Nonis vs. Burke: Changing the Maple Leafs’ Philosophy

On Monday, the Toronto Maple Leafs made four cuts – trimming down their roster only days before they open the 2014-15 season against their rival Canadiens. For the first time in many years, the blue and white will enter a season without a true enforcer on their opening night roster as both Frazer McLaren and Colton Orr were placed on waivers.

While some might argue that the role of the enforcer is still somewhat relevant in today’s game, Monday’s roster moves made it evident that Brendan Shanahan, Dave Nonis and the Toronto Maple Leafs are headed down a different path.

The Brian Burke Era

When Brian Burke was at the helm in Toronto, the word that every writer would refer to was truculence. There was a need for the big, burly players. Physicality was just as important as the skilled players on the team.

Nobody questioned the team’s outlook or the Burke model. Some even gave him credit for building the Ducks championship team and the Vancouver team that was so successful during the regular season – giving him the benefit of the doubt when it came to the Leafs.

Brian Burke, Maple Leafs, NHL, Toronto, Hockey
Brian Burke preached truculence during his tenure with the Maple Leafs. (Rick Osentoski-US PRESSWIRE)

However, with Burke heading the mission, the Leafs remained a non-playoff team. They finished dead last in the division formerly known as the Northeast twice and it wasn’t until he was relieved of his duties in January 2013 that the Maple Leafs finally found their way back to the postseason.

In 2009, Burke brought in heavyweight enforcer Colton Orr – adding another tough guy in Frazer McLaren prior to his dismissal during the 2012-13 season. Burke was rarely criticized for his enforcement of the fighter role in the lineup, while his acquisition of Phil Kessel was ridiculed until Kessel developed into the player he is now.

But the game has changed. Whether you like it or not, it’s become a game of skill and speed rather than one patrolled by the – once important – tough guy in the lineup. Burke’s dismissal changed the direction of the Maple Leafs. While it may not have been apparent right off the bat, Dave Nonis and the current front office team have steered the Leafs in another direction – one that focuses more on development and an all-around skill set.

Changing of the Guard

Nonis took over for Burke in January 2013 – and his hiring was just the beginning. Maple Leafs Sports and Entertainment followed that by hiring Tim Leiweke in June – trying to bring in a winning attitude. Finally, the Leafs lured Brendan Shanahan from the league office and hired 28-year-old analytical guru Kyle Dubas as their assistant general manager.

But the changes aren’t just happening in the front office. That’s where Monday’s cuts come in. Nonis and his management team have changed the philosophy surrounding the club heading into the 2014-15 season. While head coach – Randy Carlyle – denies that it’s a philosophical change, it’s clear that the Leafs and their upper management have decided that truculence is no longer the way they want to build their team.

Orr, McLaren Victims of Philosophy

TSN reported on Tuesday that both Colton Orr and Frazer McLaren knew that they had to make a change to their game if they were to stick with Toronto’s NHL club. Both spent their summers working on more than just the physical side of their game.

However, during the offseason, the Leafs were highly criticized for not making a splash in free agency. Instead, they filled holes in their bottom six – leaving questions surrounding the futures of players like Orr and McLaren.

The Leafs, instead, filled out their bottom six with guys they felt earned the opportunity in training camp – something the organization said it would commit to heading into preseason. Brandon Kozun, Carter Ashton, and Mike Santorelli are a few of the players that provided more than just physicality and fisticuffs for the Leafs. In fact, Kozun was one of the most impressive Leafs down the stretch.

Now, aside from their protection for the Leafs lineup, here’s a look at what these two tough guys have provided for the Leafs during their time in the white and blue. Orr, who joined Toronto in 2009, recorded 13 points (8g-5a) in his five seasons with the Leafs. He was a minus-three and had 637 penalty minutes in 231 games. The most shocking number is his 0.36 shots per game while in a Leafs jersey – something that certainly plays a part in Dubas’ analytical observations.

McLaren, on the other hand, has only played 62 games for the Leafs. Over that time, he’s recorded five points (3g-2a) and 179 penalty minutes. While his 0.38 shot-per-game average is a hint better than Orr’s, it’s still not impressive enough to deserve any intrigue as the Leafs head towards a more offensively driven formula.

NHL, Maple Leafs, William Nylander, Hockey, Modo, Sweden
Leafs’ first-round pick William Nylander will be a main guy with Modo. (Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports)

Korbinian Holzer is simply a case of the odd man out. Stuart Percy outplayed Holzer down the stretch in the preseason and earned his spot on the Leafs opening night roster. While Holzer’s been waiting for a chance to be a permanent fixture in the Leafs’ lineup for some time, his stay-at-home kind of play matches that of veterans Roman Polak and Stephane Robidas.

Developing William Nylander

Toronto has never really been the type of organization to overly ripen and develop their young players. In fact, they are often criticized for using and trading their prospects before they’ve ever had a good chance to develop into the player that they were expected to become.

But along with moving away from truculence and the tough guy role, it seems as though the organization has taken a second look at the development of their draft picks. On Monday, it wasn’t just the enforcers that were placed on waivers, but the Leafs also reassigned their first-round pick – William Nylander – to Modo of the Swedish Elite League.

While it may have been a good move to assign the young forward to the AHL’s Toronto Marlies – giving him a chance to play more of the North American game – sending him back to Sweden is a good move by a franchise that shouldn’t rush their young players. In fact, Modo’s season will end prior to the Leafs final game – which could mean that fans of the blue and white could still get a chance to see the Swedish forward to close out the 2014-15 season.

Don’t get me wrong, I think it’s important for the Leafs to have a player that holds opponents accountable for their on-ice actions. But with the way the NHL game is changing, Toronto will have to find a player that can be the physical presence of Orr or McLaren, while still contributing to the team offensively.

As for their decision to send Nylander back, it’s a step in the right direction to developing their prospects. Only a select few are drafted and make an immediate impact in the NHL. Over developing a player – like Detroit has done for years – will prove worthwhile for the Leafs and will certainly help them in the long run. It’ll be a different look for a team that has travelled down one road for so long, but this change in philosophy could be just what the doctor ordered for a team – and a fan base – that has been waiting for something to go right.

For more, follow Andrew on Twitter at @AndrewGForbes or his column at @Tape2TapeTHW.

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