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Entering year four of the Burke regime- Are the Maple Leafs “team tough”?

The recent Lucic “hit” on Buffalo netminder Ryan Miller triggered the usual debate about what is “acceptable” or not, and therefore what is “suspendable” or not in today’s NHL.

Personally, I’m somewhat in a state of suspended uncertainty about all this talk of “hits” in the game nowadays.  While I applaud the NHL’s somewhat belated interest in providing a safer environment for its players, I struggle at times to enjoy the sport when virtually every single hit has to be dissected and debated as to whether it is clean or not and whether a player should be suspended.

The league understandably opposes hits from behind.  But we also now don't want players to leave their feet, don't want hits at or below the knees, no "head" shots (even if un-intentional).  Even old-style Bobby Baun and Scott Stevens-type open ice hits are often against the rules.  It doesn't leave much area to hit a guy, eh?

(Quick aside:  I find it mildly ironic that concussion awareness, the issue du-jour in the league, is driving so much consternation about hitting and head shots in the game.  I’m glad about that, but at the same time, the league refuses to act on something which clearly causes similarly serious injuries—the lack of no-touch icing…)

But the above points kind of take me away from what I really wanted to discuss  with you today (though Buffalo's lack of response to the Lucic hit does), which is this: when Brian Burke came on board now three years ago (he is entering his fourth year on the job), he talked about making the team tougher.  We all heard the “truculent” word and it resonated in Leafland because the Leafs had gotten away from the concept of being a hard-to-play-against team just prior to Burke’s arrival.

Burke knew the team needed a heart transplant.  I’ve never bought into the “blue and white disease” claim, but it was evident that some changes were required to get back to being a competitive team like they had been throughout the entire Pat Quinn era (until he lost his GM portfolio).  Burke has proceeded to change-over virtually the entire roster.  Off the top of my head, the guys still in the system or already here from before Burke actually arrived are (I believe) Schenn, Kulemin, Grabovski, Reimer, Frattin and Gunnarsson.  And it makes sense that each of those guys is still here because they each bring something important to the hockey club.

But as Burke enters year four, where are we in terms of the Leafs being truculent, physical, a really tough team to play against?

They are, most nights, a hard-working team under Ron Wilson—and that’s important, yes.

But my question is more direct:  are the Maple Leafs really “team tough”?

In my view, "team tough" means a number of things.  It means they can drop the gloves if they have to, and make the other team a bit fearful if it comes to that.  But as important as that is for many hockey people, and for many Leaf fans (and I understand that) I’m also thinking about something else.  I like a team that has a lot of guys that are physical- tough along the boards, the corners and the front of both nets.  A team with more than one or two guys who finish their checks.  They don’t have to be fighters but if they are good in those areas, they are awfully valuable to a team.

When I think of true team toughness, you do need some individuals to help lead the way.  Some great names come to mind through the years that I have been following this great sport.  Bobby Pulford (pictured at right in the early 1960s) was a hard-nosed center for the Maple Leafs in the ‘50s and ‘60s, and a key part of those 4 Cups.  He scored big goals but killed penalties, blocked shots and skated right through guys.

In the 1970s, two players stand out:  Terry O’Reilly in Boston and Bob Gainey in Montreal.  Neither was a huge goal scorer, but if you were an opposing winger, you knew you were likely in for a long, difficult night.  They would run over you, hit you, knock you done, go through you and take you off your game.  O’Reilly was a fighter, Gainey was not.  But both helped make their teams “tough”, though they certainly could not do it alone.

In Toronto, Darryl Sittler and Lanny McDonald were both fine Leafs because they not only brought some of the above “attitude” and physicality to their nightly work, but offensive polish as well.

In the ‘80s, how could you not admire Bobby Nystrom on the Island.  Such a tough competitor, and he could score some, too, as his Cup-winning goal in the spring of 1980 attests.

But you get my point.  Whether we are talking about Rick Tocchet, Claude Lemieux, or defensemen like Scott Stevens who made you keep your head up or you paid a price, they were individual players who, in most instances were part of a much broader, all-around team-toughness mentality.

You don’t have to be big.  When Bobby Baun played for the Leafs in the 1960s, if someone messed with a teammate, he would be there to intercede.  He was not big but he was fearless.

Similarly, in the early 1970s, gritty Leaf winger Brian Spencer would not let the opposition hammer a teammate without doing something about it.  He was a hockey warrior, stood up for his teammates and made you work for any success you earned against him.

On this Leaf roster, I’m trying to think of guys like that, who make the Leafs tough—and hard to play against.

Phaneuf, yes.  I don’t see Dion as a fighter, but he is a physical presence.  Mike Brown, in limited minutes, can not only fight but plays a physical game that I think makes a difference many nights.

Schenn, when he is on his game and playing confidently, is good at eliminating guys along the boards and stopping guys in their tracks with clean, solid hits.

