"What's Been Wrong With The Toronto Maple Leaf Defence Model, Lo These Past 30 Years."
Being the 3rd in a series of 4 stakes driven to be into the heart of the Toronto Maple Leaf defence model, which consisteth of stalwart yeoman to a man, excepting of course the 4 Brutes given places thereon in these recent dark times, who are scum and to be cut, placed upon the waiver wire, traded to Hab-like teams or otherwise tormented for their evil, and by such alteration of the dramatis personae, dramatis improvements shall be made both in the countenance of our fair sister Corsi, not forgetting beloved cousin RelCorsi, improvements which – together with newly-enhanced and fortified INTANGIDABLES – shall be the force that through the green fuse drives the flower, and thence, from flower to fruit, that is, possession shall shoot up, shots will flow out, ThunderousFriggingHits/60 will be outrageous, and the Cup shall be wonneth.
To recap and foretell, the series possesses the following moving parts:
Post #1. Return of The Ranger. You read it already.
Post #2. Return of The Gardiner. You only partly read it.
Post #3. The Rise, Peak & Fantastic Exploding Death Of The Brute Squad. You’re reading this one now, ok?
Post #4. This Year’s Leafs – The NHL’s Highest-Scoring Defence. To come. You may begin your anticipatory pant.
Grandson/PPP Reader: So… this post…. has it got any hockey in it?
Grandpa/Not Norm: Are you kidding? It’s got fencing and fighting and a puck-moving defence corps; torture, poison and the Pit of Despair; true love, true hate and true-the-line-but-not-out; statistics, damn lies and Burtching shit up; good men, defencemen and a Brute Squad from hell; our Dear Lady Corsi and a magical Cup; the Dread Pirate Roberts and a Six-Fingered Man....
Grandson/PPP Reader: So… basically… you’re pulling this one outta yer ass, eh Grandpa?
Grandpa/Not Norm: It’s in the blood son, in the blood. Why, someday you too will….
Grandson/PPP Reader: Just get on with it, old man. We’re aging here.
Aki Berg. Toronto Maple Leaf. And Past Master Of Brutal Defence.
Ok, look frackers. Post #3 here is a long post. Though brief, compared to the work of George R.R. Martin. And since there's a lot of you whiny Grade 8’er's on here, blatting about how "it’s too long," to you I say, "Go away. Too long, do not read."
The rest of you may wish to note that I've broken this monstrosity down into parts. If you read it all, from the top, then it's quite likely your brain will grow 3 sizes this day. But I know the stats people amongst you will want to jump on past anything resembling fun, and get right into the numbers. So, AdvStatsClots please scroll down to "Part III – The Black Maths."
However, Part 2 of this fine post is also a total barn-burner. Though, thinking upon it now, as one who grew up on a farm and, as a small boy, watched two of our barns burn down, a totally fun and exciting thing, except for the fact that the animals were also all in flames and screaming and crying out and mooing and melting and dying, which – now that I’ve brought this all back to consciousness – means you pretty much have to be a total sadist to use the term "barn-burner." But there it is – a cliche, and here’s me, farm-boy, fallen right into its flaming arms.
Still and all, Part 2 is bloody great. It consists almost entirely of derision, abuse and shit-flinging, the primary targets being the lumpen on the Leaf defence corps from 2008-13, and a certain coach’s use of said Play-Doh. Anyway, that sort of excitement and fun starts down at "Part II – Peak Brute." Where you will also learn what "Schlackenhalde" means. Which you would know already, if you weren’t wasting your life on GameBoys and TrousersDown and consuming vast quantities of the Interporn.
Which brings us – backwards and not a little drunk – to our opening section, "Part I – Birth Of The Brute Squad." Which is a history of the birth, testing and refinement of the most awful model of how to play defence, as exemplified by the Toronto Maple Leafs, circa 1982-2013. This section also contains a categorization of the particular types of D-man the Leafs always set their hearts upon, and from which you will learn a lot.
Part I – Birth of the Brute Squad.
You ever watch a movie a few dozen times, a family movie maybe, not the pornos, but a movie like, say, The Princess Bride… and you find yourself wondering what happened to everyone after the story stopped?
I do. Not the good guys – the Darrens who always live Happily-Ever-After. But the nobodies. Them. Especially, nobody bad guys. The goons. The thugs. The ones what, in The Princess Bride, they called… the Brute Squad.
You remember the Brute Squad – slow, dull, useless without the Six-Fingered Man. Remember him? The Six-Fingered Man? And that awesome Machine he had, down in the Pit of Despair, that could suck the life out of you a year at a time? But where did they go, the Brute Squad? What the hell kinda job prospects could bullies, cowards and clods like that possibly have? Don’t you ever wonder?
Leaf Fan Displaying Pre-Game Strap-In Procedure Upon Seeing The Name "Holzer" In Line-Up.
Well, I wondered. Which is why I began this research. And chanced upon these very revelations. Revelations which I shall publish and dedicate here, in this very post, to my dearest PPP readers – and to any of my face-punching friends who may have gotten someone to read this to them. Now, since I know you are all busy people – with cereal to face down, pimples to face off, and likely even a couch that needs close attention – let me give you the freshest fruit, the barest, shivering facts, with none of the flannel. As follows:
When the Princess Bride ended, the Six-Fingered Man and his evil Albino assistant had seemingly been vanquished. Most of us likely figured that meant the Brute Squad would be dealt with too. Probably through a sensible, Canadian, means such as a re-education camp up North. Or a stint as taser targets for trainee Toronto police. Or maybe a spot-welding course in Oshawa. But one way or another, the bad behaviour of the Brutes would be… neutralized.
So it gives me no pleasure to report that not only did the Brute Squad escape punishment, they appear to have successfully secreted themselves in the Pit of Despair until they could escape… to a fresh, new land. Where they obtained a new, and quite awful, form of employment.
As defencemen for the Toronto Maple Leafs.
While I’m not going to spell out the entire history, the subterranean connection between the Pit of Despair in Florin and the Toronto Maple Leaf defense corps was fully functional by 1981-82, and the traffick in Brute Squad members had moved beyond testing. This was the year Harold "Ferret-Fracker" Ballard – the brains behind the scheme – moved beyond trial imports of the variously-limbed thugs, slugs, lugs and pugs we’ve become accustomed to on our blueline, and decided to make a red letter day of his new model Leafs.
And so, he sent a characteristically-Ballardian ALL BLOCK LETTERS signal, by trading away not just the highest-scoring forward in Leaf history (Darryl Sittler), but also the defenceman who still holds the career Leaf record for most points/game (Ian Turnbull.)
And he traded them away for nothing.
The trades made no sense within the hockey world. However. They made perfect sense elsewhere. Elsewhere being… Florin. Where they were decoded by a certain pale young fellow down in the Pit of Despair – a young fellow who would later himself come through the pipeline, in order to take up a Senior position with the Leafs. A young man oft mis-identified as the Six-Fingered Man’s "Albino Assistant" – but whom we have since all come to know as… Dave Nonis.
Whatever name he claims for himself this week, Nonis was at least clever enough to understand that these trades spelled out Ballard’s commitment – to end the days of high-skill, Firewagon Hockey in Toronto, and to begin a bold, new era. An era built around the import of Brute Squad defencemen from the Pit of Despair.
Now, for Leaf fans in 2013, the "Brute Squad" as a defensive model has become so well-known that we can barely imagine defence being played any other way. But the facts say otherwise. The Brute Squad Way of playing defence has not always been the Leaf Way. The 1960’s saw numerous Stanley Cups won, with nary a Brute Squad member. Tim Horton and Allan Stanley were strong defensively, but could also score 30 points. While a guy like Bobby Baun was known for his thundering body-checks and his courageous overtime goal – not for gooning.
