Skip to main content

Toronto Maple Leafs Colton Orr (R) hits Winnipeg Jets Dustin Byfuglien (L) during the first period of their NHL hockey game in Toronto March 16, 2013. REUTERS/Aaron Harris (CANADA - Tags: SPORT ICE HOCKEY)AARON HARRIS/Reuters

Colton Orr was long gone by the time reporters entered the Toronto Maple Leafs locker room.

In his place was a player who's listed as seven inches shorter and 55 pounds lighter, one who led the Western Hockey League in scoring four years ago with 107 points – but then never had a sniff of making an NHL roster.

That changed for Brandon Kozun on Monday.

And it came at the expense of what appears to be a dying breed: the NHL enforcer.

"With the new rules, there's a lot of change in the game," was how Kozun put it, rattling off the names of Brian Gionta and Mike Cammalleri as examples of small men who've excelled in a sport that hasn't always been easy on those under six feet tall. "More and more [smaller] guys enter the league every year … It's exciting that guys like me can get a chance now."

It's exciting for fans in Toronto, too. No team was hindered more by its lack of forward depth last year than the Leafs: Despite having one of the highest-scoring top lines in the game, the Leafs were merely average offensively at even strength.

The reason? Their forwards beyond the top six produced fewer goals than any other team's, weighed down by a lack of suitable injury replacements and an insistence on carrying two fighters at the expense of more skilled players.

That mistake won't be repeated this season, at least not to start.

On Monday, Orr and fellow fighter Frazer McLaren were placed on waivers with the intent to demote them to the Toronto Marlies prior to Tuesday's 5 p.m. ET roster deadline.

Kozun, meanwhile, surprised in camp and is auditioning for a spot on the second line after four frustrating years in the minors, primarily with the defending champion Los Angeles Kings.

This shift from fighters to finesse is new for the Leafs but not the league. The reality is that the NHL is actually more populated by smaller players now than it was 10 years ago, with the new rules and a focus on puck possession driving the change.

There are twice as many defencemen in the league under six feet tall than a decade ago. And smaller forwards such as Kozun are sticking on rosters more and more.

While fourth-line minutes have been an afterthought in the past, the league's new rules and a trend toward more data-driven decision making has made them a focal point. Top teams in particular now tend to play their depth players more than at any other point in recent NHL history.

First-line players may log an average of 15 minutes at even strength out of the 50 that are available every night, but the fourth line isn't all that far behind any more, with many in the 10-minute range.

And those minutes matter as much as the first liners'.

"I mean, you see the teams that win it, they get contributions from all four lines," winger Dan Winnik said. "You rarely see a team make it [deep] with just three lines. L.A. plays four lines. Their fourth line plays nine to 12 minutes a game. It just takes weight off your top guys."

The opposite happened in Toronto the past two years. Orr played 566 minutes of hockey in which the Leafs had a possession rating of less than 39 per cent. In the 168 minutes he was on the ice with McLaren, that fell to less than 35, meaning the opposition had nearly two shot attempts for every one by the Leafs.

Few duos were worse league-wide.

Their limited minutes may seem like small potatoes – Orr appeared in a little less than 10 per cent of Toronto's even-strength minutes the past two seasons – but they hurt in other ways, too.

The Leafs couldn't move the enforcers up the lineup when injuries hit. They generally kept two roster spots out of 23 open for them as well, meaning players had to be waived or traded around them.

And they often nullified the offence of players they played with.

Toronto obviously had other pressing problems, but moving past the outmoded idea that they needed an unskilled puncher will help. If you remove Orr's minutes in close situations from their results, the Leafs' possession ticks up a half a percentage point, and every little bit helps in their bid to get closer to the 50 mark than last season.

Kozun, who had 215 points his last two years of junior and had a stellar preseason, could be a piece that helps to that end.

At the very least, he deserves a chance, and the NHL's evolution into a league more focused on who has the puck (as opposed to the punch) will give him that.

"When you start to get to maybe peewee, around that age, people start talking about size and it becomes an uphill battle," Kozun explained of his road to here. "There's been a lot of people that have told me that I can't do something.

"The game's exciting," he added of the league's shift. "I think that's probably good for the game."