NHL Trends: Brian Burke and the Decline of the Enforcer

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NHL Trends: Brian Burke and the Decline of the Enforcer
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"Pugnacity, testosterone, truculence and belligerence."

That is what Brian Burke promised to bring to the Toronto Maple Leafs when he took over as the team's general manager in November of 2008. He has certainly delivered, bringing in hard-hitting defenceman Dion Phaneuf, along with gritty forwards Colby Armstrong and Mike Brown.

But perhaps it was Burke's first free agent signing that most embodied these qualities. On the first day of 2009 free agency, he signed enforcer Colton Orr to a four-year, $4 million contract.

Two and half years later, though, Orr's one-way contract is buried in the minors and Orr sports a Toronto Marlies uniform. Some were puzzled when Orr was placed on waivers earlier this week.

Burke, however, believes Orr's role as well as the roles of other NHL tough guys may be diminishing. The Leafs' GM feels there may no longer be a place in the league for players who make a living with their fists rather than their skill and that the so-called "rats" of the NHL are taking over and getting away with far too many offences.

Brendan Shanahan,who took over as head disciplinarian during the off-season, has dealt out 30 suspensions so far, totalling 91 regular season games. The scary part is, the NHL season is only at the midway point.

Brian Burke and other old-school NHL executives long for the days when a team's enforcer stepped in and held the offending player accountable for checking his team's star player from behind.

However, because of the two-minute penalty for instigating, some enforcers are uneasy dropping the gloves out of fear of putting their team at a disadvantage. Burke is concerned that these kinds of dangerous plays will continue and that the only form of discipline preventing them will come from the league office.

For instance, take the incident on New Year's Eve in St. Paul, Minnesota. Phoenix Coyotes forward Raffi Torres left his feet while hitting Minnesota Wild defenceman Nate Prosser. Torres caught Prosser in the chin with a shoulder but faced no backlash from Prosser's teammates. Torres was suspended 2 games for the hit.

Whether it is the removal of the instigator penalty, or a new willingness of the league's enforcers to stand up for their teammates at the risk of putting opposing teams on the power play, something must be done to deter players taking cheap shots, and to increase the awareness of a player in a vulnerable position on the ice.

If a player, who earns millions of dollars each year, is punished by losing a few thousand dollars because of an illegal hit, it is nowhere near as effective as facing the retribution of his victims' teammate.

Would you rather lose pocket change or teeth?  

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