Much has been made over the last 2 weeks of Randy Carlyle’s affinity for toughness; specifically, the truculence and pugnacity he expects his players to exude on the ice. This was one of the defining characteristics of his Stanley Cup winning team in Anaheim that was considered one of the most physically engaging in the league.
This style of play was something championed by Brain Burke 4 years ago upon taking over the team. However, during the last 2 seasons Ron Wilson began to move away from the grind it out, physical style of game, favouring instead a quicker, north-south strategy with smaller players. Resident tough guys Jay Rosehill and Colton Orr saw limited time (Orr due in part to a concussion), as the 3rd and 4th lines were comprised of more skilled players with greater offensive upside.
It's become evident from Carlyle’s first 3 games behind the bench that he intends to raise the Leafs compete level. He’s inserted Rosehill into the line-up, making it clear he’s not shy went it comes to fisticuffs.
What interests me is whether this style of play is actually beneficial in today’s NHL. While the clutching and grabbing, cross checking, and lazy hooking has slowly crept back into the game, it’s still a much faster and offense-oriented league when compared to pre-lockout.
The success of teams like Vancouver and Detroit has proven that the finesse, puck possession game can be effective. Contrast that however, with the dominance of the Boston Bruins over the past 2 seasons and it’s clear having a penchant for the rough stuff can still be beneficial.
There isn’t a perfect index/equation to measure a team’s toughness as it can be expressed in different ways. A guy like Mike Brown is tough because he’s willing to fight, while a player like Carl Clutterbuck could be considered tough for his crunching body checks. For the purposes of this discussion I’ve looked at the total penalty minutes for each team this season. What we’re looking for is any measurable correlation between time spent in the box, and success in the standings.
1.Philadelphia 1036 PIMs
2.Boston 956 PIMs
3.NY Rangers 899 PIMs
4.Ottawa 887 PIMs
5.Vancouver 875 PIMs
26.Carolina 610 PIMs
27.NY Islanders 592 PIMs
28.Nashville 589 PIMs
29.Detroit 586 PIMs
30. Phoenix 568 PIMs
*Toronto sits 25th overall with 636 penalty minutes.
Of the 16 teams currently in a playoff spot, 8 of them are in the top half of the league for PIMs which means the remaining 8 playoff teams are in the bottom half of the league for total PIMs. What this means is there probably isn’t a statistical correlation between how many penalties a team takes and their odds at the playoffs.
The correlation may be that the successful teams in the league seem to have a defined style. The Bruins play a hard-nosed, punishing brand of hockey and they have assembled the personnel to execute that style effectively. Boston inevitably spends a lot of time in the penalty box, and they seem to like it that way. While Detroit, built largely around Lidstrom, have a team of skilled puck movers. With players like Datsyuk, Zetterburg, Fillpula they play a style where the other team rarely touches the puck. This results in few, if any, penalties for the Red Wings on a given night.
When it comes to the Leafs, I don’t think their problem is the lack of penalties, or fighting majors this season. More precisely, the problem has been the team’s lack of a consistent identity. At times earlier in the season we looked like an explosive offensive group, with the ability to score at an elite level. What’s become clear over the past few weeks is that we might not be a playoff team just yet. Lacking the offensive to compete with the top teams in the East, and unable to shut the door defensively at key times. There have been stretches where we’ve tried to play a more physical, cycling game, but the team really isn’t built to sustain that style.
What excites me most about Randy Carlyle isn’t that I’ll likely see more fights, or penalties the rest of the year; it’s that we may finally have an identity. He’ll ensure the Leafs are a team that competes diligently every night, and brings an overall toughness to all situations. While it may ultimately require a full offseason of work for Burke to mould this team into the group his head coach is looking for, the next 18 games should give us a glimpse.