Toronto Maple Leafs: The Case Against Truculence

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Toronto Maple Leafs: The Case Against Truculence
Richard Wolowicz/Getty Images
Toronto may have broken ties with Brian Burke, but not his vision.

The Toronto Maple Leafs and their coach Randy Carlyle have adopted one of the NHL's toughest team personas, but is it providing Toronto fans with a false sense of optimism?

Following Brian Burke's firing on January 9, Leafs Nation waited to see how much of Burke's vision for the team would survive his departure. The answer didn't take long to emerge.

Toronto's new general Manager Dave Nonis along with coach Randy Carlyle - both Burke appointees - quickly demonstrated that, far from changing direction, they were intent on doubling-down on Burke's famous brand of "truculence".

Many would argue that, by sending out a team that leads the NHL in fighting majors, both Nonis and Carlyle are merely playing the best cards they have available. This argument holds that reliance on players like Colton Orr and Mike Brown—both of whom are amongst the league leaders in penalties—is a tactic of necessity, on a team that must use toughness to make up for a perceived of lack high-end skill. 

This would be easier to swallow if either Leafs fans or their management were willing to publicly admit that these are all short-term tactics and not part of a long-term strategy to finally return a Stanley Cup to the long-suffering city. 

Coach Carlyle makes clear the fact that he believes fighting is an important part of success in the modern NHL; as he did in this recent interview in the Toronto Star.

Our players have to feel they’re protected. When you have a 48-game schedule, the points mean so much more and those are the things that set the tone. I would say if you look at the league as whole, I think there’s been a revitalization of that role on various teams. Teams have gone out and acquired that.

We ask our players to work hard in their area. When you have players (like Orr and Brown) doing that, and standing up for their teammates, and demonstrating the same kind of commitment as far as the fisticuffs and defending teammates, then we can be as strong on the forecheck.

This undying commitment to Brian Burke's vision - which is now obviously Toronto's permanent approach—is a conscious choice on the part of the team's management to continue a strategy that led directly to Burke's firing. One can only assume they believe Brian Burke was on the right track prior to his dismissal, although evidence to that effect is somewhat mixed.

Nonis and Carlyle will undoubtedly remember Burke's statements on the day of his firing: "We didn’t win enough. That’s why we’re here today."

So has the strong re-commitment to Toronto's tough image done anything to improve the team's fortunes?

During the 2011-12 season Toronto racked up 80 points over 82 games played and finished fourth in the Northeast Division; a pace of about one point-per-game. This year, the Leafs have accumulated 26 points in 22 games and remain fourth in the Northeast Division. This certainly cannot be held out as a major improvement. 

Toronto's most ardent supporters will point out that the team, unlike last season, retains a realistic shot at a playoff berth.

But therein, as the Bard would tell us, lies the rub.

Toronto is a city so desperate for anything resembling success that its fans, and what's worse its management, seem content to settle for victories with their fists and the inherent mediocrity that accompanies them.

Last month I posted a story which questioned the composition of Toronto's roster, but the negative reaction that followed was nothing compared to the storm of abuse that rained down on Toronto's captain Dion Phaneuf recently.

Toronto's obsession with fighting even led to questions about their Captain's leadership.

Phaneuf's decision not to drop his gloves against Montreal's Brandon Prust in Toronto's most recent defeat incurred the wrath of Leafs fans, as well as some in the media.

This was, perhaps, the most depressing example of the mentality that has taken hold of Leafs Nation. Having previously beaten the Canadiens bloody in their early February encounter, was it really necessary for the Leafs Captain—and one of their few high-end players—to take that responsibility on himself, with so many other "role players" in Toronto's lineup?

There are moves that Toronto's management can make to help the club become faster, deeper and more skilled; however, those moves are unlikely to happen when the top brass in the organization continue to reserve roster space for players whose greatest contribution comes with their hockey gloves off.

Leafs Nation might very well continue to celebrate the ever-so-mediocre improvement that their team's dedication to "truculence" may have won them; however, all the toughness in the world did not aid them in their poor performance against Montreal on February 28.

Despite the contentions of some, fighting alone does not win hockey games or breed championship teams. To even begin to aspire to dreams of that sort, Toronto will need more more players who can win contests with their hands and not with their fists. 

Jeff Hull is a Featured Columnist with Bleacher Report. To follow the author on Twitter, click on the link below.

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