Even in the 1970’s, when Bobby Orr revolutionized the game, the Leafs moved as rapidly as anyone to change with the times, and brought in numerous high-scoring young defencemen, such as Jim McKenny and Jim Dorey, Salming and Turnbull (with the latter two finishing in the Top 10 scoring D-men for years.)
Which is why – if we hope to understand today’s blueline flummoxery – we need to go back not to 1967, but to Ballard and 1981-82 to see the decisive move toward Brutal methods. For, though test-runs had begun earlier, this was the year which showed us the clear lineaments, in all its central components, of a defence model we would recognize even today as being a "Toronto Maple Leaf Defence." Let’s look closer.
To begin, as I say, the Leafs dumped Turnbull – a 60+ point D-man – for nothing but old socks. Which left Borje Salming as the only D-man capable of doing any heavy lifting. They then dumped 4 or 5 other veterans over the course of a year. Veterans amongst whose number, oddly enough, was not a single fighter.
So who was to replace Turnbull and the vets? Why… Barry Melrose off waivers. Who’d scored 9 points the year before, but… 206 penalty minutes. They traded for Jim Korn. Who was 6’4", and had had 246 PIM. The brute turnstiles whirred.
This was the new signal the Leafs wanted to send – from here on, they were gonna ice a Brute Squad, skill be damned. Guys who liked to handle the puck, or maybe just play a solid, defensive game – but who disliked knocking people in the head? They got benched. Or traded. Or quit hockey. Or left for Europe.
Of course, you can’t ice too many thugs – they’d all end up in the box. You gotta have something besides meat. And so, around the meathead core, the Leafs added… potatoes. Guys who were slow-of-foot, immobile, who had no first pass, no acceleration. But who were "strong in front of the net," or "good along the boards," or "battlers." Nope, the new Brute Squad wasn’t gonna scrimp on stupid – it was gonna hire BOTH meat-heads AND potato-heads.
Now, to be fair, it wasn’t just as simple as dumping talent and hiring the ungifted. The new-look Leafs added something… new-looking. A new concept, doomed in its consequences, but controversial. And they liked that. It’d take the focus off all the talent being shipped out of town. The fact that their new idea hurt the wrong people – namely, Toronto’s own players – was of no significance to management. And so, they rolled out their new idea, their value-add. They began to play…
On an NHL defence.
I know. You think the Leafs had always done that, don’t you? Unh unh. The Toronto Maple Leafs had never played teenagers for more than a one or two game try-out since World War II. The Old Guard knew what it would do to kids to rush them into positions normally filled by full-grown men like Bobby Baun or Tim Horton. They knew you couldn’t send 18 year old boys out to face the nastiest hockey players in the world, men who had 20-30 pounds more adult muscle on their frames.
Or at least you couldn’t… until 1981-82. When the Leafs played not 1 teenager on defence. Not 2. Not 3. And not 4.
An incredible 5 teenagers got to play on the Leaf blueline over the course of that year. And sure, maybe you can write off Darwin McCutcheon, who only got the one game. But there were 4 others. You wanna see – up close – how the Leaf defence model of the next 30 years was gonna operate? You wanna understand what happened to Luke Schenn? Take a look at these kids:
o 17 year old Jim Benning scored 139 points in the WHL, so the Leaf made him the #6 overall pick. And then fed him into 74 NHL games. Where he got some points, granted, but also ran up a -27 plus/minus. Anyway, his confidence cracked, and by age 26 he was out of the NHL.
o 19 year old Fred Boimistruck had just won his 2nd Memorial Cup, playing with Dale Hawerchuk, Dougie Gilmour and Dan Daoust. The Leafs concluded probably best to feed him into a full season, where he got 11 points. But that was his peak. He busted up so rapidly and so completely that by age 25 he had fallen through the NHL, AHL, IHL, the Swiss leagues and was playing for the Brantford Mott’s Clamato Senior team.
o 18 year old Craig Muni was a big (6’ 3") hometown boy who loved the Leafs, and in 1981-82, he got his first of four cups of coffee. Thing is, he wasn’t a goon, just good at playing defence, so he was released by Toronto. Picked up by Edmonton he became one of the league’s top defensive specialists, won some Cups and led the League in plus/minus 3 times. In Edmonton.
o Only our 5th rookie, 19 year old Bob McGill, would become a home-run in Toronto. Young McGill figured out what he had to do quick, and racked up 23 fighting majors in that his first year. 263 penalty minutes in all. He’d play 6 seasons with the Leafs, averaging 5 points a year. Bad. Real bad. But see, he’d also run up those 1,023 penalty minutes.
So. Let’s see what we can learn – just from looking at this one year – about the Leafs Brute Squad model of defence for the future.
1st, The men behind the new Leaf model don’t like offensive defencemen.
2nd, But they like goons. A lot.
3rd, They really like big guys, but especially if they can goon it up a bit.
4th, Though a big guy who won’t goon? They don’t know what to do with them.
5th, Nor do they like quiet, stay-at-home defencemen that don’t brawl or hit.
6th, Plus, they will rush kids into situations that are way beyond their capabilities.
7th, And play them ‘til they’re injured, or mentally ruined.
8th, And if you don’t adjust to the Leaf style, they’ll trade you, release you or drive you off to Europe. And they do not give a damn if they get anything back.
So, Leaf fans circa 2013! Recognize anything?
Now, unfortunately for Leaf fans, Toronto was the only NHL club to become so enamoured of the Brute Squad model. Which meant that the tam’s performance – natch – was a disaster. They won just 20 out of 80 games, for a total of 56 points. Their defence ranked 21st. Out of 21 teams.
And, worth noting, these other NHL teams were working to a different defensive model. A model that was built around the employment of 6 NHL-capable, veteran defencemen, all of them fully able to skate (including backwards.) And with the occasional well-trained youngster being brought up, but only after years of training and preparation.
So. Disastrous 1st season with the model in hand, did the Leafs retreat and rethink?
They kept the goons – and let everybody else quit, walk or leave the continent. They knew they needed filler, but the pipeline had a seemingly endless supply of retreaded potato, which they hauled in from the AHL and Europe. In fact, they even kept to the worst part of the whole thing – the bringing in of teenagers.
Like 18 year old Gary Nylund. Kid was 6’4", went #3 in the draft, had just won the first WJC Gold, hit like a truck but could move the puck. They played him and… his knee got wrecked. In the pre-season. Then they brought him back too fast and played him again later in the year. His knee got wrecked even worse. So, surgery. At 19. Nylund never became what he could have been, should have been. And so, in 1986, who became the 1st NHL player to file for Free Agency? Why… Gary Nylund. Who left for Chicago.
Ok, so after two straight disastrous seasons with this new model, you might think the Leafs would change course. Well, of course you might think that. But the Leafs wouldn’t. Looking back, this was early days. Early days in what would become 13 straight losing seasons.
Thing to remember is, on offence, the 1980’s Leafs started off with guys like Darryl Sittler and Lanny McDonald; dipped to Vaive, Derlago, Anderson and Daoust; but then eventually became a team yards deep in offensive firepower – with Wendel (46 goals), Leeman (51 goals), as well as Olcyzk, Courtnall, Damphousse, Frycer, Fergus, Marois and Osborne – all of whom had 70 point seasons. In short, these Leaf teams could score.
But their defence? The Leafs would give up over 300 goals a year – for 12 years in a row.
And always built around same brutal mix – second-rate thugs, aging and immobile veterans, and kids who’d never really learned to play the game. For me, the wrecking of the kids was the worst. To the point that when a few of them actually began to learn how to play the game sensibly later in life – Todd Gill on those early 90’s Leaf teams, Nylund in Chicago, Craig Muni or even Al Iafrate once he left town – you had to cheer them, just for overcoming the adversity that was the Leafs.
