When the Toronto Maple Leafs claimed forward Frazer McLaren off waivers a few weeks back from the San Jose Sharks, many fans probably let out a collective groan. With Colton Orr and Mike Brown already on the roster, I’m sure Leaf supporters figured the last thing they needed was another player whose primary job was to get involved in fisticuffs. However, in recent games the Leafs’ fourth line has made a small contribution that has actually affected the outcome of the game, in a positive way.
Whether or not you believe fighting has a purpose or not in the game today, it’s getting harder to ignore just how ridiculous the concept is becoming. Or perhaps always has been. If you try and envision how fighting would work in other major professional sports like the NFL, MLB, or NBA, it almost becomes laughable. Can you imagine a shortshop dropping his glove and challenging a base runner in scripted fashion after he just doubled?
Fighting is still firmly entrenched in the culture of the NHL, but the whispers and enlightened individuals that are now present in today’s game give it an uncertain future. Not to mention the fact that the speed and talent level in the game currently, means enforcers need to bring more of a diverse skill set to the table. Will fighting be around five years from now? I’m not sure, but players who are only around to drop the gloves probably won’t be.
Orr might be the best example of someone who has had to evolve to survive in the NHL. After only skating in five games last season with the Leafs, he was sent down to the Toronto Marlies where he needed to make a change. Head coach Dallas Eakins told him he had to drop some weight in order to improve his skating. Orr continued to work with a trainer in the off-season to reduce his body fat and add muscle, so he could better move around on the ice.
Early on in 2013 it seems to be paying off. Orr looks like he’s skating much better out there and is getting in on the forecheck with more regularity. In fact, in Toronto’s last four games both Orr and McLaren have combined to put up four points, with each tallying a goal and an assist. They have also compiled 18 hits between them over that stretch.
Part of the credit for the success of the fourth line of late has to go to Randy Carlyle as well. The Leaf head coach has done an excellent job of putting the group in situations where they can succeed. Jay McClement, the defensively reliable centre, has played with Orr, McLaren, or Brown for much of the season so far. McClement’s presence allows for the line to not be as much of a liability in their own zone.
There was also a good example in Saturday’s win over the Ottawa Senators of how Carlyle is managing their ice-time. With just over seven minutes to play, the fourth group came out for a shift in the attacking zone. The Leafs proceeded to lose the draw and the Senators came down the ice and secured a face-off to the right of Ben Scrivens. Carlyle then removed the line with a draw now in their own end. Not putting them in a situation where they could be responsible for giving up a goal against helps to keep their confidence high. Both Orr and McLaren have finished just one game each this season with a minus rating.
Someone like Orr is never going to become a 50 or 60 point player, or even a third liner for that matter. However, he deserves a bit of credit for altering his game slightly to become a skater worthy of a roster spot. Even if the fourth line does nothing else but give the Leafs’ scorers a break now and then, that is still a crucial job. And in today’s NHL, that job is more important than fighting.