Leafs choose brains, dispatch brawn

Frazer McLaren during his time with the Toronto Maple Leafs. (Chris Young/CP)

As with all things that happen around the Toronto Maple Leafs, this will be exaggerated and distorted.

Some will say it shows the influence of Brendan Shanahan, or even Kyle Dubas, who is quickly being elevated to the status of the most influential assistant GM in the hockey world before his 30th birthday and before he’s spent a single season in pro hockey. Those who believe in analytics above all else are riding high right now, and Dubas, by all accounts a promising hockey man, is their champion.

But the decision to put enforcers Colton Orr and Frazer McLaren on waivers today shouldn’t be minimized, either. Put bluntly, it never would have happened two years ago when Brian Burke was in charge, and it didn’t happen last year when Dave Nonis was running the show.

The thinking has clearly changed around the Air Canada Centre, and those who have always (mistakenly) thought of Nonis as nothing more than a Burke clone will naturally attribute this change to the new people in the organization.

Fair enough. It doesn’t necessarily matter. What matters is that the belief that muscle and intimidation are critical elements in building a successful hockey club–whether it’s to protect your own stars or keep the other side “honest,”–clearly is no longer a guiding principle with this team.

It should be noted that this has as much to do with McLaren and Orr and their weaknesses as hockey players as it does with a new approach by Leafs management. If either player could take a regular shift and score between five and 10 goals a season, they’d likely still be on the roster.

In other words, the Leafs might still like to use an enforcer, but one capable of doing other things as well. If they could lay their hands on Wayne Simmonds, they would. And remember: David Clarkson was tied for the team lead in fights last season with nine majors, and he’s still on the roster.

Toronto led the NHL in fights the past two years, and has only three playoff wins and two ugly collapses–one in Game 7 of the 2013 playoffs, one in the final month of the 2013-14 season–to show for it. Leafs head coach Randy Carlyle clearly wanted at least one enforcer on his roster at all times, and unless he’s changed his views on the use of muscle in the game, today’s moves suggest that just like the appointment of two new assistant coaches this summer, his views have been overruled.

Without Orr and McLaren–and if unclaimed on waivers, one or both could reappear later this season–the Leafs still have players willing to engage if necessary. But just among Orr, McLaren, Mark Fraser and Mike Brown two seasons ago there were 39 fights in a shortened 48-game season, so obviously there’s a new course being charted here.

Keeping tiny Brandon Kozun and moving Orr and McLaren sends a pretty powerful message as to the type of hockey club the Leafs want to develop. Even keeping former first-round pick Stuart Percy on the back end, a finesse rearguard with an excellent first pass but a decidedly non-physical approach, tells you something about the way this regime is now thinking.

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Tough guys, from Tiger Williams to Ken Baumgartner to Tie Domi, have always been remarkably popular in Toronto hockey circles, and all three played on teams that made it to the NHL’s Final Four.

But this is 2014. The Kings and Rangers made it to last spring’s Stanley Cup final without either team employing a recognized heavyweight, and both were in the bottom third of the league for most fights. There’s little hard evidence to suggest carrying a designated “policeman” makes a positive difference anymore, and even less to support the long-held belief that fights change the course of individual games.

Burke brought the “truculence” philosophy to Toronto when he arrived in late November 2008, and now that he’s in Calgary, the Flames spent on muscle this summer. So there are still plenty of people in the game who believe it matters, and matters a lot.

I’ve long contended fighting should be banned, or at least fighters should be removed from the game after they fight. There’s no suggestion the NHL is heading in that direction.

But there sure is reason to believe the role of the pure enforcer is dying. The Leafs, at least, are no longer a team that thinks it can win with fists.

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