Now, an brief Interlewd. Some of you turds actually voted Randy Carlyle in as worst coach ever. Which those of us who had to live through such dark times found more than a little insulting. And so, the way old people do, we got together and tut-tutted a bit about young people today, and how badly you all need the sort of random savage beatings we’d been subjected to as youth, but how the cops would be on you like a bad smell if you tried that these days, and then we started to get worked up about that… but then I remembered! My original point!
Which was that it wasn’t the cops fault that you little shits were dead ignorant and bone idle.
IT. WAS. YOUR. OWN.
And so, I decided to right that wrong. Right here. Right now. [In the immortal words of Jesus Jones.] So, herewith, some coaching facts. Try to remember them. They may make your brain grow. It’ll hurt at first but stick to it.
Now. Randy Carlyle, hate him as you wish, has an overall record in Toronto of 32-34 overall, seen in its worst light. He made the play-offs, and did pretty well and he did it with a team all you boy-geniuses-with-hands-down-your-pants thought would finish in the lottery. So. That’s the starting line of our comparison.
If you were smart (sorry, you’re not. nope, you neither.) you might remember that, in fact, Randy Carlyle actually played back during the era in question. And I know it’d please you best if he had racked up 500 penalty minutes or somesuch, but he didn’t. In fact, our gap-toothed boy Randy actually scored 75 points that year. And the year before, why gosh! He had scored 83 points, and won the Norris.
Shorter: Randy saw the shit going on in Toronto, directly, and had escaped himself. And while he could play nasty, he had almost nothing in common with a unskilled dork like Bob McGill.
Now. To the dirty. Bad Leaf coaches.
Mike Nykoluk was the coach in 1981-82 who dressed all those goons and kids and only got 56 points. He was bad. Barely bright enough to have a functioning autonomic nervous system, in fact. His total Leaf record? 89 wins, 144 losses. And so, they replaced him with Dan Maloney. A man referred to as perhaps the greatest fighter in the history of the NHL. Result? 45 wins, 100 losses. Not good. Ship still sinking. Which was when... they hired… his assistant. An even tougher guy. Tougher than the best fighter ever. They hired, and gave an NHL job to…
John Brophy was the model for Reggie Dunlop. From Slap Shot. John Brophy played 18 years as a defenceman in the ECHL. Where he got over 4,000 penalty minutes. Might want to reread that. That was a 4,000. In the ECHL. Back when that meant something. That was Brophy as a player.
As a coach, he was suspended 7 times just for his assaults on referees. His assaults on fans – including a butt-end that took out a guy’s teeth – have apparently never been counted, they were that frequent. They called him the "Godfather of Goonery."
Here’s some colour commentary from Coach Brophy on his own playing style:
"If you’re asking me how I played the game, I liked hitting people. I liked hurting people. No question about that. Anybody I was near on the ice, I tried to hurt. Of course, I ended up getting hurt myself, but I tried to hurt everybody I was near."
– John Brophy
Here’s a video of John Brophy’s idea on how to actually coach the Toronto Maple Leafs. And I can assure you, it is real, and not a put-on.
And if you need further confirmation, here’s Wendel speaking about Brophy.
John Brophy was not just an illiterate thug who deliberately hurt people and destroyed numerous players’ careers, he was bad with animals and children, and frequently incontinent. During games. Plus, he was a Cape Bretoner.
64 wins and 111 losses, if you can be bothered counting. Brophy couldn’t. Count, that is.
In short, John Brophy was the f*cking man. And when it comes to bad coaching, John Brophy would beat Randy Carlyle like a red-headed step-dog.
We will now pass over the 13 years without a winning record. And pause only to celebrate April 11th, 1990 – the day Harold Ballard died. And the Leaf Resurgence began. Cliff Fletcher came in as GM, Wendel was named Captain, Pat Burns became Head Coach and they traded for Dougie. It was all happening.
And – little noticed, but of enormous value – the Leafs jettisoned the Brute Squad model on defence. They first obtained, and then played, six, solid, in-their-prime, veteran NHL defencemen. Dave Ellett. Jamie Macoun. Todd Gill. Dimitri Mironov. Sylvain Lefebvre. Bob Rouse.
Why, it gives me pleasure just to say their names.
By 1993-94, all 6 Leaf regular D-men were between the ages of 26 and 32. No goons. No teenagers. 4 regulars playing at a 30 point pace. And almost all capable of playing solid defensive hockey. And suddenly the Leafs weren’t allowing 340 goals a season, they were allowing 240. This return-to-sanity Leaf defence model would dominate for the next decade, years when the Leafs would repeated playoff runs, under both Pat Burns and Pat Quinn.
Now, eternal vigilance is the price of liberty. And also, turns out to be the price of a solid defensive corps. And we let down our guard. Personally, I blame Ken Dryden. Because… Hello? HE WAS A HAB FER FORKSAKES. And so, around the year 2000, the Brute Squad was started up again. Out of nowhere, there appeared… complete tossers on the blue-line. I mean, guys like... Aki Berg. Or unmoving large objects like the 6’ 8" Chris McAllister. And Dave Manson, who was pretty much just filth wrapped in cloth. And finally, the moment that banished all doubt about whether or not the Brute Squad was back in action, it shat out… Bryan Marchment.
Which looked to me pretty much like they’d retooled the goddamn pipeline, and turned it into something more powerful. Able to bring through even bigger Brutes than before. And filthier ones. Manson and Marchment, make no mistake, two of the dirtiest, filthiest, career-wreckingist players to ever assault the NHL. And we brought them in when they were 34 years old, had already accumulated dozens of suspensions and were hated by right-thinking people everywhere.
And so… Leaf fans were sad. We’d had a decade not just of being a serious team, but of actually dressing 6 solid defencemen. NHL-quality defencemen. But now? H’way the lads! Apparently, this was to be the new thing for the 2000’s. Back to the Brutal fundament and our old-style defence pairings – of Hillock & Pillock, Clearasil & Concussed, Lemming & Pfenning.
And back to a team personnel selection process which liked to ice guys like you and me. Non-NHL-quality guys. No matter if you were big and dumb or old and slow, young and raw, completely unskilled or just going through a rough patch in life – if you were shite enough, Leaf management would give you a shot on D. More than a shot, in fact. On average they’d give a newcomer 45 games or so to prove himself. Work out the kinks.
But what were they looking for? Leaf management. When they came to select Brute Squad members. Surely not just the ability to remain unmoving on skates. Helpful though that was. Let’s break down the Brute Squad into its parts. Or rather, since the individuals come and go over 30 years, let’s look at what types of Brute the Leafs have preferred.
Now, to start off, same as always, you need a non-Brute "star" to put upfront. Somebody with actual skill, courage, that sort of thing. His job is to work, without complaining, to try to hold together a team defence whose other constituent parts are basically mud, turds and potatoes. Originally, the job fell to Borje Salming, but over the years, the torch has been passed to other high-skill players, who – oddly enough – also often have English as a 2nd language. Tomas Kaberle. Francois Beauchemin. Dion Phaneuf.
Thing to remember though, is that this guy is basically there as a head fake to the media and the fans. He’s meant to keep hope alive. Or, if people notice the team floundering, to take the blame. Fans seem to like to debate irrelevant shit about their best players, to see if they can scapegoat him, while the rest of the team crashes and burns in silence. For instance… unanswerable questions like, "is he too old" or "has he lost a step" or "is he a leader" and "does he have the right stuff to lead us back to the Cup?" You know. The stupid shit.
Meanwhile, in behind, is where the real action is. In your bottom 5. [Double double entrendres entirely intended.]
Once past the frontman, don’t make the mistake of thinking that Brute Squad members are all of a single type, cut from a single cloth. However, Brute Squad members are actually quite diverse, and internally heterogeneous. [Though not in any way gay-friendly. No entendres intended at all.]
