One cop on the beat

STEVE BUFFERY, SUN MEDIA

, Last Updated: 8:51 AM ET

Perhaps Maple Leafs head coach Ron Wilson appears gruff and grouchy sometimes because he has been reminded -- ad nauseam, as he put it -- that his team is inexperienced, lacks firepower and is Mats Sundinless.

Here's another one Wilson was forced to chew on yesterday.

This year's version of the Leafs are not exactly the second coming of the Broad Street Bullies. Or the Big Bad Bruins. Or even the Peeved Panthers, Rambunctious Rangers or Ornery Oilers.

There's not a lot of toughness up front, and the defence is much more skill-laden than bruising.

In fact, one of the reasons newcomer Ryan Hollweg has dropped the gloves no fewer than five times in four pre-season games (without scoring a major victory in any of them) is because, well, who else is going to step in if Mikhail Grabovski or Tomas Kaberle are being harassed?

Jamal Mayers is a tough guy, but Wilson doesn't want him sitting in the box. He is too valuable on the ice. Nik Antropov is huge, but is not a tough guy in the enforcer sense of the word. The same for Alexei Ponikarovsky. Rookie defenceman Luke Schenn, according to those who watched him in junior, is a really good fighter. But now is not the time for the 18-year-old to brawl.

So that really leaves Hollweg to act as the team's policeman. And while game, he is not exactly a heavy- weight. At 5-foot-11 and 210 pounds, Hollweg is stocky and strong, but lacks size.

So while Hollweg brings an edge and willingness to fight, nobody on the Leafs squad at this moment will strike a sense of fear or dread into the opposition.

"I think it could be a concern," Wilson acknowledged yesterday, when asked about his club's lack of toughness. "But, again, we haven't had our full lineup all together."

Wilson insisted that an NHL team does not need the big heavyweight any more, as the game has changed and a mid-sized scrapper, who can also skate and hit, like Hollweg, can be just as valuable.

"A lot of times, that's just sideshow -- heavyweight fights heavyweight. What's that got to do with the game?" the veteran coach said. "If you just got a guy who plays two or three minutes and can't skate or do anything, I don't know if that serves a purpose. (But) we'll see how our team is this year and if we have to address that, we will."

For his part, Hollweg hates the suggestion that he is a one-dimensional tough guy. The bruising forward takes pride in his skating and his ability to deliver a key hit -- to anyone on the ice, not just slow defencemen.

"(Fighting) is definitely part of my game, but I wouldn't say it's all I'm good for," Hollweg said, following the Leafs' practice yesterday. "If we're struggling and I feel like we need a spark, that's when my energy can come into play -- finishing checks and establishing a forecheck. When you have four lines gunning on the forecheck and making the other team come 200 feet every time, throughout 60 minutes of a game, it's going to wear on them. And I definitely feel that's one of my strengths."

Hollweg fought twice in Toronto's 7-3 loss in St. Louis on Wednesday, and picked up 34 penalty minutes in total. He also recorded an assist. The key for Hollweg is playing a tough game, without taking unneeded penalties.

"Obviously there's going to be times where I feel we're going to need a good spark," he said, "and that could be a fight, that could be a big hit, that could just me skating well and getting on a good forecheck. But if guys on the other team get frustrated because of the way I play and they went to step up to me, I have to be ready to answer the bell as well."

"Ryan doesn't step on the ice looking for a fight, he's hitting everybody and they come looking for him," Wilson said. "(But) we want him to, at the end of the day, not fight as much and try to stay on the ice a little bit more, because he's a real irritant when he's finishing checks."


Photos