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Maple Leafs’ UFA splash addresses two biggest needs

“It’s not like I’m coming here to fight the whole world, but at the same time I’m not afraid to fight the whole world.” —Wayne Simmonds

TORONTO – Way back during the Montreal-Boston 2016 Winter Classic, a wonderful little mid-game exchange was captured by two then-Habs as they sat on the bench waiting for their next shift and sizing up Boston’s Matt Beleskey.

Max Pacioretty: “Is he tough?”

P.K. Subban: “Yeah, he’s tough. He’s not, like, Wayne Simmonds tough, but he’s tough.”

Pacioretty: “Oh, so I could get him on my card?”

Subban: “No. You cannot fight Wayne Simmonds.”

Ask one of the 61 combatants that have dropped the gloves and flinched at his knuckles during his 909 games.

Ask one of the doctors or physiotherapists or trainers that has been helping to patch Scarborough’s proud son back together again.

Ask one of his former Philadelphia Flyers teammates who watched Simmonds play through all but seven games of 2017-18 with a torn pelvis that led to a pulled groin; a fractured ankle; a torn thumb ligament; a busted jaw; and a chip on his shoulder.

There is ordinary hockey tough. And then there is Wayne Simmonds tough.

“It’s not like I’m coming here to fight the whole world, but at the same time I’m not afraid to fight the whole world,” Simmonds said on the day he signed with his hometown Toronto Maple Leafs.

At a hard 32 years of age — three teams removed from his last playoff point and four seasons removed from his last 30-goal campaign — Simmonds understands why he’s here.

Back where he started and on top of the world, Simmonds is taking a one-year, $1.5-million contract (or a $3.5-million paycut) to fill a role in the bottom six in the Six.

Rumour has it, Simmonds will wear No. 42 because 4 + 2 = 6. (Also, his usual No. 17 is retired because some sandpapery winger named Wendel Clark wore it so well.)

Simmonds coined a term for his approach to the sport — “functional toughness” — which falls in line with one of the Leafs’ greatest needs.

“I can play the game, but at the same time I can punch your head off if need be,” Simmonds said.

“I start with protecting my teammates, first and foremost. If I don’t like what I see, I’m going to intervene.”

The Maple Leafs have been easy to play against.

Simmonds? One of just three active NHLers with 250-plus goals and 1,000-plus penalty minutes? Not so much.

The versatile winger accepts he’ll start in the bottom six, yet he’s confident in his renewed health and established abilities that he can play up the lineup or add a fresh wrinkle to the power play when needed.

Simmonds’ signing happened early in the day because Buffalo permitted the player to speak to suitors in advance of free agency’s opening.

Since he put pen to paper on a contract that made all his friends and family ecstatic, Simmonds’ phone hasn’t stopped buzzing. Thirteen or 14 of those pings were from his new teammates, eager to be dragged into the fight.

Simmonds believes his swagger can help make them all walk a little taller.

Names like Mitch Marner, Zach Hyman, Frederik Andersen, Jason Spezza, and William Nylander illuminated on his screen.

“It’s been literally nonstop since 12 p.m. I’ve been running out of battery here,” Simmonds cracked. “That just shows me the excitement they have that I’m coming to the organization — and that’s mutual. I feel all the love right now. It’s awesome.”

Simmonds revealed that he and wife Crystal agreed that if he ever got an opportunity to don the blue and white, he would pounce.

“It presented itself this year, and we jumped all over it,” said Simmonds, who turned down a heftier offer from the rival Montreal Canadiens in the process.

“They did offer me more money. But sometimes it’s not always about money. It’s about fit. It’s about your family.”

It’s also about timing.

Chatham, Ont., native T.J. Brodie nearly became a Maple Leaf during the 2019 off-season, when Dubas and Flames GM Brad Treliving took a stab at a Nazem Kadri trade, ultimately nixed by Kadri.

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Yet a seed was planted, and, hey, it’s always nice to go where you’re wanted.

So, with Dubas chuckling that his Alex Pietrangelo bid was “not very close” and that his main focus in solving his right-side defensive hole was always Brodie, it came as relief — if not surprise — that Toronto inked the responsible 30-year-old defenceman to a four-year pact worth $20 million.

Same cap hit as projected partner Morgan Rielly ($5 million). Same term and limited trade protection as Jake Muzzin.

Brodie — a left shot more comfortable playing his off-side since junior — brings fine underlying numbers and is content to play the safe foil to Rielly, if that how coach Sheldon Keefe deploys him.

“He’s a great player. He’s similar to [Mark Giordano]. He’s one of those guys who’s good at everything. He’s physical, he’s good defensively, offensively, and I just hope if I play with him that I make him better,” Brodie said.

Dubas has overseen the Maple Leafs free agency opening for three years now, and in each one he’s made noise. John Tavares. Tyson Barrie. Now Simmonds and Brodie.

You can accuse the GM of missing the mark with some of his decisions, but you can’t accuse him of sitting idle and not trying to address the Leafs’ weaknesses.

And even though these additions — plus the impending signings of RFAs Ilya Mikheyev and Travis Dermott — will elevate the Maple Leafs right to the cap ceiling, Dubas assured Friday night they have the ability to “dance” around it.

Not only can club cap guru Brandon Pridham make it all work, Dubas figures, but Toronto may have one more bargain signing in the tank.

“If we could add somebody that maybe possesses a little bit more power and presence on the back end here in the coming days, we’d still like to do that,” Dubas said.

A long day, and a successful one.

The Maple Leafs addressed two glaring needs: the right side of the blue line and some Wayne Simmonds toughness in a town that was screaming for it.

“You’re playing prime time every single night,” said Simmonds, sounding inspired and at home.

“I’m from Toronto. There’s nothing that’s ever going to surprise me about this city. I know it inside and out.

“I’d say there’s going to be a few more scrums.”

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Written by Sportsnet

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