Maple Leafs Showing New Toughness Under Carlyle

Leafs

Credit: Getty Images

By Tony Ambrogio (@SNTonyAmbrogio)

Brian Burke must be wondering where was all this toughness when he was GM.

“We require, as a team, proper levels of pugnacity, testosterone and belligerence.”
Brian Burke, November 2008

That was Burke’s famous quote when he took over the Leafs more than four years ago but it has been for the most part missing – until this year.

And while he may not be the General Manager, let’s be honest here, these are Burke’s Leafs. Nineteen of the 27 players who have played for the Leafs this season were brought on board by Burke.

The Leafs are tied with Columbus for the league lead in fighting majors with 14.

That brand of rock ‘em, sock ‘em hockey was especially evident on Saturday in Montreal as the Leafs not only beat the Canadiens on the scoreboard, but also outworked, out-hit, and out-fought the Habs at each and every opportunity.

Yes, the same Leafs that under Ron Wilson were more flash and dash have become under Randy Carlyle a team with attitude. A team with bite. A team that is showing signs of being tough to play against.

“I don’t know if you could describe us as bigger or tougher,” said Carlyle. “What we have talked about since last April is that we had to become more competitive in all three zones. And that’s been a mandate we put in front of our players and if they don’t want to be competitive than their chances of playing for our hockey club diminish.”

It doesn’t mean that Phil Kessel will be asked to fight. But the coach wants Kessel to backcheck and be aggressive on the forecheck.

“There are different variations of toughness,” said Carlyle.

With Colton Orr having improved his conditioning and skating this off season, he has been able to stick in the NHL this season. His presence makes every Leaf just a bit bigger.

Burke’s free agent signings this off season have paid off as well. Jay McClement brings a workmanlike approach to his game.

Defenceman Mark Kostka is at 27 getting a shot at the NHL, another Burke free agent pick-up who has been a steadying influence on the blue line. He has shown he isn’t afraid to mix it up if necessary.

While defenceman Mark Fraser brings toughness and a ‘play it safe’ attitude to the defence corps, he was involved in a couple of fights against Montreal on Saturday.

Forward Leo Komarov is the kind of pest every team needs and has been a key factor on Toronto’s third line with Nazem Kadri and Matt Frattin.

The Leafs are becoming a team that sticks up for each other. A team that isn’t going to be pushed around.

Of course Montreal isn’t a physical team like Boston, but Saturday’s showing was a good, positive step for the Leafs.

“Teams are going to try to push and we’re going to push back,” said Captain Dion Phaneuf.

Somewhere Brian Burke must be smiling. He may also be asking what took so long.

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