Now, if you must have the cladistics, being "really bad at defence" is enough to get you into the overall genus "Brutis Defensatrix." But after that, you pretty much have to have your own fighting techniques, of you want to find a place at the trough. Here are the 9 types – the 9 methods – which have fought for, and won, a place in the Brute Squad.
If You Guys Are Students, Click To See This Thing Way Bigger. [Permission to reproduce this chart was obtained from Friedrich Nietzsche. 'Cause we're close. ]
Researchers in the field initially sort Brute Squad members into two large groupings or bins – the "Thugs," and the not-so-thuggish "Dullards." Thugs come 4 main varieties:
1. Bleeders. These’re the kinda guys always willing to stick up for a team-mate, or you know – mix it up. After a whistle. They’re just usually not very good at fighting. In fact, it is believed that their ability to bleed when hit must have provided their ancestors with a competitive advantage. Of some sort. Right? Same with their seemingly endless willingness to paddle around in circles, tugging at an opponent’s sweater, braying, until they’re badly beaten. These then, we call the "Bleeders."
"I Think I Took Him, Right Guys?" "Ummmm..... Right, Guys?'
2. Lummocks. These are the big-boned fellas. And heavy-set lads. A lot of specialization has gone into making this type, most of it focuses on removing any tendency towards motion. To put that more positively, these guys are highly-immobile. Some believe this group should be further sub-divided between the more "lethargic" vs the merely "sluggish," but it would be a shitload of work to go back and change all the documents, and all our lecture notes, so we just left it. Anyway, think of Luke Richardson. When he came back, age 36.
3. "Occasional Drunken Mill-Workers" make up their own, distinctive sub-type. Because "Holy shit, did you see that guy FIGHT? We were all totally drunk, but he was kicking ASS, wasn’t he? Swear to God, the Leafs should sign him." And sometimes… they do. Usually trumpeted as the 2nd coming of Bobby Baun, or maybe Bill Barilko, this Olde Timey kinda thug tends to last ‘til he gets those first few shots to the head, at which point he remembers he’s needed back in Smooth Rock Falls.
4. GREAT BIG F*CKERS were a new mutation, and one which seemed to really grab hold in the 2000’s. Like Chris McAllister. No, wait. CHRIST MCALLISTER. Dude was 6’ 11" – probably 7’5" on skates. Maybe 7’8." Anyway. McAllister was the prototype for a whole new kind of Leaf defenceman – the GREAT BIG F*CKER. Oh which, there would be many more. Wozniewski. Remember him? The Wonderful Wozard of Woz? Leaf management figured that, at 6’5", he deserved a 76 game try-out. Spread out over 3 seasons. They wanted that guy to be able to play hockey so bad that, back in the Fall of ‘07, Paul Maurice actually put the Woz on the ice, during an NHL game, for more than 20 minutes. Which he probably shouldn’t ought to have done, because… you know… the need to skate and whatnot. Anyway, there was this Swiss league that turned out to badly need a guy like Woz, who was, to be fair, not only 6' 5," but also... 6' 5".
Not every Brutal defenceman is a Thug. Some don’t like to fight much at all. In fact, about the only thing this group of guys are worse at than fighting is keeping the puck out of the net. Which is how they came to join the genus in the first place. They’re known as Dullards. Not an exciting name, granted but… you know. Kinda the point. Anyway, they also come in four flavours:
5. Teens. Call ‘em a bunch of excited kids, or teenagers, juvenile delinquents or just completely inexperienced in high-end hockey – if they’ve got pimples, Leaf management is happy to play ‘em. And not only play them! Hell, they’re happy to play a kid so far out of his element he might as well be wearing a push-up bra and dancing the can-can.
6. eyestooclosetogether. Then there are those guys with so little brain that their skulls can’t actually withstand the force exerted by the cranial vacuum. As a result, the eyes of these players are sucked in closer together than is optimal, a condition that often leads to ridicule, and rightfully so.
Stare... Deep.... Deep... Into My Eye.
7. S --pLoD eY b\\O n E !! s. There is also a group of players who may once have been highly-skilled, but who were then heavily-concussed and/or frequently-injured. It didn’t matter that even their friends had started to call them "Splodeybones" and snicker when they’d enter their "quiet rooms" – the management of the Toronto Maple Leafs doesn’t know the meaning of the word "career-ending injury!" Or "20/600 vision in the one eye." Or "6 month MINIMUM recovery time." In fact, the Brute Squad seemed to relish the idea of bringing back a guy way too late in his career. Or way too early in his recovery, depending on the case.
[Insert your fave Splodeybones gif here. I just don't have the heart to do it.]
8. Foreigners, or "Who Was That Euro-Guy?" I mean, how many guys have we had whose names you couldn’t quite remember… who came from countries you’re weren’t sure existed… who, on their good nights, were invisible… as opposed to their bad nights, when they simply couldn’t be seen. Take Aki Berg. 325 games with the Leafs, not a single flash of talent. 6’3" though. And nobody was ever sure even where he came from. I looked up his hometown, place name of "Turku, Finland." Right, like that’s a real name, says I. Anyway. Turned out to be a real place. But when I got there, NOBODY had ever heard of Aki Berg. So figured, maybe a simple misspelling by the NHL Registrar, a Mr. Smacob Jith. Which is how come I went on to visit Furku, Turkey. Who had never heard of an Aki Berg either. Though they HAD created this incredible meat product called Tofurkey Berg-ers. And which their Mayor, guy named Keyser Söze, was nice enough to share with me. Anyway, the packaging guaranteed it contained no more than 0.3 parts per million Aki Berg.
Now With 33% More Tofurkey.
There is also one last species of Brute which has never really found a category willing to accept it. Biologists and Leaf historians just refer to it as:
9. Filth. Or, in the Latin, "Bryan Marchment."
Part II – Peak Brute. Or, "The 2008-13 Leaf Defence."
So. Here we are. We have seen where the Brutes originated; how they rose and fell and rose again; and how they come in a wide variety of sizes, shapes and smells.
Which brings us to today. Or rather, to the last 5 years of Leaf hockey. And its Brutal defences. Or what’s been known as… "Peak Brute."
But. BEFORE I get you kids to think back over the last 5 years, I want you to ask your Mums for a nice, soft, towel. Something to bite down on. Because… remember that nice Princess Bride movie? And that Machine, down in the Pit of Despair? The one that could suck the life out of you, a year at a time?
Well, it may have taken decades to perfect, but during these last 5 years, the Leaf’s "Brute Squad" defensive model has been running pretty much perfectly. Which means, painful though it is to face… you’ve just had 5 years of your hockey life sucked away. Completely. And if I could have just a moment more of your time… I’d like to ask…
How do you feel?
And really, there’s no better way to test out the strength of those memories, and to plumb the depths of their emotional impacts than to put on me bovvers and give it to you, straight in the Corsis, til you’re down on the curb, crying. As it were.
And just so there’s no problems later with the informed consent laws, I’ll tell you – I’m going to hit you with the best of the 2008-13 Brute Squad. That’s right, reminiscences of the best, the VERY best, Brute Squad members of these past 5 years. Starting with the King himself...
1. Mike Komisarek. Maybe the best Brute, ever. That guy... well… sniff…. Sorry, I’m actually tearing up a little here. Memories, man. We got so many memories of Mike. FOUR FRIGGIN’ YEARS WORTH, IN POINT OF FACT. You see, Leaf brass actually gave Komisarek a clean uniform and told him to suit up 158 times. And so, we watched. As he played. In his uniform. And. as. he. shit. in. it. each. and. every. fracking. night.
Oh sure, sure, he wasn’t all downside. Gotta be fair here. Mike was consistent. Dedicated. On nights when he wasn't pencilled into the line-up, you would still find him in full gear, usually face down and hanging over a couch in the Leafs locker room, sucking the jam out of doughnuts and befouling his pants, whilst having his nether regions hosed down by a Leaf assistant.
