If you listen to the drooling praise of Canada’s national broadcaster, you’d be convinced the Toronto Maple Leafs are a better team this season because they finally became the team Brian Burke envisioned. They’re full of testosterone, truculence and belligerence and nobody pushes them around anymore. And as Mikhail Grabovski proved Saturday night against the Montreal Canadiens, they bite back…or first.
After all, the Leafs are tied for the league lead in fights this season with 14 and, going into Monday night’s home game against the Philadelphia Flyers, sit fifth in the Eastern Conference with a 7-5-0 record. After the way the Maple Leafs have played the past seven years, that is indeed cause for celebration.
The common theory seems to be that since the Leafs are so much tougher this season, their skill players have more room to roam and that has improved their fortunes. And all this would have some credence if the team they’re tied with in fights were not the moribund Columbus Blue Jackets. The Chicago Blackhawks and New Jersey Devils, the top two teams in the league, have half as many fights as Toronto and Columbus. That’s one more than the St. Louis Blues and San Jose Sharks and two more than the Pittsburgh Penguins and Detroit Red Wings.
To suggest the Maple Leafs are improved this year – and it’s still early people, even in a lockout shortened season – because of players such as Colton Orr, Frazer McLaren and Mark Fraser is ridiculous. Yes, the Maple Leafs are first in the league in fights and hits with 328, but to measure a team’s worth by those sorts of barometers is picking your spots big-time.
It’s not as though the Leafs were always a bunch of patsies. They had 57 fights in 2009-10 and 50 in ‘10-11 to finish a respectable (?) 10th in that category. But they finished 22nd in the league in 2010-11. In fact, the Leafs have had 50 or more fights in three seasons since the 2004-05 lockout and in those seasons they finished 24th, 29th and 22nd overall. And last season they had just 35 fights and finished 26th overall.
So what does that tell us? It tells us that fighting has almost no bearing on whether or not a team wins – the Broad Street Bullies of the early 1970s are the lone exception. There are good teams that fight a lot and are really tough and there are bad teams that fight a lot and are really tough. Take the Anaheim Ducks, for example. They led the league in fighting majors with 71 in 2006-07 and won the Stanley Cup. They also led the league in fighting majors with 78 in 2009-10 and didn’t make the playoffs. In 2005-06, the St. Louis Blues tied for first overall in fighting majors, but finished dead last in the league and last season, the New York Rangers led the league in fighting majors with 65 and finished second overall.
This is not to diminish the importance of team toughness. I’m sure part of the reason the Maple Leafs seem to be better is that they’re hitting a lot and are more willing to stand up for one another. It undoubtedly makes them more difficult to play against, at least on the road, where they have a 6-1-0 record. (It of course does not explain their 1-4-0 mark at home going into Monday night’s game.) But to single out players such as Orr, who barely play five minutes a game, is absurd.
The most prominent reason why the Maple Leafs are better is that for the first time since the Ed Belfour era, they are getting goaltending upon which they can depend. James Reimer has been consistently very good this year and a difference maker. Ask anyone associated with the NHL what is the most make-or-break element of the game and he’ll tell you it’s how many pucks his goaltender stops, not how many heads his goons bash in.
The Leafs are also getting secondary scoring behind Phil Kessel and Joffrey Lupul. If you watch Kessel play, even though he’s not scoring as many goals, he is making a lot of things happen offensively. And why is that? Because he’s much less prone these days to scream down the wing and take a shot from the periphery. If you want an example of how toughness is helping the Maple Leafs, look at Kessel, not Orr, McLaren and Fraser. Kessel is far more likely to go to dirty areas at both ends of the ice and places where he’s going to get abused than he has in the past. That’s why he’s leading the Leafs in points despite having only two goals. That’s the kind of toughness that wins in the NHL.
In addition, some of their young talent such as Matt Frattin, Nazem Kadri and Tyler Bozak are beginning to make great leaps forward as players. The problem with the Leafs in the past is that they had so little depth that even if a veteran was struggling or playing indifferently, there was nobody there to take his spot in the lineup. Now there is.
Undoubtedly, toughness is a part of this surge. A big part. But toughness and fighting are two different things. And fighting has nothing to do with this, or any other team, being good.
Ken Campbell is the senior writer for The Hockey News and a regular contributor to THN.com with his column. To read more from Ken and THN's other stable of experts, subscribe to The Hockey News magazine. Follow Ken on Twitter at @THNKenCampbell.