‘He will do anything to win’: Why new Maple Leaf Joel Edmundson is built for playoffs

By Luke Fox, Sportsnet

Joel Edmundson’s first game with the Toronto Maple Leafs coincidentally aligned with his new team’s first victory inside Bell Centre since Game 4 of Toronto’s first-round playoff series against his old team, the Montreal Canadiens.

Now coaching the 6-foot-5, 221-pound lumberman, Sheldon Keefe flashed back to the spring of 2021, when Edmundson was quite literally a thorn in the Leafs’ sides. And their backs and shoulders and …

“You just remember that he made it miserable to get to the net. You remember watching the video back, thinking there could be five or six minor penalties called on each shift,” Keefe told reporters Monday, following Edmundson’s first practice in Blue and White. “But that’s playoff hockey.

“He’s ultra-competitive in the most dangerous area, and that’s around the net.”

Auston Matthews — he of the 70-goal pace — was limited to a single goal in 2021’s seven-game upset, in part because committed defenders like Steady Eddie turned Carey Price’s slot into a no-fly zone.

“Heavy lumber there in front of the net. Makes it hard on you. If you’re gonna go there, you’re gonna pay a price,” Matthews said. “He’s going to bring it every night.”

Even though the shot share wasn’t exactly kind to Edmundson (and puck-moving partner Timothy Liljegren) in Saturday’s post-trade-deadline debut, the big man was out there, net-front, killing a critical last-minute penalty to help secure a 3-2 win.

A couple practices and video sessions to learn Keefe’s aggressive system and acclimatize to teammates this week should help Edmundson, who has an 18-game runway before the results matter for real.

The Stanley Cup playoffs: Where the 30-year-old has already accumulated 75 games, been on the happy side of 11(!) handshake lines, reached the final twice, and kissed sport’s most gorgeous trophy once.

For fierce competitors and sticky glue guys like Edmundson, it’s the most fun time of year — and precisely why he was acquired from resetting Washington, left curve be damned. The hockey gets nastier, and the referees get more selective with their whistles.

“So, I think that helps my game a lot. I play my best hockey in the playoffs,” said Edmundson, who was champing at the bit to mix it up during Thursday’s heated preview in Boston.

“You can use your stick a bit more, be more physical.”

We spoke with a half-dozen of Edmundson’s former teammates, and the same attributes kept popping up: team-first guy, deep experience, strong character, tough, calm under pressure, and, yes, a zest for boxing out crease-lurking forwards greedy for tips and rebounds.

“I played with guys who, when we played against Eddie, were like: ‘Oh, here we go with the cross-checks,'” says Ryan Reaves, with a smile.

“They’re just not able to get to the front of the net. I think he brings a bit of bite there and to the back end for sure. But he’s very hard to play against in the D-zone. That’s why we picked him up.”

Canadiens’ rave about new Leaf Edmundson

The hope in renting Edmundson isn’t only that he’ll protect one-goal leads and improve a subpar penalty kill. It’s also that he can be a positive and contagious influence in Toronto’s club culture.

“Eddie is a big presence on the ice, obviously. But also in the dressing room. Brings people together,” says his former coach Martin St. Louis.

“He’s tough to play against, especially in the corners, but can also keep the eye. He can make a good first pass; he can keep the offence going. He’s got more offence than people give him credit for, just because probably his biggest asset is his size and his aggressiveness. But he’s a pretty smart player.”

Smart enough that he’s been watching the Leafs for years now and already arrived with his own ideas of how he could complement a partner like Liljegren.

“He’s more offensive than I am, so if he wants to jump up in the play, I’ll stay back no problem and take care of the defence,” Edmundson says. “He’s got free will whenever I’m out there.”

Such selflessness aligns with the anecdotes.

Last season in Montreal, the Canadiens would joke that Edmundson (the Habs’ former dressing room DJ) and David Savard (a Leafs trade target missed) were out there throwing block parties every night.

“You obviously think of like a block party, all your neighbours getting together. But for them it was blocking shots, because they just would eat every shot known to man,” Canadiens defenceman Mike Matheson says.

“Some guys are very good at being able to read [the shooter] and position themselves in a way that makes it a lot more effective. And then the other half is definitely just guts and will. And obviously, he has a lot of that because he’s really good at it.”

‘He will do anything to win games’

Over his nine years, Edmundson has been on the receiving end of more pucks on net (822) than he has delivered them on net himself (714).

A hard way to carve an NHL living, but an easy way to earn respect.

“[He] did a great job of not getting caught up in the highs and the lows of exterior pressure and all that. Those are kinda those glue guys that you look to in those situations where things can get very tough, especially toward the end of the season, when you’re heading into the postseason,” Matheson says. “He was just a tremendous teammate for everybody. He brought everybody in, everybody closer.”

Adds Savard: “He will do anything to win games, and I think he was a big part of their Cup run. … One of those guys that brings everybody together and makes sure it’s always fun to be at the rink.”

Reaves, ironically, was one of the personalities Edmundson looked up to and emulated as a rookie in St. Louis, where he would eventually help end the franchise’s 52-year championship drought. Kevin Shattenkirk and Alexander Steen, too.

Reaves isn’t surprised to hear chatter around the league that Edmundson has now matured into a leader himself.

Current Montreal captain Nick Suzuki, for example, spent plenty of time learning from Edmundson, his former alternate captain.

“That’s a big piece for Toronto to add. He’s a really good room guy, takes care of his teammates, and plays very well. He really gets along with everyone. His camaraderie brings a team together. I think it would be a big help for that dressing room. He’s a big personality, likes to have fun, and he’s not afraid to stick up for his teammates,” Suzuki raves.

“When you get to the playoffs, you can probably go a little bit harder, get away with a little bit more. So, he plays with that fine line of heaviness and getting under guys’ skin.”

Whether he’s making life miserable for the opposition or injecting a dash of sunshine into the Maple Leafs’ room, the safe bet is the big man making an impact.

“Just honoured to be here,” Edmundson says. “And hopefully we can go the distance.”

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