Komisarek has a tough-guy reputation and I think he has a huge heart, though I’m not certain he really has that nightly presence of a guy that the other team feels they have to be aware of.  Maybe you feel differently.

But beyond that, who fits the model of a player who brings a truly rugged element to his game in Toronto?

Steckel?  I’m not really seeing it.  Lombardi?  No.  The Grabovski line can play hard, yes, but I would not call them “tough”.  Kessel is clearly a finesse player, though Lupul has more push in his game, for sure.  Bozak, Frattin, Dupuis are not super physical players, at least in my eyes.

Colby Armstrong is an agitator, but is he a truly “tough” player? Crabb is a hard-working guy.  Their best player-in-waiting, Kadri, is more physical now but remains primarily a finesse player.

On the back end, Gardiner, Gunnarsson, Franson and Liles, are skill guys, for sure, but do not instill fear in the opposition.

My honest assessment is this:  yes, the Leafs can play a hard-working game most nights, but I do not see them as a team that, as they are currently constituted, is actually “team tough” right now.

I understand that the priority right now is to obtain another “top-six” forward, but my concern will be if we give up a good defenseman like Gunnarsson to obtain that.  And I will be particularly troubled if that incoming forward does not play a playoff-style game, the kind of hard-nosed Brendan Shanahan-type of game that is so essential come springtime.

That’s what I’m seeing—and not seeing—in this year’s team.  What say you?


  1. Hard to believe he didn't get mentioned in this article, but the current Leafs sure could use a guy like Gary Roberts.

  2. Thanks are absolutely correct, for modern-era Leaf fans, Roberts certainly symbolized a a player who helped make the Leafs "tough".

  3. I'm on board with you, Michael. "Team tough" doesn't mean "goon squad", as some interpret it, and it's what we need to be if we're going to make any significant run in April and beyond. I was thinking about this while watching a Bruins' game this week, and it's the reason I think they're a team we have to beat if we want to be bona fide contenders.
    I think we're OK on the D. Phaneuf, Komisarek and, recently, Schenn have all been a strong physical presence behind the blue line. This doesn't mean they're creaming guys - has any position been more affected by the new rules of the past two years than defence? - but means they're not easy to get by or through. I like the skill guy pairings, too.
    It's the forwards where we look weak to me. As you say, Lupul has upped his game, and he's become one of my favorite players this year for his consistent effort. I don't expect Kessel to be physical, and he's been another pleasure to watch this year. Not enough of a sample to know about Connolly, but it looks as if he may be too injury-prone to be that hard-nosed first line center we'd love to see. The Grabovski line has really been floundering this year - their only hope is to out-finesse their checkers, and so far, they haven't. (They out-finesse themselves more often than not!) After that, we look small. I like Armstrong because he makes things happen in the other team's zone, I like Brown for his effort, and I'm one of the few who likes Rosehill - he's another guy who makes the other team hurry themselves up and make mistakes when he's on the ice.
    In sum, I think we're definitely faster, and tougher on D, than we were. But I don't think we're tough enough, or committed enough, yet to really contend with the top teams.
    (As a side note - how is it possible that any player gets to the NHL and doesn't know he has to compete for the full 60 minutes?)

  4. Really well said, Gerund O'. As for your last question: it has to be "human nature". Otherwise, I can't think of a good answer!

  5. I am concerned about the board play at the blueline when leaving the zone. I see far too many pucks not leaving the zone because the wingers are being soft in this area. This is an area of toughness which has to do with grit, more about being hard and resolute in purpose, not violent per se. When the puck does not leave the zone the attacking team can counter quickly – never a good thing when still in your own zone and half your team is going in the wrong direction. I am not sure if others are seeing this as a problem as well? Also, does anyone else have a sense of too much play on the perimeter and not enough going to the hard areas? Are the Leafs going into the hard areas in the offensive zone enough and with resolute purpose-- like the Bruins for example? Of course, this is a form of team toughness too. Mike Brown shows this kind of toughness game in and out. And wasn’t the aforementioned Gary Roberts effective in this area? While fights and big hits can change the momentum of a game, like others seem to say here, I am more interested in toughness in front of the nets and at the bluelines. These tough areas can be “tipping points” in a game. For lack of a better term, let’s say that the Leafs could use a little more “muckulence”.

  6. Excellent comment as usual, Bobby C. That's why I posted on this topic. Just a nagging concern that the Leafs right now, as they are built, lack enough muckers to do the things you mention and therefore advance come playoff time.

  7. @ Bobby Craig: Dead on! I'd add that the problems with board play actually extend to many plays attempting to clear our zone - way too many soft passes, lack of communication between goalie/defence/forwards, etc. And yes - toughness doesn't mean fighting, it means committed play in the tough areas.