Problems With A Puncher's Payday

Jeff Veillette (Jeffler)
June 14 2013 12:57PM

Yesterday, the Toronto Maple Leafs signed Colton Orr to a two year contract. As with every transaction this team has made in the history of ever, there's three groups of opinion that feel very strong about this move. Some see it as horrible. Some see it as fantastic. Some say they don't care. Oddly, the "not caring" crowd seems to be the loudest, but it's a matter of who has the most powerful scream, as everybody appears to have something to say. Personally, I don't think it's in the best interests of the team, but wanted to take all factors into consideration. Here's an over-analysis:

Does It Even Help?

Lets be real about this; Colton Orr isn't here to play hockey. He's here to throw punches, because the Toronto Maple Leafs are of the philosophy that having quality enforcers is a necessity to win hockey games. Specifically, that a fight is able to change the momentum of a hockey game, and an enforcer protects their teammates when someone takes a run at them.

These are anecdotal, subjective beliefs that are rather hard to objectively respond to in the grand scheme of the game of hockey. On the other hand, you can absolutely look at Colton Orr's play this year and say that he does neither of those things. Lets look at how his fights change the tide of the game..

  • The average Colton Orr fight comes 4 and a half minutes into the game. Of his thirteen bouts, five came in the first three minutes, nine in the first five, twelve in the first eight, and all in the first twelve minutes of the first period. Until March 16th, Orr had not had a fight in a game where a goal was scored by either team.
  • After that, curiously, Orr seemed to only fight in games where the Leafs scored early (5 of 6 games), usually doing so shortly after the goal. Why? Probably because his opponent was attempting the momentum change situation people think that he's doing with the team. The Leafs lead 4 of those 5 games prior to the fight, and lost 3 of them, 
  • "But a fight doesn't have the staying power to last an entire game!", you may say. While true, there's a correlation. The Leafs were first to score in six of those thirteen games, a 46.2% efficiency. Coincidentally, that was their points percentage in games where Orr fought, going 5-6-2 in that span.
  • Toronto's goal differential before an Orr fight was +5, scoring 6 and allowing 1 in 59.3 minutes (a blowout game!). Their differential over the 731 minutes played afterwards is -8, scoring 34 and allowing 42. Over a full season's minutes, that would be a goal differential of -31, good for 13th in the East, 26th in the NHL, and 43 worse than Toronto's +12 effort this year. Simply put, it's not giving the team "positive momentum"
  • The idea that a fight can lead to a quick goal is very much circumstantial as well. Yes, four of the thirteen scraps Orr was in were followed by a goal from one of the teams in the next five minutes, but that doesn't mean much of anything. On average, a goal was scored 11.27 minutes after the gloves had dropped. Divide that by 60 minutes (accounting for overtime would be a hassle and change the number very slightly), and you're looking at 5.324 goals per game. The league wide goals per game this year? 5.307. The effect on goals is in your mind.
  • Oddly enough, three of Toronto's six times scoring first after a fight came from one of the five fights Orr lost. So is the point to win the fight or lose so the team can avenge your metaphorical death? If it's the latter, why do you need somebody good at it?

So what we have, are fights that don't change the amount of goals, but tend to take the momentum that is rarely there yet, but usually in Toronto's favour when it is, and hand it to the other team. You can say that you don't think it helps the other team, but then you're also admitting that it wouldn't be helping the Leafs if the stats were showing a positive differential for Toronto. Either way, he either has a neutral or a negative one. You can't argue for a positive one. But he's at least defending his teammates, right?

  • Five of Colton Orr's fights come immediately after a faceoff is taken, a trademark of staged fights.
  • Of these thirteen fights, not a single one of these is in defense of a teammate. Every single one of them involves finding his guy and dropping the gloves.
  • On the other hand, Chris Neil and Chris Thorburn both fought Orr as a retaliation to him hitting one of their teammates. This makes him the enforced, not the enforcer in this situation.
  • His guy of choice is another regular fighter. Every single time. Patrick Kaleta is the closest thing to an exception, but for an annoying pest, he still managed to rack up four fights in a shortened season.

Colton Orr doesn't fight guys to teach them a lesson. Colton Orr fights guys that seem like interesting opponents to him at times that him and his sparring mate feel convenient. It makes sense, in that there aren't guys that would be targets on a fourth line, and he's not simply good enough to play hockey with the guys that they would actually go after (he also seems to believe that Nazem Kadri can take care of himself against guys nearly a foot taller). These guys become useless in the playoffs, where Evgeni Malkin is currently tied for the lead in fighting majors and staged fights get you scratched for the rest of the year. But if that's the case, what point is there in having a primary enforcer on the team? Besides..

Oversaturation

Let's say that having a guy who can step in and fight when need be, whether in defence of a teammate, to change the momentum of the game, or any of that fun intangible stuff is actually a necessity. I don't think it is, and Orr doesn't help the argument, but stay with me. Why does that mean Orr needs to be signed?

The Leafs had 44 fighting majors last season. Over the course of a full season, that would pace out to 75, which they haven't done or even approached since 1990-91. You can argue that they shouldn't be near the bottom of the league. But losing Orr's fights entirely, even if we're pretending that someone wouldn't take his place for any of them, the Leafs still finish with their second most fighting majors post-2004 lockout. The only year that would be slightly higher is 2009/10, Orr's first season here, where he dropped the gloves 23 (!!!) times.

