This article features a ten-minute video presentation highlighting Tyler Toffoli’s performance against the New York Rangers on February 9, 2020. In the footage, he wears #73 for the Los Angeles Kings. If the video above is unavailable, view it here.
A sense of tentative buzz blanketed the Vancouver Canucks’ supporters when the team unexpectedly acquired Los Angeles Kings forward Tyler Toffoli last Monday. The Canucks have been desperate for offensive support in recent weeks, as the team’s regular forward group has managed to provide little help for the team’s star scorers. With a playoff position potentially slipping away, this dire concern required immediate treatment, especially in light of the recent news about top-line scorer Brock Boeser’s rib injury and his estimated eight-week recovery period.
Some have suggested that the price to acquire Toffoli was high: the Canucks’ 2020 Hobey Baker nominee Tyler Madden, depth forward Tim Schaller, a 2020 second round pick, and a conditional 2022 fourth-round pick. There were certainly naysayers who questioned this acquisition, but also many curious spectators who merely wished to learn exactly what type of player the team had acquired. Those familiar with Toffoli will confidently state that the Canucks have stumbled upon a gem.
Five days have passed since that pivotal moment, and Toffoli has paid immediate dividends for the Vancouver Canucks. In his debut against the Minnesota Wild, he tallied one assist and directed four shots on goal. In his follow-up performance against the Boston Bruins on Saturday, Toffoli scored two goals, recorded an assist, and was named the game’s first star — an impressive start in Vancouver for a player who had, for nearly a decade, feasted upon the Canucks with 13 goals in 28 career games as an opponent. These point totals are among the accomplishments of a player who has been relatively underrated throughout his career. He is a three-time twenty-goal scorer who once achieved a 31-goal season in the NHL — a campaign in which he received six votes for the Selke Trophy as the league’s best two-way forward. An exploration into his style of play will reveal whether these votes were warranted.
With Toffoli slated to become an unrestricted free agent, the Canucks must decide whether they should re-sign him. Depending on his performance this spring, it will become obvious whether or not he and the team are a proper fit for one another. One very encouraging takeaway from his two performances in blue and green, however, is that he played exactly as he did in Los Angeles.
Many of Tyler Toffoli’s contributions to his team have received little attention. His reputation is that of a goal scorer, but his smart defensive game requires some discussion. To further elaborate, let us consider some footage from one of his performances with the 2019-20 Kings just prior to the trade: a match against the New York Rangers on February 9, 2020. That evening, Toffoli was featured on a line with center Anze Kopitar and winger Alex Iafallo. He recorded seven shots on goal that night. A busy evening such as that in which he was effective and yet recorded no points requires an investigation to determine the on-ice situations that best suit his style of play and the combination of linemates that would best complement this player.
In an analysis of a player’s hockey IQ, among many other attributes, one looks at the subject’s anticipation skills and the ways in which they position themselves relative to the puck. The most intelligent players possess the intuition to successfully predict the actions of their opponents and adjust their positioning so as to potentially intercept the puck or cause the other team’s puck carrier to panic.
Tyler Toffoli is a high, high-IQ player, and his skill to impede the opponent through all three zones is abundant. He is, thus, a crucial defensive factor for his team. He spends every moment on the ice re-calibrating his positioning so that the may effectively pressure the opposing puck carrier. He is proactive and often very timely with his arrival along the boards to confront the opponent. His propensity to contain the opponent by placing himself between their body and the puck whilst competing for position makes him a noteworthy asset for teams that value puck possession and sustained pressure. He also imposes his physical strength whenever the opposition has the puck, hemming them into a deadlock so that his team can continue to forecheck.
What often appear to be simple zone exits for the opposition can become abnormally complicated as a result of Toffoli’s ability to successfully anticipate the puck’s location and his awareness to target the potential recipient of the puck. Such forechecking prowess, seen on numerous occasions already during Toffoli’s brief time in Vancouver, has improved the Canucks’ ability to maintain pressure at the attacking end of the ice.
Effective pressure from Toffoli often results in opposition turnovers. This is one area where his active tracking of the puck has been the most beneficial.
At the heart of Toffoli’s style of play is a proficient two-way player who actively gauges where to be relative to the puck’s position on the ice. He is a punctual, aggressive player who engages in traffic to keep possession and finds open ice when his team has control.
Toffoli is always moving, constantly turning his body position to face the puck and using his edges to slide into open areas of the ice. He covers all three zones quite evenly, frequently moving from one goal line to the other. His adept work to support his team at both ends validates his handful of Selke votes in 2014-15. He is a relentless backchecker, rushing to hamper the opposing carrier whenever the play begins moving into his own zone. He routinely disrupts his opponent’s entry into his team’s zone from behind with good body position and aggressive stick checks. Once the puck is secure, he either returns it to his defence or sends a crisp, accurate pass to a teammate in transition.
His support of the team’s breakout generally involves being stationed at the right wing boards at his defensive zone blue line. From that position, he can relay the puck back to his team’s defencemen or deliver outlet passes to his linemates. He has done this with both the Kings and Canucks, a useful defensive habit that provides options for his defenders and allows his linemates to rush up the ice. His passes are crisp and can reach teammates from significant distances. Elias Pettersson has held the responsibility of neutral zone puck distribution for his line this season, but so far in two games he has meshed with Toffoli, whose role in Los Angeles was similar.
