Thursday, March 6, 2008

Are the Leafs the softest team in the NHL?

I've been thinking about this topic for a few days, but after watching Ponikarovsky get pummeled tonight while his teammates stood around pretending not to notice, I think it's now a legitimate question: are the Leafs the softest team in the entire NHL right now?

A quick check over a shows that the Leafs have had only 21 fighting majors this year, ranking 28th out of 30 teams.

It gets worse. That pathetic number is actually grossly inflated as far as the current lineup goes, since the players responsible for most of those fights are no longer with the team. Between the trades of Belak (six) and Gill (two), the injury to Bell (four) and the demotions of Battaglia and Ondrus (one each), the current Leafs lineup has only managed seven fighting majors on the year.

I'll pause here so you can read that last sentence again.

It gets worse. Those seven fights have come from Darcy Tucker, Kris Newbury, Matt Stajan and Bryan McCabe. So the only players in the lineup tonight to have dropped their gloves all year are two guys who are 5'10 on their tippy toes, one guy who had never fought before in his life, and a guy who can't remember which net to shoot at in overtime.

Of course, fighting isn't the only measure of team toughness (although it's a pretty good one, right Ducks fans?). But in the case of the Leafs, I don't think the fighting totals are some sort of aberration or fluke. This is just an easy team to play against these days, almost ridiculously easy to push around and completely incapable of even the slightest intimidation.

This isn't a new development -- remember last year's pathetic display in New Jersey, as the entire team watched their best player get scraped off the ice after a dirty hit from a no-talent thug and did exactly nothing about it? This team was soft at the start of the year, and the recent moves have only made the situation worse.

It wasn't always this way. Ever since the excellent Kordic for Courtnall deal, the Leafs have ranged from adequately tough to downright nasty for almost two decades, culminating in the 2002-4 era squad that would occasionally jump into opponent's benches or try to kick guys in the head during fights. Or, as we call it in Toronto, "the glory years".

Am I overstating the case? I don't think so, but I wanted to be fair about it. So let's take a look at the current squad, player by player. And there's only one fair way to do that -- with a completely arbitrary Toughness Scale™ that I just invented right now.

Level 1 - That guy looked at me funny, I better shut it down for the rest of the game just in case.

Tomas Kaberle - Probably the only Leaf on Level 1 who has the talent to justify it.

Johnny Pohl - Not likely to stick with the team after this year, but based on his name he could have a promising career in porn.

Anton Stralman - The rookie may still be finding his comfort zone, but so far he hasn’t shown much in this department.

Jiri Tlusty - Certainly has potential, but so far has been disappointingly soft. Was that a naked photo joke? You be the judge.

Kyle Wellwood - I’m flattering him with this ranking.

Ian White - That’s three of our six defencemen at level one, for those keeping track. I can’t imagine why this team doesn’t play well in its own zone.

Level 2 - All things considered I’d really rather stay here on the perimeter, thanks

Jason Blake - Wasn’t he supposed to be an “agitator”? Was that supposed to refer to the other team, or just Leaf fans?

Boyd Devereaux - Pro: He’s on the checking line. Con: May have the wimpiest name in Leaf history.

Dominic Moore - I haven’t seen much of him, to be honest. But he plays on the checking line, so he must have some sandpaper. Also gets extra room because players are afraid that if they hit him, he’ll get the family lawyer to sue them for millions.

Matt Stajan - This may be stretching it. But at least he was the one Leaf who looked mad during the 8-0 Panther game, so that’s something.

Alexander Steen - Much like his offensive contributions, the gritty side of his game shows up about once every two weeks and then goes back into hibernation. Still, anyone who can stagger Chara with a hit gets to stay clear of level one.

Jeremy Williams - To be honest, I couldn’t tell you how tough he is because Maurice only gives him ice time during Wellwood’s gravy-chug breaks.

Level 3 - Not looking to start anything, but won’t run and hide

Nik Antropov - He’s big, and just a little bit crazy. Almost never fights and is disturbingly injury prone, but he gets points for being just about the only player on the entire team who seems to be aware that the NHL got rid of the “in the crease” rule.