If a dedicated fighter must be kept, Frazer McLaren is a better hockey player, and equally good face puncher. He's also a well liked RFA, so I'm sure this means the Leafs will keep both. In a world with neither of them, Mark Fraser can be a decent third paring defenceman while also dropping the gloves (something he did on the Toronto Marlies, and something he did 9 times with the Leafs). Dion Phaneuf should be on the ice as much as he can be, but he's proven capable of stepping up to the task. Much of the team has defended themselves in the past, even the skilled forwards like Kadri and Kessel. This isn't a team that runs around scared, this isn't a team without enforcers. The team identity doesn't change without Colton Orr. They're still though in the sense that they don't back down from physicality, don't (typically) break down mentally, and are willing to sacrifice to make a play. They just lose a person to point to if the argument becomes "my dad can beat up your dad". This is a team with a surplus of an unimportant skill set, one who's holding onto that easily replaced surplus instead of addressing other issues.
 

Dreams Money Can Buy

"But Jeff!" you'll respond. "It's just $925,000! Why does that matter?"

Yes, we're talking about approximately a million dollars. A roster of 20 Colton Orr's doesn't come close to the Cap Floor. By that theory, it's insignificant, but a contract like this has more to it than what meets the eye.

First, I want you to consider what you're giving him for what he's giving you. Orr averaged 6:23 of ice time per game this year. That would like giving a guy 2.5 million dollars a year to play medium-high second line minutes. Not bad, but when after the punches he turns out to be a 20 point scorer at best, you don't like that guy nearly as much. Essentially, it's like Colby Armstrong's contract, except pro-rated to minutes. We all know how everybody felt about him leading up to his buyout, because of that contract.

On a similar train of thought, what kind of difference does a million dollars make? Yes, it's nothing on Orr, but tack it on or break it off a more important player's contract and your opinion on them. John-Michael Liles goes from amnesty candidate if he drops to 2.8M. Nikolai Kulemin is lead to the airport with pitchforks if you bring him up to 3.8M. James Reimer is... not the best example, he'd be a steal even if you added a million. But you can repeat this across the league with a ton of players and massively sway the opinion of people to other directions. I feel this is relevant, because if Orr loses his one strength, either by a teammate taking his place or by him starting to lose fights, his effective value is zero. It's a total sink to the team. He'll be a rare case of a million dollar player being a million dollars overpaid, a million dollars that could be spent elsewhere, and a million dollars that could have been more appropriately used, next year, and beyond.

Key word, beyond. Even if you think fighting is useful. Even if you think Orr is the right guy to do it. In a world where these kinds of players come and go, where the salary cap is about to drop, and where you have a large chunk of the team's core up for new deals in the next two summers, signing an enforcer, one in his 30's, no less, makes little to no sense. Why handicap yourself?

Yes, there's the possibility of burying him in the minors ($925,000 fits ever-so-conveniently under the new CBA as the max salary without penalty for the next two years) , but at that point you're taking away a roster spot from a developing player who could use it, or a veteran who can produce and help the prospects move along further. This is situation that's already happened, though Dallas Eakins didn't hesitate to scratch him frequently, including most of the 2012 playoffs until injuries made him a necessity. To think that we're talking about a repeat scenario as a fall out on a brand new contract is a special kind of odd.

In Summation

I really didn't want this to be a "beat up on Colton Orr" article. For one, Colton Orr could beat me up with a blindfold on. But importantly, I do respect that he's put in a lot of effort to stick around. He's tried adding elements to his game, he's recovered from serious concussions upper body injuries, and does whatever he can to hold an NHL job. My interactions with him have been nothing but good. On a strictly personal level, I'm happy for Colton Orr. But there's a reality here.

The Toronto Maple Leafs were in an odd position when Orr was first brought in. The team was gutted out, being rebuilt from scratch, and had no physical edge or concept of intimidation. They were seen as pushovers, because many of them were. Bringing in Orr was an important part of changing that and building an identity. But that was the summer of 2009. It's four years later, and this team is full of players that are gritty, players that can defend themselves, and players that can push around others. We're hitting a redundancy point, and when you do that, the players you keep are the ones that help you win hockey games more than the others.

Colton Orr is the last player I think of when I read that sentence to myself.

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I bring news about the Toronto Marlies, opinions about the Toronto Maple Leafs, and a bunch of ridiculous thoughts about everything else.
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#1 whichonespink
June 14 2013, 02:11PM
Trash it!
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I'm a Liberal who loves hockey fights. I don't like rats like Marchand. Sadly Marchand is never going to fight Orr, and I don't care if Orr fights another knuckle dragger. I like player that can play and fight. The ultimate is Wendel, sadly, again, Orr isn't Wendel. I was looking forward to seeing his contract expire, it should only have been 2-3 yrs and not 4, now we're in for 6. It's too much money that could go towards someone with hockey skill, like Fraser, that could have paid for his new deal, and we would still have a roster place left to fill and 925k left to spend. Its' not the money, its the cap. I guess you could argue that hockey is not just a game and a business but is also entertainment, that would work in a place where they don't have 19k bums in the seats for every game and thousands of other who want to be there too. Bottom line, he's not needed to win, or entertain, he brings in exactly zero extra fans. If a rat injures Kadri, is Orr going to be able to protect him? No, the best he can do is go out and goon one of their players or fight their face puncher. Bad call, and don't the Leafs have several more important player to sign/resign, like Kari, Kessel, Gunnarson, and Franson? If you have a spot and cap left over, then you think about signing him. If he walked and went to another team, would that really hurt the Leafs? I don't think so.

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