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Can the Maple Leafs afford to carry an enforcer this season?

Ken Campbell
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David Clarkson (Photo by Bill Wippert/NHLI via Getty Images) Author: The Hockey News

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Can the Maple Leafs afford to carry an enforcer this season?

Ken Campbell
By:

David Clarkson tied for the team lead on the Toronto Maple Leafs with nine fights last season. With fighting having less of an impact on the game than ever before, can the Maple Leafs afford to waste one of their spots on an enforcer?

In the two full seasons Randy Carlyle has been the head coach of the Toronto Maple Leafs, his team has led the league in fights both seasons and led in penalty minutes once. Whether or not the Leafs are at the top of either of those departments will come down to some interesting decisions they’ll have to make over the next two weeks.

In an effort to bolster their bottom six forwards, the Maple Leafs have 17 forwards on one-way contracts coming into this season. Colton Orr and Frazer McLaren, when measured simply on their hockey skills, are their two worst. But they’re also the most truculent, combining for 15 of the team’s league-leading 48 fights last season. With the logjam up front, it doesn’t seem likely they’ll be able to keep both of them in 2014-15.

But will they even keep one? Talk to coach Randy Carlyle and you get the impression he still sees value in a player who can do nothing but punch people.

“We don’t want to fear going into any building because players can’t play with fear,” Carlyle said. “They don’t reach their potential with fear. But if your team is prepared, usually your reputation arrives before you do coming to the rink. So there’s various degrees of toughness and we’re going to do an assessment of what we feel is best for our hockey club that’s going to give us the best chance to compete in every building we go into.”

But these are also the new Maple Leafs, a team that has embraced analytics and one on which new president Brendan Shanahan is putting his stamp. Since Shanahan took over, the Leafs fired their assistant coaches and replaced them, with the head coach having no say in the matter. Same with several of the GM’s lieutenants.

So surely some of those new people with such a strong background in fancy stats will be whispering in Shanahan’s ear that they don’t need a one-dimensional enforcer anymore. To wit: the Leafs led the league with 48 fighting majors last season. That was the lowest total by any team leading the league since 1972-73, according to www.hockeyfights.com. And it’s not as though the Leafs don’t have players who can actually play and fight as well. David Clarkson - yes, he can play – shared the team lead with Orr with nine fights last season. And Troy Bodie, one of those guys in the logjam for the bottom six, fought four times. So far in this pre-season, he has fought twice.

“There’s no doubt you see the numbers with all the one-way contracts,” said Bodie, who fought Derek Grant in the Maple Leafs 4-3 shootout loss to the Ottawa Senators Wednesday night. “I’ve never been in a situation before where there are this many one ways and you know some guys are going to be gone. It’s tough because I know I’m in that situation where it might happen.”

And that doesn’t even include rookie William Nylander, who has impressed with his skill level and may earn an opening-night spot with the Maple Leafs. If you pencil Nylander into the lineup, that potentially leaves four players – Bodie, Matt Frattin and Peter Holland and Trevor Smith - on one-way contracts on the outside looking in. And that’s without Orr or McLaren in the lineup. If they keep one of their enforcers on the payroll, they risk losing another player on waivers.

It also doesn’t help one bit that the Leafs are right up against the cap and may have to start the season with fewer than 23 players on their opening night roster. If you’re looking at hockey ability alone, Orr and McLaren are behind all 14 of the other forwards, as well as prospects on two-way deals such as Carter Ashton, Brandon Kozun and Josh Leivo.

To be fair, Orr and McLaren weren’t complete anchors in the lineup last season from a win-loss perspective. In games in which one of them played, the Maple Leafs compiled a 26-24-6 record. In the 13 games in which both played, the Leafs were 6-7-0 and in the 13 in which neither played, they were 5-6-2. So the Leafs were actually at their worst, both in terms of record and goals for and against, when both Orr and McLaren were out of the lineup last season. Full disclosure on that one.

But as the game changes and the Leafs change their complexion, is there room for a one-dimensional player? It will be interesting to see which way they go on this one and it might dictate who is really pulling the levers of power in this organization.

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Can the Maple Leafs afford to carry an enforcer this season?