Since when did those small, soft Toronto Maple Leafs morph into a poor man’s version of the Anaheim Ducks, circa 2007?
This is not to say the local heroes are Stanley Cup material – far from it – but it does mean they are finally on the right track thanks to a series of player moves that drew little notice at the time but have transformed the Leafs into a team that can both skate and hit with anyone. There were four of them in all and none involved a player whose skill will attract notice, but each move was made with the thought of making the Leafs bigger, tougher and, perhaps most important, harder working.
It is usually not the splashy trade or big free-agent signing that gives an NHL team a much-needed change in personality. More often, it is the kind of moves former Leafs general manager Brian Burke and his successor, David Nonis, made with these four players, starting almost a year ago.
Defenceman Mark Fraser was the first to come, in a trade with the Ducks, Burke’s former and now current employer, for prospect-turned-suspect Dale Mitchell. The 6-foot-4, 220-pound, Fraser was dispatched to the Leafs’ Toronto Marlies farm team where he laboured until the Leafs’ lockout-delayed training camp last month.
Next up was Jay McClement, a big centre who put in seven seasons with the St. Louis Blues and Colorado Avalanche without threatening to make an all-star team. Burke signed him as a free agent while the Toronto media, yours truly included, yawned.
The next move was a retread, as enforcer Colton Orr, who was sent down to the Marlies a year ago by Burke, who generated headlines by loudly bemoaning the move as a sign the fighter was obsolete in the NHL. Well, not quite as it turns out, since Orr is back holding down a spot on the right wing on the fourth line, although he’s out of the lineup with an undisclosed injury. He is the only one who will not play Saturday night in Ottawa against the Senators.
Nonis, who replaced Burke when his bosses decided the rough edges he likes in his hockey players and himself were not made for their boardroom, made the last move. He picked up 6-foot-5, 230-pound, winger Frazer McLaren on waivers from the San Jose Sharks a couple of weeks after Burke was fired.
Then Leafs head coach Randy Carlyle went to work, telling his players they had better start playing the physical brand of hockey he demands – making opposing defencemen nervous on the forecheck, crashing the net and generally knocking bodies around all over the ice. Those who do it the coach’s way are rewarded, which is why all four of the above players earned regular jobs.
With Orr, McLaren and Fraser in the lineup, the Leafs now lead the NHL in fighting majors with 21 and they were the most-penalized team per game with an average of 18.1 minutes in penalties per game before Friday’s schedule. But the room these bruisers create is worth it in Carlyle’s view, although it helps that the Leafs improved as penalty killers from simply awful last season to a middling 15th in the league with an 82.3-per-cent success rate as of Friday.
Individually, none of these players can make a difference on a team but collectively their industry and fearlessness rubs off on their teammates. James van Riemsdyk, for example, is shedding his reputation as a big skilled but soft winger by regularly crashing nets and now has 11 goals in 18 games.
McClement is not someone who is known for his willingness to fight, but his addition may be the most important. He brought a dedication to hard labour that was not always evident on the Leafs over the years.
“We knew he would come in and he was going to work,” Carlyle said. “He separates himself with his work ethic alone. It’s very noticeable on the ice when he’s the first guy on the forecheck; he’s the guy putting pressure on the puck. That’s an asset, a skill that just isn’t taught.
“That’s one of the things we’re asking people to do. When you watch people like that go out and have that dogged work ethic, and he does it on a day-to-day basis, then why can’t you?”
And somewhere in an NHL press box, where he is marking time scouting for the Ducks until his next GM’s job, Burke is smiling grimly and saying, “Tenacity, truculence and testosterone.”