On Burke and his Sheriff

Photo: John Ulan/The Canadian Press

Photo: John Ulan/The Canadian Press

The decision to call a press conference upon Colton Orr’s waiver clearance was curious to many, but it became clear once Brian Burke started speaking: the move left the Leaf GM with a bone to pick. Between his admiration for Orr’s character and the game’s direction such a roster move symbolized, it was obvious Burke really didn’t like having to do this. You got the sense it was an admission from Burke that his vision of building a truculent winner is a thing of the past. Orr, his first signing as GM of the Maple Leafs – the guy that summed up Burkian truculence to a T – will be plying his trade with the Marlies.

On the one hand, we can be glad Burke is, if reluctantly, adapting to a changing climate in the National Hockey League. Nazem Kadri wasn’t sent down in order to keep Orr in the press box, and that’s probably a good thing for both the Leafs and hockey. Burke said he doesn’t like that a player with Orr’s character no longer has a place in the league, but as a fan of winning I can’t say dislike that skill is trumping a player who has played five of 39 games and fought once – an unspontaneous, fairly meaningless bout with Shawn Thornton. Like it or not, the NHL is a results business in which the old Conn Smythe beat-em-in-the-ally adage no longer applies.

The lack of respect and accountability Burke refers to is not something that will be solved by the occasional Colton Orr game or shift. He’s bang on in identifying two waning principles in the modern game, but dirty hits are a part of a much larger issue that ranges from the message kids are receiving at a minor league level, to the speed of the game (an issue Burke says league GMs will soon be discussing), to how the league is handling player discipline.

Don’t get me wrong, hockey is a game that requires some measure of self policing. But the Downie antics on Tuesday night, as Burke implicitly referenced at one point, actually prove how this only goes so far within the framework of the rules. I’m a believer that you need good overall team toughness to handle incidences such as a “rat” like Downie running amok (I truly envy the Bruins in this regard), and to that end the Leafs did as much as they could do in the situation. Aulie, a big boy who has proven himself in donnybrooks before, stepped up for his team in exactly the form of toughness you like to see on your team. Downie didn’t want to fight. With the instigator – and roughing – rules in place, there’s only so much you can do without putting your team at a disadvantage. Colton Orr doesn’t change that reality.

(Side note: The other night in Buffalo, Kaleta was called for charging on Ladislav Smid in one of very few charging calls I’ve witnessed this season. Hopefully this gets brought up by somebody at a GMs meeting. Calling Downie and Kaleta’s running around for what is usually is – charging – might help limit their dirt. And call it dirty, I really didn’t mind what Connolly did to Downie from a defensive position. Worthwhile penalty).

Luke Schenn did fight later on in the game and is a good tough guy with a lot of size on the Leafs back end. Same for Komisarek and Phaneuf, though it’s less than ideal to have the latter in the box for extended spells. Mike Brown, a very able middleweight, will soon return to the lineup. All Burke’s team can do about punks like Downie is have more than a few willing to step up and hold him accountable if he steps out of line. Depending on the situation, some times two minutes for roughing is a worthwhile investment (insert PK joke here). Teams will get the memo.


Numbers Game

As Burke said, as much as he doesn’t like it, the Leafs have made the judgment that there are others who can contribute more on a regular shift. With fewer teams dressing heavyweights, fewer opportunities have been arising to get The Sheriff into duty.

With Lombardi and Brown returning from injury, and call ups throughout the season in Kadri, Boyce and Crabb remaining with the big club, it was implausible to keep Orr around for an appearance once every 10 games, especially an Orr looking like a shell of his former self after last year’s season-ending concussion.

You wonder if Rosehill will suffer the same fate shortly once Brown is back; once he returns, the Leafs will be at 14 forwards. It’s possible Crabb goes down instead.


Listen to audio of Burke’s presser here.