Carlo Colaiacovo - Is one of the league’s under-rated open ice hitters. Several times a year he’ll spot someone with their head down, launch himself at them, lay them out, and then spend a month of the injured list recovering. That still gives him enough time to land six or seven hits a year, which has him vying for the team lead.

Pavel Kubina - Not a fighter, but has an occasional mean streak that will serve him well in Columbus or Edmonton or whatever level of hell Fletcher can dispatch him to.

Bryan McCabe - Total NHL fights before signing $28M contract - 58. Total fights after signing $28M contract - 2. Just sayin'.

Alex Ponikarovsky - I’m probably overrating him, but he does seem to have a touch of that Danny Markov-style "could snap at any time" edge to him. Don’t forget, this guy once went toe-to-toe with Rob Ray. Yes, he lost the fight, ending the Leafs 14-year streak of victories over Rob Ray, but he still gets some points from this corner.

Mats Sundin - He doesn’t change his game one bit when the going gets tough. He’s probably a little soft for someone his size, but reasonably tough for someone of his skill level. Rumor is he’d like to fight, but his gloves stubbornly refuse to waive their no-drop clause.

Level 4 - Not afraid to go looking for trouble

Mark Bell - Prior to his injury, showed that he was definitely willing to get his nose dirty – usually with his own blood and fragments of his orbital bone. May be pound-for-pound the worst fighter in the league not named Hal Gill, but at least he looked interested when the temperature went up.

Kris Newbury - He’s ready and willing. The jury is still out on the “able” part, though. I like this kid, but let’s put it this way–you’re never going to see a game where the opponent's tough guy throws a few big hits, and the camera pans dramatically over to Kris Newbury snarling on the bench.

Darcy Tucker - He seems to have permanently buried the Sideshow Bob persona, but will still throw his weight around. Unfortunately, that ends up being about 165 lbs. Will still drop the mitts, though, even when he knows he’s taking one for the team. At least a 20% chance he snaps this year, tries to fight a legitmate heavyweight and is killed, which will have interesting salary cap implications.

Level 5 - Genuinely intimidating


(Crickets chirping)

(Tumblewed blows by.)

So what do you think? Have I been too harsh? Too easy on them? Is this in fact the softest team in the entire NHL?


  1. Johnny Pohl - Not likely to stick with the team after this year, but based on his name he could have a promising career in porn. Nice, but I think Darcy, TUCk-her! has a good chance of getting into porn as well.

  2. I have to disagree with the Ian White ranking. Yes he's a little guy who wouldn't scare anyone of significance, but that lumberjack beard he was sporting has to count for something other than appealing to the not so straight bear crowd.

    You might remember the game against Florida earlier this season where he dropped the gloves to take on Jozef Stumpel who had been cross checking him at the half side boards. Stumpel refused to fight, and Jay Bouwmeester had just missed scoring on a wicked-awesome Toskala stick save, then we went down the other way and Antropov scored the game winner on a giant rebound. It was one of the few times the Leafs stood up to the other side physically and had something to show for it other than a black eye.

    Here's a link to the game recap that mentions it:

    Aside from that, yeah you're spot on.

  3. That's a good point about White -- I'd forgotten the Florida game. I guess he gets partial credit for that one. Not sure it's enough to move him up, but maybe I'll call him the heavyweight champion of level one.

  4. I'd rate Tlusty a level up, he isn't afraid to go into the corners and I can't say I've ever seen him shy away from a hit. I don't think he'll ever be in danger of getting into a real fight, but atleast he can play with some physical edge.

  5. @steve: it got me thinking, is there a shame factor at all in this? Like you said, White isn't the biggest guy out there, so would it be more embarrassing to get beaten by him in a fight over, say a Belak-type guy? (unfortunately the only one we still have that's even close is Kubina, I think)

  6. Outstanding work - I laughed all the way through, there were so many good lines.

  7. Epic. Particularly the Colaiacovo summary.