Still. If you were looking for the prototype of the modern Brute Squad defencemen, you could do worse than look at what was on the end of that hose.
So to speak.
2. Though when we finally sent Komisarek down, remember how – delightful irony – Leaf management found Ryan O'Byrne? Vacant of look, devoid of... ok. I'm not gonna go on and on about O’Byrne. It’s not right. Truth is, his parents always admitted something was missing with Ryan. Probably something important. Heart. Brain. Opposable thumb, perhaps. I donno. Anyway, the Leafs thought O’Byrne was just maybe the missing piece of the puzzle. We thought it more likely he was the missing link. Between slugs and turnips.
Anyway, the Leafs picked him up and started shoving minutes down his throat. Turned out none too pretty. In fact, O’Byrne was so non-puck-possessive that Burtch had to create an entirely new statistical category just for him. Steve called it "deltaWTF," short for "Holy Frig. O’Byrne Just Totally Gave That Puck Away. I Don’t Think I've Ever Seen A Grown Man Negative Corsi Like That."
3. Or Korbinian Holzer. Word is that Leaf scouts found Holzer in the industrial town of Schlackenhalde, in the (former) East Germany. And that we only got him out because our scouts had (thoughtfully) brought along a blow-torch and some explosives. Which were necessary in order to blast young Holzer free of his previous contractual obligation – to a slag-heap just East of the old mill in Schlackenhalde.
But when it came to hockey skills... man. Man oh man oh man – Holzer had some. Like, when he would put his stick on the ice, for instance. Sometimes, he'd just lay it there. At his feet. And glare at it. As far as the other skills go, however, the finer ones… like mobility... ok, not so much. Seriously, Holzer wasn't moving for anyone. As the Leafs' chief European scout reported back, "You can't teach size. Ok, ok. Maybe you can teach size. But you can't teach that big frigging German kid anything at all."
To Leaf management, however, that slag-heap might just as well have been vomiting up gold. Brute Squad Gold. I put it down to the genius of the Six-Fingered Man, Randy Carlyle. When he decided not just to give Holzer a 22 game try-out, but to drop him right smack onto our Top Pairing? And then run it out against other teams' top lines? That was genius. Or clinical insanity. I always get them mixed… anyway. Korbinian = Fun. Or = Slagheap.
4. And then there was the 4th member of last year’s Brute Squad, signed after his miraculous goal against the Marlies, Mike "Hey Guys, I Gotta Sharp Stick Here, So Be Careful. In Fact, Maybe Best If You Just Went Around Me" Kostka.
I mean, ok, the guy scored a miracle goal to beat the Marlies. But when we got rushed out to sign him like he had just come down from Asgard, it felt like a bit of overkill. Kostka was no Asgardian. Dude was from Ajax – just look at the hair.
In fact, after watching Kostka through 35 games with the Leafs – many of them on that 1st Pairing – you could see he was actually quite diligent about never harming anyone with his stick. Nor, in fact, would he ever damage the fragile netting inside the other team’s goal with one of his shots. Or impede his opponents as they skated past on their rounds.
Mike Kostka. This Is How We Roll In Ajax.
5. Which takes me back, you know? [Or under. Yeah, probably more "takes me under" than "takes me back."] Back to the Brutes we had just before this latest crop. Remember… Brett (-3) Lebda? Did you know that even though he could skate, he still managed to score at a lower rate than Komisarek… or Holzer. You’re probably wondering how anyone could score that little. And I’m probably answering by pointing to that 2011 game against Atlanta that we won 9-3. While Lebda went -3.
[Insert your own mental picture of Lebda here. Some things are still just too raw.]
6. And the 57 games we got from Keith "Blank Look" Aulie, during those early "learn to skate" years.
Keith Aulie. "Them Robot Overlords Don’t Make No Nevermind to Me."
7. Or the 51 games of Garnet "The Mothman" Exelby. Whose NHL career ended rather sadly, with an injury in practice. It seems Exelby accidentally saw his own reflection in the end-glass, mistook it for an opposing player, and took a run at it. Witnesses say it was one of the dirtiest checks ever thrown, wherein Exelby charged himself, then gave himself a high-stick, two knees and a face-wash, knocking himself unconscious in the process. Each time he’d come to, he’d be enraged all over again by the reflection, and begin to once more hurl himself against the glass. The Leafs eventually had to send him down to the ECHL, which was safer for him, since they mostly use chicken-wire on the boards, instead of glass.
8. Or how about Cliff Fletcher’s so-called mistaken signing, Jeff "You Pulled The Wrong Finger" Finger. I mean, does anyone really believe we signed the wrong guy… for millions of dollars… then played this defensive sink for 105 games by accident? Isn’t it more likely we secretly signed just the guy we wanted. A 29 year old from the Albany River Rats, who’d proven how brutal he already was? All’s I know is that by 2010, his Corsi was so negative that even Exelby started coming to him for tips. Exelby.
9. And ok, it happens too often. We ignore the big guys, the immobile guys, the Lummocks. Heavy-set, big-boned, who knows – maybe they just ate their brother. But is it their fault if we love them and they end up with an inflated rep? Take Luke Schenn. A 5th overall pick, Luke used to be ranked with Drew Doughty and Alex Pietrangelo. Neither of whom, in their worst years… have scored as few points as Schenn got in his best. Or how about the guys he was ranked ahead of? Jake Gardiner. Jeff Schultz. Erik Karlsson. The Leafs didn’t care. They traded up for him, then brought him STRAIGHT UP into the NHL. Because that always works out so well for us. At heart though, Luke is a likeable Lummox. He likes hitting people. And cake. Though you ever notice how his friends always make sure they never have any frosting accidentally drip on them?
I could go on, but I’m not. The list of Lummocks, featureless foreigners and banjo-picking inbreds we’ve tried on defence just in the last decade alone is almost endless. Guys like Jaime Sifers, Jonas Frogren or Staffan Kronwall. Guys like van Ryn and Colaiacovo, that we kept on playing, even though we’d already seen them explode. And explode.
Nope, I’m not gonna go there. Into the dregs. I’m gonna stick to the high ground and make my case off the Big 9 alone – the top members of the Leaf’s 2008-13 "Brute Squad." And I mean, sure, you can add a 10th if you like, cause I know you got one. But even just those 9 alone got nearly 800 games on the Leaf defence over the last 4.5 seasons.
That’s an average of 2.1 Brute Squad members on the ice, out of each night’s starting 6 D-men, every game for the last 4.5 years.
One. Complete. Pairing. Every. Night.
Think about that. We played two completely shit, below-par, and in fact, actively self-destructive defencemen, every night, for the last 5 seasons.
Now, unsurprisingly, we’ve received some creative justifications over the years, for why these guys got so much ice-time. Reasons such as:
"Sure he’s young/old/only-has-the-one-kidney, but we believe he can contribute;" and, "The doctors tell us he’s pretty-much fully recovered, and as long as we keep the arena-lights turned down low, he should be just fine;" and "We need somebody who knows how to keep the front of the net clean," and "Steve Kasper says his sister is totally jamming – like totally;" and "We’ve never seen a move off the top rope like that. Ever."
But ok ok. Colourful as the Big 9 may have been, and unique and special as the coaches may have made their case, the bottomline is performance. And in this day and age, we get to measure it. Tote it up. And compare it.
And with that in hand, we’ll be able to see just how much damage the Brute Squad has done to Toronto’s defence last year.
And thus, how much improvement there will be this year, without the Brute Squad.
Part III – The Black Maths. Or, "So just how bad WAS the Brute Squad, Grandpa?"
How bad were they? Brass balls on a heifer, son, they were bad.
For the 2012-13 season, Count Randy Rugen (aka The Six-Fingered Man) – and the genius Potato Albino, Dave Nonis – had gathered in lead-footed defencemen from around the world… crushed, melted and slow-poured them out into moulds… let them harden and set under cold, grey skies… until, once released, they moved so slowly and so heavily across the land, that just the sight of their jersey numbers in the line-up became enough to crush the puck-moving hopes of a young Leaf fan in their breast.
