Burke sees the big picture

Photo: Toronto Star

Photo: David Cooper/Toronto Star

It’s been no secret to a lot of Leafs followers, and hockey fans in general, that with a changing NHL comes a change in the way hockey teams will be structured going forward. Structured, built, laid out, however you want to put it, the makeup of a roster these days probably looks quite different than it did even five years ago.

Of course the game has always had stars and superstars. Even the worst teams have had at least some talent sprinkled  through their top two lines.  Where the line was drawn, for a lot of clubs, was when the third string stepped on the ice. This obviously wasn’t true for every team, as even now you’ll find differences in the layout of team A vs. team B. But one thing is clear, undeniable: speed and skill kill.

Do enforcers who nab four minutes of playing time per game strike fear into opponents, causing them to lose all focus? Should they hold down roster spots at all costs? The resounding answer is no. And the Leafs‘, along with the rest of the NHL, have taken notice.

Over the summer many conversations I had with fans, whether it be online or face-to-face, dealt with the idea of the Leafs team and how their forward corps was structured. With a blatant lack of offensive punch in the bottom two lines, most agreed that the team needed to address the idea that while Evgeni Malkin wasn’t the top line center, a more balanced lineup with some extra scoring in the bottom two lines could do a lot to help this club improve.

It’s why most folks pushed for another scoring centre. Not only would the team try another pivot with Phil Kessel, but it would push Tyler Bozak to the third line between Colby Armstrong and Nazem Kadri, or at least that’s it was pictured. Of course that isn’t how it turned out – Bozak is doing well on the top line, Armstrong is injured, and Frattin ousted Kadri to get into the Leafs lineup. But the philosophy of running with nine forwards that can chip in has caught on, and is evident in the Leafs‘ recent winning ways.

Each of Crabb, Colborne and Frattin have found some success of late on third line duty, and the idea of having numerous fighters in the lineup really seems absurd at this point. Burke has adapted to a changing game, and he isn’t afraid to admit it, blatantly stating as much on TSN Radio on Tuesday when he spoke with James Cybulski.

Burke alluded to the fact that he and his colleagues have had to assess the lineup and make the proper adjustments to keep up with a sport that is played at its’ most ridiculous pace ever. The days of the heavyweight are ending.

A few names that arose in the summer that could potentially help the Leafs (or any other team) round out their scoring included Zherdev, Bergfors, even Upshall – players that weren’t simple plugs. In hindsight, the Leafs dodged a few bullets in that regard, and were lucky enough to find help from within. If they continue to keep speed and a little bit of scoring in their bottom six for the remainder of the season, it should go a long way in their push to end this rotten playoff drought. Of course it’s still up to the players to keep contributing as well.

When Burke first arrived in Toronto, he boldly stated that his teams consist of two top lines of skill and two lines of pick-and-shovel-type players – guys who muck it up. Those days are in the past. The Leafs’ GM has changed his ways, and he isn’t hiding from it either.

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