On a line with Elias Pettersson and J.T. Miller, Toffoli has quickly become the trio’s defensive conscience, hurrying into his own zone on multiple instances to provide the same degree of breakout support he offered for the Kings. At times so far, Toffoli and Pettersson have both tried to be the third skater back, leaving J.T. Miller as the only outlet option; this will resolve itself once further chemistry develops. In spite of their mixed signals in their second game together, the trio played a critical role in the 9-3 dismantling of the Boston Bruins that evening. Notably, this line received only 15 minutes of ice time during the match and yet were noticeable as though they had been on the ice for much longer. Their combined skill set is undeniably deadly and further experimentation is necessary to determine this line’s limitations and potential.
If the team requires a more even distribution of skill throughout their forward lineup, an alternative would be to place Toffoli on Bo Horvat’s wing, as this coupling would present opportunities for quick movement through the neutral zone — Horvat’s speed and penchant for dashing through the middle of the ice is a potential match for Toffoli’s cerebral style. Horvat and former Los Angeles King Tanner Pearson have played together all season; Toffoli was sometimes Pearson’s linemate with the Kings. Multiple options are available with regards to Toffoli’s deployment.
Toffoli’s defensive abilities additionally provide the Canucks with another penalty killing option, as he was a regular penalty killer with the Los Angeles Kings. His skill set can be applied to shorthanded situations where defenders encounter exceptional danger whenever the opponent receives too much time and freedom to generate offense.
He is an excellent possession player, harnessing an intelligent, aggressive mode of forechecking to hassle opponents, a sense of reliability in his own end, and a sharp set of puck protection skills to make boardplay a challenge for the opponent.
Toffoli’s preference to trail the play in transition serves the purpose of allowing him to provide defensive support; it also allows him to sneak into prime scoring areas upon entry into the offensive zone. In many regards, he assumes the responsibilities of a centerman in his manner of operation, coordinating the offense from behind while his linemates barge up the ice.
In instances when Toffoli is not the puck distributor in transition, he possesses enough deceptiveness with his puck-handling and shiftiness on his skates to patiently control the puck and execute a successful entry into the offensive zone. He will frequently toe-drag and shift to the inside of defenders whenever they attempt to separate him from the puck. Crafty moves of this sort while transitioning up the ice provide him with additional space. Whenever he successfully moves into a high-percentage scoring area — the slot regions — with this maneuver, he attacks the net directly.
As an offensive player, he operates in two different offensive zone hemispheres: the upper zone and the lower zone. Different traits from his arsenal are activated within each space. If another teammate possesses the puck along the right half-boards upon his entry into the offensive zone, he will swoop into the high slot, lurking behind the opposing defence so that he may be the recipient of a pass.
If he receives the puck in this area, he will rapidly fire it on net. His release is quick, and either a heavy one-timer or a blistering wrist shot will be sent whistling towards the goal. Toffoli is a lethal shooter, and the majority of his goals are scored with his quick release in high-percentage areas. He is a sniper with a knack for finding space in the slot. The Canucks keenly benefited from this weapon twice in their match against the Boston Bruins. Creative passing plays upon the team’s entry into the offensive zone can catch the other team off-guard, and on many occasions he has successfully scored off of a return feed from a teammate after entering the zone himself.
Once Toffoli moves into the lower half of the zone, his role becomes that of a puck possession player; he moves away from the slot and towards the corners. If another forechecker, i.e., J.T. Miller or Bo Horvat, can hustle for the puck and disorient the opposition in the corners as well as behind the net, Toffoli will hone in on the loose puck; during occasions when an opposing player is closer to the puck than he is and appears more likely to gain possession, Toffoli will target that player in anticipation of stripping the puck away and maintaining offensive pressure. His positioning is proactive, and more often than not his predictions are rewarded.
When his defencemen are in possession of the puck at the point, Toffoli will usually sneak towards the front of the net. His hand-eye coordination permits him to redirect pucks with his stick and bat puck out of the air. He also uses this talent to receive and settle inaccurate passes from teammates as well as gather loose pucks. Examples of this are provided in our footage sample.
During his first week with the Canucks, the team has utilized Toffoli as a net-front presence on the powerplay rather than in the slot. An adjustment could be made to the powerplay unit, as a limitation exists with this setup. Bo Horvat spent these powerplay opportunities in the slot, whereas when Josh Leivo was present in the lineup, Horvat was the net-front presence. Leivo was stationed in the slot; likewise, this was Toffoli’s domain on the powerplay with the Los Angeles Kings. His positioning there would better suit his shooting attributes.
Tyler Toffoli is a line driver. His multi-faceted game is a critical component of his line’s overall puck possession, and his coverage at both ends of the ice is highly commendable. He is often the first forward to re-enter his own zone, and his team tends not to lose possession of the puck as easily whenever he is present to interfere with the opponent’s zone exits. High degrees of skill and intelligence function in tandem for Toffoli, making him an important two-way contributor for whichever team he represents.
The Vancouver Canucks will not be the only team to covet Toffoli come July 1st. If he remains a Canuck past this season, supporters should be overjoyed. If this is merely a temporary arrangement, then at least one can argue that the organization acquired legitimate talent to bolster its most promising team in years.
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