Ok. Mood set. Background obtained. You’re ready as a person can ever be. For the Black Maths.
TOI. The 4 members of the Brute Squad had 69 games played with the Leafs last year, and logged 1379 minutes. That’s the equivalent of a pairing playing 14:28 of each and every game. So their minutes, and their impact, weren’t marginal.
And since Carlyle usually didn’t dare play them together, they were often paired up with more talented players, such as with Dion. Or give powerplay time, where one of the Brutes got more time than Gardiner and Gunnarsson combined. So the Brutes had lots of time to impact the Leafs overall season numbers.
Let's look at their offensive "contribution."
Points. NHL.com says Kostka, O’Byrne, Holzer and Komisarek ranked 128th, 147th, 200th and last amongst NHL defencemen in points scored. BTN shows that, balanced out to look at even-strength scoring per 60 minutes, they ranked 230th, 177th, 186th and last. In terms of how they compared with other D-men across the NHL, we can think of 0-60th place = 1st pairing, 61-120th = 2nd pairing, 121st-180th = 3rd pairing.
Which means Kostka – the best offensive player of this group – ranking just 230th in the NHL, a 4th pairing guy, offensively. i.e. He wouldn’t make the ice, and he was the best of our Brutal lot. This may surprise some, since Kostka came out of the AHL with a good offensive rep. Problem was, during 5v5 play, he stunk. i.e. He only got 3 points at ES all year, with the same TOI as Gunnar (15 pts) and Fraser (8 pts.)
Fraser Interlude. Now, I know we got some Mark-Fraser-Is-A-Brute folks out there too. So imma repeat that last bit. Mark Fraser not only got far more points at ES than per 60 than did Mike Kostka, he wasn’t just picking up lazy 2nd assists. I know it seems strange, but Fraser got way more Goals + 1st Assists than Kostka or Holzer. And in fact, beat Gardiner. And Liles. And Gunnar. And Dion. And was only behind Franson by a 0.63 to 0.64 score. So, no, Fraser wasn’t a big shooter, or fast skater or fancy passer... but he at least still found ways to make useful passes during 5v5. Which the Brute Squad members didn’t.
Shots. However, maybe points don’t give us a fair picture, so let’s look at shots/game. Holzer was 224th. O'Byrne – 242nd. Komisarek – 270th. Kostka, however, took a solid 1.4 shots per game – 87th in the league. However, many of those were on the PP, where he got a lot of time. (And I would argue, he is a truly bad shooting D-man.) And the numbers certainly show these guys weren’t getting many shots off the rush – Holzer’s shots were from 51 feet out on average, worst on the team, and Kostka from 47 feet. To compare, Jake shot from 32 feet, Dion from 38 and Fraser 39. So the Brutes clearly weren’t great at jumping up and joining the rush, or sneaking in from the blueline – even Kostka.
On the powerplay, Kostka got 91 minutes, with his 2:35 a game just 14 seconds less than Franson, and more than Liles and Jake. The team averaged a useful 39 shots per 60 minutes with him on the PP, the only problem being that they didn’t actually score very well with him on the PP unit – at just 1/2 the rate it did with either Dion or Franson.
To review the offensive side, in an average game 2 Brute Squad members dressed, for an average of 14:28 each – with a minute each of PP time a night. Their production, however, was almost no points, and very few shots. The only one who actually did take shots failed to score a single goal, ranked 230th in 5v5 points and wasn’t as good as the alternatives on the PP unit.
All of which means that – to look ahead – in the coming year, with players like Gardiner and Ranger available to draw in, we could make enormous net offensive gains.
We now turn to the supposed forte of the Brute Squad and its members, their defensive play. And again, I find myself getting a bit teary. Because... there are times when you can’t just lie to yourself. The black maths state the facts. And these ass-clowns were even worse at defence than they were at offense.
Now, I know we all hate plus/minus, but just to cover off this more "traditional" defensive stat, while the other members of the defence were a combined +22, the 4 Brutes went -9. Not off to a good start.
Moving swiftly along, let's look at the rate at which they allowed goals against, during 5v5. A rate which turns out to be... awful. Mind-blowingly, historically awful.
Like Holzer. Now, I was always willing to cut the kid some slack because he faced truly terrible minutes – and he did so as a rookie. And yes, he may still someday turn into a competent NHL'er. We’ve seen other young Leaf defencemen refind or develop their game after a bad first year. But last year’s numbers are just… facts. And he wasn’t a competent NHL’er. At all. With Holzer on the ice, the Leafs' goals against per 60 minutes of 5v5 play was 4.20. To compare, when Holzer went OFF the ice, Leaf goals against fell to.... 2.06.
Like I said. The Brutes came up big on D. But in the wrong way.
In fact, of 210 NHL D-men who got regular ice-time last year – Kostka got 146th place and O'Byrne was 176th. But Holzer... wow. No one had nearly as bad a rate as his 4.20. Only 25 other guys were even worse than 3.00. In fact, 57 guys allowed less than 2.00 per 60 – half what Holzer was allowing. So Holzer's 4.20 began to look pretty historic to me.
Which is when I did something stupid.
I started flipping through back years. And found that, of guys who played at least 1/2 a season, like Holzer, nobody in the NHL touched him in 2011-12 either. Even on the Leafs. Schenn and Komisarek barely broke 3.20. How about 2010-11? Well, even though our own BELOVED AND MIGHTY BRETT LEBDA was worst in the league that year, he barely got past 3.65. Same in 2009-10. Nobody close. Remember the Mothman Exelby? He was only a 3.13. 2008-09? Nobody close. Even Jeff Finger only got up to 3.25.
In fact, none of the former Leaf Brute Squad greats EVER came close to matching Holzer’s sub-par performance last year – not Aulie, not Oreskovic, Lebda, Schenn, Exelby, Komisarek, Finger or O’Byrne. None of 'em.
Now, to some degree, this stat isn’t 100% fair to Holzer, because he got below par goaltending when he was on the ice, with just an .892 Save %. And sure, that might have come in part from his own immobility and poor positioning, or maybe Reimer just got completely disheartened when Holzer was on the ice. I donno. But let’s put it down to bad luck, and look at Holzer and the Brutes through other defensive metrics.
How about Even Strength Shots Against per 60 minutes? That removes the goaltending issue, evens up ice-time, etc. Now, maybe if Komisarek hadn't thrown a rod so early in the season... or if O'Byrne had come to the Leafs sooner… maybe they could have matched Holzer stride for stride. We’ll never know. But what we do know is that, in the NHL, amongst those who played as many minutes as Holzer, no one touched him.
Our man Schlackenhalde allowed 34.8 shots against for every 60 minutes he was on the ice.
It's a funny number, 34.8. And tough to put into context. For instance, I can tell you that the league’s best defencemen allowed just 17 or 18 or 19 shots against per 60. But I suspect I’m just going to need a new way to show exactly how bad Holzer's 34.8 was. Try this.
There were 31 NHL D-men who regularly gave up fewer shots than Holzer's 34.8 shots per night.
While killing penalties.
There. How's that? Blinking the tears away yet?
That’s right. 31 guys regularly killed penalties for their team, and gave up fewer shots on the PK than Holzer gave up playing at full strength. Bizarrely, the Leafs' own Mark Fraser regularly gave up fewer shots per 60 while killing penalties than Holzer did during 5v5. In fact, a 2nd Leaf D-man did so also. A guy named...
Which is about where you all get to insert your mindblown.gifs. Because this means that, somehow, Holzer’s 5v5 play was so bad, he improved on his opwn performance while playing the PK.
