I read an article in the Toronto Star the other day, in which Damien Cox suggests that the Maple Leafs weren’t as soft of a club as many believe last season, due mostly to the fact that the Leafs were tied for 13th in the NHL regarding fighting misconducts, and were 15th overall when it came to penalty minutes. The point was to demonstrate that the club was average in terms of team toughness, not the soft club many of us and Brian Burke believe.
This is where I disagree. The majority of those fights came after Burke got on board, and players felt the need to impress the new GM with some physical presence. In the 62 games the Leafs played under Burke’s watch last season, they averaged .7 fights per game. In the prior 20, they averaged under .5 fights per game. That’s one of the issues not presented. Mainly though, the team was soft, despite the more obvious stats that suggest otherwise. Far too often we saw little to no reaction when other teams players took a run at our smaller and more skilled players, or any real punishing hits and intimidating play in the defensive end. Another problem was who was actually doing the fighting and enforcing. You had Mayers and Hollweg, and while both did drop the gloves, neither is a real heavyweight nor a player who will strike fear into opposing players. Then you had Schenn fighting from time to time, and believe me folks, you don’t want your 18-year-old star rookie fighting too often and risking an injury so early in his career. While it’s admirable to see Schenn drop the gloves, and he is a tough guy, coaching and management would rather not see him in as many punch ups at such a young age.
There is a significant difference when your tough core of characters transform from Schenn, Mayers, Hollweg, Finger, May and Frogren to Orr, Primeau, Mayers, Komisarek, Beauchemin, Exelby and Schenn. There is also a case to be made for Jamie Devane who, as Cox points out, was possibly the best fighter in the OHL last year with 18 fights and stands at 6″5 tall, and may not be as far off as previously believed. Apparently he has already made quite an impression on the Leafs staff with his excellent fitness levels. The difference between acting tough and playing tough will be obvious when watching the team this season. Sure the team had some tough guys last year, but the tough guys this year are bigger, stronger, more skilled, much better leaders and therefore in ownership of more prominent roles. The tough guys employed by the team last year, and there were still quite few of them, were insignificant players for the most part who saw very few minutes of ice time. How the team becomes tougher is when your physical players are on the ice for approximately 20 minutes a game, and a good majority of them are playing in the defensive zone where they are needed the most.
It’s already been noted that many of the players have come into camp in top shape, bigger and leaner than last year, and Kulemin was just one of the many examples. I was quite impressed to see how much weight and muscle he has put on in just one year. He appears more ready and more mature to take the next step this season. If he is going to, he not only has to step up his game and try to reach the 20+ goal mark, but the players who will be counted upon to enforce and protect players like Kulemin will have to do their job.