The Leafs are now 11 games away from a potential post season berth, and with Sports Club Stats putting them at 98% odds to make it (as of Friday morning), there is a good chance that one of the organizations most embarrassing streaks is about to be retired.
There is one thing that is even more rare in the playoffs than the Leafs and that’s the hired goon. Shocking I know since they are such important parts of the regular season (feel free to assume I rolled my eyes here), but last season’s Stanley Cup Finalists didn’t find it necessary to dress either Cam Janssen or Kevin Westgarth in a single playoff game. Of course, we are a couple of years removed from the Bruins dressing Shawn Thornton for 18 playoff games, but at the time Thornton was good enough to hold a regular shift in the league (10 minutes a night is somewhat regular, and was dressed for 79 games in the regular season) and he did see the press box and reduced ice time during the cup run.
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(data from Hockeyfights.com)
Of course, the best example of what to expect when it comes to enforcer utilization is probably what Carlyle did during his Cup run. He has proven that he is stubborn and somewhat unwilling to adapt so the 2007 Cup approach is still probably the best example. The 2006-7 Ducks had three enforcers on their roster for the playoffs, Shawn Thornton, George Parros, and Brad May, who like Thornton, wasn’t so far gone that you’d be upset about him playing on your fourth line.
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It should be noted that May played every game of the final round; Thornton was dressed for the majority of the round as well. George Parros on the other hand, did not see any action after the first two rounds of the playoffs. While it’s easy to point to the fact that the Ducks won the cup with this approach and Carlyle knew what he was doing, the fact that the Ducks only had four fighting majors throughout the playoffs points to this being somewhat wasteful, especially when of these three players Shawn Thornton was the only one who actually had a fighting major in the playoffs.
Since most of my anti-goon tirades yield the same result and people stop reading well in advance of this point, I’ll make my argument here. I am not advocating for a softer Leafs team going into the playoffs. On the contrary, I want the team to add some practical toughness.
Leo Komarov’s return to the lineup after his injury is an excellent start. Here’s someone who can play a regular shift, agitate, and be physical in a manner that will benefit the Leafs in the playoffs. Bringing in Ryan O’Byrne, while at a great cost to speed, should be helpful in clearing the front of the net at a time in the year when officials seldom call interference penalties. The same can be said for Ryan Hamilton, who while not fleet of foot, at least has enough of a defensive game that you don’t worry about him being on the ice when the puck is in your own end. If you’re worried about his hitting frequency, don’t. Hamilton has been averaging 2.3 hits per game, Orr averages 1.7 and McLaren 1.4 hits.
The other player that could potentially be pulled into the lineup is Joe Colborne. While Colborne doesn’t necessarily add much for toughness, he does add size and the idea of having another forward who is difficult to knock off the puck seems to make more sense than carrying forwards who make you shudder every time the puck is near them. After Thursday night’s game against the Flyers, it was painful to watch the last ten minutes of the third period where Carlyle could barely roll three lines with Lupul’s absence because it meant that one of Orr, Hamilton, and McLaren would be getting ice time during a crucial attack phase in the game. It was bad enough that McClement was forced into that role. With Colborne sitting on the fourth line getting seven or eight minutes a night, at least you know there’s some insurance. And if you’re not a Colborne fan, replace everything I just said with Carter Ashton. While he might not be as offensively gifted as Colborne, he’s still an upgrade.
Of course, with Carlyle it’s too much to hope for to get a completely goon free fourth line, and we’ll ignore the fact that Mark Fraser is more than capable of handling the punching workload, and I’ll make a simple plea that the Leafs evolve towards a McLaren or Orr line up instead of a McLaren and Orr one. And I beg that this happens soon. Players like Colborne have the potential to be key cogs in a playoff team, but they won’t do much good if they don’t get time with the team. With the extent of Lupul’s injury still unknown (he did not practice Friday) getting depth offense into the lineup needs to be a priority. Six of their next seven games are against teams that are in the bottom seven teams in the league for fighting majors. Let Orr and McLaren rotate into the lineup while the team tries to close out the season.
Fighting has not been an asset for the Leafs this season, anyway. The Leafs have 10 wins, 10 losses when the Leafs fight, but they are 10-7 when they don’t. The Leafs score 24.32% within the five minutes of a fighting major, but when you look at their total goals over the season their average for any five minute interval is 25.90%. Fights have not discouraged headshots on Lupul, running Reimer, or any of the other cheap shots the team has received this year. And while I still count myself among the masses that enjoy face punching, I think it’s not something that benefits the Leafs much in the postseason. The intimidation factor comes from being up two games over an opponent or playing in an elimination game, not watching Colton Orr glide around the ice for four minutes a night looking disappointed that he can’t find a dance partner. Everyone expects the amount of physical hockey to increase from here on out and no amount of enforcer policing is going to slow it down. It’s better to stock the lineup with physical players with the potential to contribute in other ways as well.