Personally, I suspect it’s the case that Holzer's sheer immobility and confusion about positioning meant that while he floundered during the more fluid 5v5 play, on the PK his job was more tightly-defined, and with less need for mobility (and thus, which he played quite well.)
We should probably move on now, and fill out the picture for our other Pit of Despair members. And yes, I know, you’re shocked, but the numbers say they sucked. Mike Komisarek also hit 34.8 shots against/60 in his few games. And – get this – Ryan O'Byrne, in his brief Leaf stint, allowed an incredible, Worst-In-Solar-System, 42.8 shots against per 60. Gee. Even Mike Kostka, the most capable of the bunch, finished 198th of the 210 NHL D-men who played regularly last year, allowing 29.8 shots against per 60.
So, the Brute Squad couldn't score goals, or take shots, or make passes or work the PP. Worse, they couldn't stop goals, or even stop shots against. Now. Let's head towards Corsi by simply bringing together their shots for and against.
Korbinian Holzer, 22.8 shots for, 34.8 shots against. That’s -12.0 shots per 60.
Mike Komisarek, 19.7 shots for, 34.8 shots against. That’s -15.1 shots.
Ryan O'Byrne, 24.5 shots for, 42.8 shots against. That’s -18.5 shots.
Mike Kostka, 23.8 shots for, 29.8 shots against. That’s -6.0 shots.
Now, I’d say those numbers pretty convincingly show them to be an extremely bad set of defencemen. But maybe, through the miracle of them blocking shitloads of shots, or forcing guys to the perimeter, we’re gonna see a Corsi turn-around.
Ok. Forget I said that. I was just being a dink.
For starters, Holzer's Corsi was -27.5, and his RelCorsi was -24.2. Compared to any regular NHL defenceman last year, this was easily the worst.
And to compare back through history again, the worst defenceman of 2011-12 only had a -18.4 RelCorsi. Oh yeah. That would have been… Ryan O'Byrne!
Nor did anyone come close the year before, even though former Brute Keith Aulie finished 3rd from bottom with an awful fine awful effort, a -15.9.
Nope, whether you want to look at Goals Against, Shots Against, Corsi, RelCorsi, whatever – Holzer's numbers last year were the worst in 5 years of NHL defensive play.
And again, I just think it’s important to recognize – and value – the incredible performances of all the Brute Squad members here, not just Holzer. So I’m happy to say that some sites – such as extraskater.com – actually showed both Komisarek and O'Byrne with a worse Corsi than Holzer. Truly, incredibly awful performances. But they couldn't sustain it over as many games or minutes as Holzer.
Now, some will want to single out Kostka and claim he doesn’t really belong to this group. Which, in most ways, he doesn’t. He’s not a brawler, he has some passing ability, and yes, his shots against were ok for the Leafs (better than Dion’s, for instance), his +5.9 RelCorsi was 2nd best behind Gardiner, his QComps weren't easy and nor were his zone starts. The problem is that – going forward – Kostka adds nothing in particular, when compared to any of the others. Dion and Cody bring infinitely more offense, for starters. And in fact, once we’re just comparing straight-up 5v5 offense, so too do Gunnar and Fraser. And with a more recovered Gardiner and Liles, plus both Paul Ranger and TJ Brennan coming in, this means Kostka ranks as the 9th best offensive D-man the Leafs have, and that’s forgetting about the AHL and Junior guys.
And if we want a top-notch defensive defenceman, well, he’s just not that either. On the PK, he just wasn’t very good, and allowed far more shots than Fraser, Holzer or Gunnar. And when up against top competition, on the 1st pairing with Dion, he not only didn’t add much, he ended up replaced by Holzer. Compared to a Gunnar, he faced much weaker competition, but still gave up more goals and shots – and all while Gunnar was playing with a bad hip. In short, with 8 other NHL D-men in camp, and a strong wave of North American and Swedish juniors coming up through, it’s hard to argue that Kostka should have been kept and given the ice-time.
Now, if we add together all the combined defensive and offensive "contributions" of the Brute Squad last year, and then imagine them removed from the Leaf line-up, and replaced by normal people, what sort of a net result would we get? In terms of points and shots and Corsi and such.
And this is a rather important question, considering that the Leafs have just jettisoned their Brute Squad and stopped up the pipeline from the Pit.
What’s that? You hadn’t heard?
Sorry. Didn’t think the news was all that secret, at this point. But ummmmm, yeah. The Brute Squad members have been systematically fired into the Sun, and culled from the Farm System. Memories of 1993 and the changes that happened when Trader Cliff and Pat Burns came to town.
Nonis - Gets The News About The Brute Squad Breaking Up.
Truth is, it began some time ago, maybe as far back as 2011, when we traded for Gardiner. Think about that. We traded a tough, stay-at-home, veteran D-man for a kid who dances on skates and a forward with a bad back and an aversion to backchecking.
But by last year, there was no doubt. In fact, from Day One of the Randy Carlyle era, you could see it happening. And yes, that confuses me. But... let's look at the facts, insert them along a timeline and see what the narrative looks like.
1. On February 27th, 2012, the Leafs traded Keith Aulie away. Which seemed to me, even at the time, a sign that the Leafs were recognizing that the day of the big, slow-footed defenceman was coming to an end. I know a lot of you aren't going to agree, but look at the facts:
Aulie was only 22. He was explicitly targeted in the Phaneuf trade. He was 6' bloody 6". They had shown he would fight and was even nicknamed "Muhammad Aulie." He had a 95 mph slapshot. He was a WJC Gold Medal winner and a hero from the farm, saving his father from drowning. And the Leafs had brought him along slowly, step by step, and were now giving him his 2nd NHL stint. Problem was, he was flailing as a shutdown D, had a bad Corsi, was no good on special teams, and on offense, was a non-entity, with just 4 points in 57 games.
Whereas that other kid his same age, Jake Gardiner, had – by the night of the trade – just decided to rip the NHL up, scoring his 4th goal in 14 games. So with Dion and Liles and Franson all showing their offensive abilities, and Gardiner joining them, I think the Leafs began to make their move away from the Brute Squad model. And so, Aulie was out the door.
2. Next to go was Luke Schenn in June. Say what you will, the Leafs – almost certainly with Carlyle's go-ahead – dealt a 2nd big (6’ 2" and 230 pounds), strong, stay-at-home defender, an NHL hit-leader and a guy with 6 fighting majors. More, Schenn was a 1st rounder, a guy many saw as the face of the franchise and often suggested as a Leaf future captain.
But his defensive play, even after 4 years, didn't look like that of a shut-down Dman. His Corsi had fallen to -7, his shots against were rising, he wasn’t good on the PK, and his offense looked to be piggybacking on Gardiner’s. As the other half of the deal, we got JVR, a big, goal-scoring, young forward – but not a guy you’d in any way mistake for a face-punching winger.
And frankly, it has to be noted that the defender we let go of was not a young offensive-minded player like Gardiner, but rather, the large, slow, low-scoring, poor possession one.
So I would say our first signals of change were obtaining Gardiner and then trading Aulie and Schenn.
3. Moving to this past year, we all watched in horror as Carlyle appeared to be happily recruiting a whole new Squad of Brutes. For example, Komisarek got into 4 games, right early in the season. Dion started the season with Kostka welded to one hip, and no sooner had he shaken the one rookie off, Carlyle strapped Holzer to his back. In a similar vein, no sooner had the Leafs had finally (finally) freed themselves of Komisarek, they picked up O'Byrne off waivers. Not a good storyline.
