Leafs winners, not fighters

Colton Orr and  Mike Brown practice grappling at the end of practice. (CRAIG ROBERTSON/QMI Agency)

Colton Orr and Mike Brown practice grappling at the end of practice. (CRAIG ROBERTSON/QMI Agency)

STEVE SIMMONS, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 7:40 PM ET

In this season of re-examination, the disappearance of Colton Orr has almost gone unnoticed.

His presence seemed significant on the first day of training camp, coming back from concussion, back from media hiding, the fighter on the mend with his job description suddenly in question and debate.

Just not so important now, as the Maple Leafs have gotten remarkably better without necessarily getting tougher, which, in truth, was never part of the Brian Burke model. Orr, he believed upon signing him for four years and talking him up at every opportunity, made each of the Leafs a little taller, a little braver, a little stronger. He told me that more than once, claiming he could see a difference in the games Orr played, how the opponent responded, how the Leafs responded.

But on Friday night, the Leafs will play their 23rd game of this engaging season and for the 19th time, Orr is all but certain to be a healthy scratch. His talents — primarily his fists — have been deemed unnecessary by coach Ron Wilson. Even as the Leaf bodies have gone down, one by one, the club has pushed Matt Frattin back into the lineup, found a place for Joe Colborne, even used Jay Rosehill on more occasions, but has found little reason to dress Orr and there’s been barely a hue or cry of any kind asking why.

These are the new Maple Leafs, faster, more skilled, playing up-tempo when they can, challenging their opponents’ defence and scoring more goals than anyone could have expected. These are the new Leafs at a time when fighting is still this general manager’s strategy but the team has fought less in a quarter of a season than in any recent year.

Last year, the not-so-tough, not-so-truculent Leafs fought 50 times, down from 57 the year before.

At this year’s pace, the Leafs will fight 33 times.

That’s a 34% decline in one season — and it’s no surprise that their designated fighter is now the designated lineup scratch.

After a tragic hockey summer, the discussion about fighting and its place in the game was paramount when this season began. Under scrutiny was who fought, when they fought, how they fought, what they felt like. And much as the Leafs scrapping has been kept to a minimum, fighting throughout the league has declined only slightly. There has been a fight in 35.9% of NHL games this season: That’s down from 37.2% last season and 40% the year before that. None of that is trend-setting in any way. If there is a movement to reduce fighting in the NHL, that hasn’t been demonstrated in any tangible way.

In fact, in the two years after the 2004-05 lockout, fighting was at its lowest ebb since statistics were kept. Since then, it has increased by 5-or-6% and then flatlined.

It’s not really on the increase. It’s only marginally on the decrease. And it’s difficult to determine whether there is any benefit to fighting at all around the league.

The team that fights the most in this year’s NHL happens to be the worst team in hockey. The Columbus Blue Jackets have fought 18 times — twice as much as the Leafs — and clearly that hasn’t done them any good. The Anaheim Ducks, not far ahead of Columbus near the bottom of the league’s standings, has the third-most fights.

By those numbers, you could statistically make the case that fighting equates to losing in today’s NHL.

But the defending Stanley Cup champion Boston Bruins are fifth in the league in fights, and have been hockey’s hottest team for the past several weeks. Fighting is part of who they are and what they do: They fought 71 times last season — 42% more fighting than the Leafs — and were involved in the large focus on fisticuffs of the early season after the Milan Lucic assault on Buffalo goalie, Ryan Miller.

One team that has really changed its ways this season is the Pittsburgh Penguins, who fought 71 times last season and is on pace for less than half that number this season. They don’t have an Orr designated fighter type in their lineup. They don’t require one.

Colton Orr has only played 18 minutes, 39 seconds as the designated scratch of this Leaf season. He has fought just once. The Leafs were blasted that night. You have to wonder when and if he’ll ever suit up again.

steve.simmons@sunmedia.ca

twitter.com/simmonssteve


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