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Your! Call: Should the Leafs sacrifice toughness for skill?

Pat Lovgren, TSN.ca

2/28/2013 4:07:17 PM

With nearly half the NHL's regular season already in the rear-view mirror, the Toronto Maple Leafs are in a position to accomplish something they haven't done since players such as Ron Francis, Brian Leetch and Calle Johansson dotted their roster: make the post-season.

Playing an aggressive, in-your-face style implemented by head coach Randy Carlyle, the Leafs lead the NHL in total fights and have four players with five or more majors.

An emphasis on a more physical, rugged style paid off early, as Toronto jumped out to a 10-6 start, highlighted by a 6-0 thrashing of the rival Canadiens at the Molson Centre where they nearly ran Montreal out of their own building.

But after looking like one of the NHL's top teams through the first one-third of the season, the Leafs have been up-and-down over their last five games, recording just four points, and falling to seventh in the Eastern Conference.

Heading into last night's matchup with the rival Canadiens, Carlyle's squad was looking to re-establish the consistent play they had shown earlier in the year, but the disheartening 5-2 loss served to raise even more questions about the success of the team going forward.

Instead of engaging the Leafs in their own brand of confrontational, drop-the-gloves style of play, Montreal simply, "skated them out of the rink, they outworked them, they won every battle," Bryan Hayes remarked on Leafs Lunch on TSN 1050.

"Therrien outcoached Carlyle. Therrien clearly told his team, 'pretend they (Toronto's tough guys) don't exist'," Hayes said, referring to how the Canadiens took advantage of their speed and skill advantage and made Carlyle pay for playing tough-guy Colton Orr nearly 15 minutes.

"You can't have that," Hayes said. "I'm all for the physical style…but you can't have guys like that playing 15 minutes."

Moving forward, it will be interesting to see if teams take a cue from Therrien's squad and instead of engaging the Leafs at their own game, look to take advantage of the speed and skill mismatch presented by a team who dresses three forwards in Orr, Mike Brown and Frazer McLaren who have combined for six points and 16 major penalties in 43 games.

Although the issue of dressing more players than any other team whose primary role is to intimidate and drop the gloves is an important one, it can be argued the Leafs success will ultimately be determined by the contributions the team gets from their top-end players.

And more than anything else, Toronto's inconsistency the last couple of weeks can also be laid at the feet of the team's front-line players.

The Leafs top line of Phil Kessel, Tyler Bozak and James van Riemsdyk along with the team's best defenceman, Dion Phaneuf have combined to record a just two points and a minus-14 rating over their last three games – two of which have been home losses.

And as TSN 1050's Jonas Siegel noted, Bozak and Kessel set season lows in ice time versus the Habs, while van Riemsdyk didn't record a shot for the first time all year.

Over the course of the season, the trio has been solid, but unspectacular, with van Riemsdyk's 11 goals contrasted with the four Kessel has tallied.

Toronto's biggest surprises up front have come from players such as Nazem Kadri and Matt Frattin, who have combined for 12 goals and 28 points in 31 games, despite averaging bottom-six forward minutes.

On defence, the pairing of Cody Franson and Mark Fraser have contributed at both ends of the ice, with Franson recording 12 points in 18 games, and Fraser leading the NHL with a plus-16 rating.

So, what do you think?

What adjustments should Carlyle make, if any? Should he rely more on the speed and skill of his supporting cast of players such as Kadri and Frattin (when he returns to the lineup) to supplement his top scorers or should he stay with what has made the team successful for the majority of the season and continue to emphasize an abundance of toughness and intimidation.

It's Your! Call.