current expected goals mark is ridiculously unsustainable, but it still speaks to his effectiveness when down a man. Toffoli has completely neutralized the opposition, barely allowing pucks to move inside the defensive box or rebound chances.

Toffoli’s numbers are driven partly by his competition — the opposition mostly paired their first unit against Nick Suzuki and Philip Danault’s line — but more so by his strong habits.

While some defensive wingers limit their engagement to their assignments, drawing a circle around their zone and refusing to move too far away from it as to not miss offensive chances, Toffoli goes out of his way to help the coverage of others. He surveys the ice from his high position, anticipates breakdowns, and jumps on attackers escaping his teammates.

As the weak-side winger, he regularly skates down from his position to clog seams pathing from the half-wall to the slot and to check opponents left open mid-ice due to coverage confusions.

In other words, Toffoli repairs leaks in the defensive structure. He has a good sense for when to double-pressure and when to leave his position to go for a steal on a vulnerable attacker, one with his back to the play, fumbling the puck, or looking down at the ice.

Sometimes smart defensive plays happen completely away from the puck, too. Toffoli is particularly effective at influencing the play with his stick. He takes the extra strides needed to get into passing lanes off the rush, reloading to clog them one after the other.

He doesn’t always cut passes, but the simple presence of his stick influences the offensive movement of the opposition, making it less threatening. Toffoli removes options for opponents, forces them along the boards, and into the poke check range of his defencemen.

Good defence is rarely flashy. Hard backchecks to repair broken plays can catch the eye, but Toffoli influences, clogs, and breaks plays at their inception before there is a need for such desperate plays.

It is no wonder he received a promotion up to the first line as of late. His positional versatility, offensive abilities, and defensive acumen make him a forward Claude Julien can lean on.