Or rather, that's one way to read events. A different reading might include a few lesser-known or lesser-noticed facts. 1st off, while he had a healthy Franson and Fraser that he could pair up, plus a workhorse Dion, Carlyle's next 3 best D-men were walking wounded right from the start of the season. We sort of knew this, but – given the Leafs secrecy around player health –were never sure. But Gunnar was sitting out games with a bad hip by the end of January. That’s what created the big opening for Holzer. On top of which, Gardiner had been concussed back in December, and clearly wasn't ready when brought back up for 2 games in January (as he now admits.) So he was sat out and sent down again. Which left Kostka as simply the most offensive-minded Marlie D-man, and cheapest fill-in available to take Gardiner’s place for a time. On top of this, whereas J-M Liles was back, he had been quite heavily concussed, and clearly hadn’t fully recovered either. Added to this was the fact that the Aulie and Schenn trades both added new Wingers, not D-men, and you had a disastrous situation for the Leafs on the blueline.
Jake. Maybe Not Quite Ready For Duty.
So was it a simple move toward thuggery and cloddishness for Carlyle to add Kostka and Holzer and pair them up with Dion? (As I happily outlined in the earlier part of this story?) With hindsight, and able to count only 3 fully-healthy quality starters, I’d say… maybe not so much.
Then as we look back in late in the season, we see that as soon as Gardiner could come back, even (with hindsight) a bit wobbly… Holzer got shipped down. And as for O'Byrne, yes, Komisarek went down, but both Gunnar and Liles were playing hurt, so he was basically an old-style short-term fill in.
So there is a 2nd, different, narrative that also explains the facts before us. And as of today, 4 more central facts have been placed on the table:
4. Komisarek was sent down and then bought out;
5. O’Byrne was let go;
6. Kostka was let go;
7. Holzer was sent down;
Plus a whole lot of wider evidence going against the Brute Squad:
8. Even when offered truckloads of goodies, the Leafs didn’t trade Gardiner…
9. Even given two chances to release JM-Liles, they didn’t…
10. They signed a strong, puck-moving defenceman, Paul Ranger.
11. And then another puck-mover, T.J. Brennan.
12. Meanwhile, down at the AHL farm, the Hulk-sized young D-man pipeline which produced Aulie, Schenn, Holzer, Woz and Oreskovic appears to have run dry. And of the few left, nobody’s pencilling Holzer in with the Leafs; and while MacWilliam’s still in the system, he was a 2008 pick and he’s 23 already, so it’s no sure thing he’s ever going to be a Leaf.
13. Not only are all the old thugs now gone, the guys like Komisarek and O'Byrne and Exelby and Manson and Marchment… the Leafs didn’t pick any new ones up. None. At. All. And there are plenty around the NHL, for cheap.
14. Even in the drafts, all our recent top picks have been fast-skaters and/or good puck-movers, such as Morgan Rielly, Matt Finn, Stuart Percy and Jesse Blacker – when we could have drafted much bigger and bulkier and "meaner" defencemen. Whereas in previous years, we would specifically take the big bodies over the high scorers. e.g. In 1995 we picked the 6’5" Jeff Ware 15th, he had just scored 13 points with Oshawa. In 2005 we picked the 6’3" Orestkovic in the 3rd round, with just 40 points in 4 years of OHL play. In 2008 we picked Luke Schenn at #5 even though he never broke 30 points in the WHL. The only time we’re picking low-scoring defence prospects these days is from Sweden; they tend to be not just sized like normal people, and they’re decent skaters; and even then, we use late round picks – such as for Granberg, Nilsson and Loov.
Now, I know this interpretation goes against the conventional thought of how Randy Carlyle operates. And no, I wouldn’t be at all surprised if we end up trading one of our puck-movers. (Though this might actually be a sensible adjustment of assets, considering how many we have now, plus those coming up.) But maths is maths.
Lemme sum up.
The Brute Squad has been disbanded… disassembled… flushed.
So do you know who the Leaf Defence actually IS this year? And how many of them are puck-moving defencemen? It’s worth a look, because we’ve got 2 guys who have regularly scored 40 and even 50 points in a season; 2 more drawing back in who have had 30 point seasons already in the NHL; plus 3 more who were playing at a 30 point pace before the season was cut short last year. 7 of the 8 are potential 30 point guys.
And in terms of goonishness, only 3 of the 8 have ever had fighting majors in the NHL before, and only 1 has ever had 100 PIM (Dion.) In fact, the career peaks for penalty minutes for the other 7 are 85, 58, 44, 30, 20, 18 and 6.
So. What sort of a difference is it going to make to Toronto’s defence corps to not just swap the Brutes out… but to replace them with puck-moving defencemen? In terms not just of "projected points" that we might forecast for the new guys, but in terms of improved Corsi, an improved shots for and against ratio, better special teams and perhaps, even for team-wide goals and assists? In fact, what might the impact be on individual Leafs, both forwards and defence, who had to play with these guys last year?
Let’s take one last quick glimpse, by sticking our arm down the hole the Brutes left, to see what we have to fill. In terms of TOI, the loss of these 4 gives the Leafs 24:00 of ES ice-time per game, to be allocated either to the new D-men, or spread across the existing D-men. It also gives them 2:00 a night of PP time and 2:50 of PK time to fill.
And what sort of offensive production do our new defencemen have to match, now that the Brute Squad has been released? Well, extrapolated to an 82 game season, the combined Brutes would have been on-ice for 82 goals for (67 at ES + 15 on the PP), scored 22 points (14 in ES, 8 on the PP) and taken 120 shots (1.5/game), while shooting 4.2%.
Switching to defence, the combined Brutes allowed 106 goals against (89 ES + 17 on the PK.) They gave up approximately 33 shots against per 60 during 5v5 play. And had a combined Corsi of roughly -17 and a RelCorsi of -10.
One way to envision the improvement is to ask yourself whether Jake Gardiner and Paul Ranger, if given 14:25 in ice-time a night, could score 11 points each? Can they shoot more than 0.75 times per game? Will they achieve a shooting percentage of above 4.2%? Can they improve on the Brute Squad performance of 23 shots for and 33 shots against per 60 minutes? And… produce a better Corsi than -17 or RelCorsi of -10?
WHY PHIL KESSEL WILL GET BETTER!!!!
WHY THE LEAFS WILL GET BETTER.!!!
AND WHY THE NHL’S HIGHEST SCORING DEFENCE WILL BE TORONTO’S!!!!
That's right, in the final installment of this, the Magnum Brutalis, we bring the pieces together:
1st . As a teaser, do you know which player spent the highest percentage of their time on ice with a Brute? A massive 51% of his ice-time? How about if I tell you that this player, whose name is spelled much less like D-I-O-N and a lot more like P-H-I-L, therefore spent much of his year effectively playing a man short? i.e. With a defender who couldn’t obtain the puck in the first place, or pass it to him, or get into a position to shoot? How do you think P-H-I-L’s Corsi will respond to their loss? And which other players put in large chunks of their years with these guys, and how much will they benefit?
Our 2nd topic will be… who will be the Leaf Top 8, and in what pairings, and how good they will be. I know you think Korbinian will be back to start the season. But he won’t. Given that, ask yourself – "If Dion and Gunnar no longer have to hold the paw of a brute animal under fire… is there any reason they cannot be happily teamed once again? And if so, how will their Corsi respond?" Look deep inside yourself, Luke. You know the answer.
3rd. Now that we have quantified the size of the hole the Brutes created, and now that we know the approximate quality of the players we’re replacing them with… what will the net gain be? How about this. Did you know that, in terms of the Leafs possession game, the Brutes had 24% of the total 5v5 minutes played by Leaf defencemen last year? But were on-ice for 29% of the net negative Corsi events? And a whopping 35% of the net negative shots against? Plus then… all their indirect and spin-off negative effects? So… how much will their removal actually benefit the team? You’ll want to tune in to find out!
4th. And finally… do you know which team will ice the most high-powered offensive defencemen in the NHL next year? No? Well… do you know of anyone else who will ice 7 (that’s seven) defencemen who can get 30 points? And can you think of any other NHL team which has EVER had that kind of broad-based scoring power on its blueline before? I don’t think you can.
Which means, as always, the last word goes to Vizzini.