Toronto, ON – When Brian Burke came to Toronto three years ago he made it clear that his version of the Maple Leafs wouldn't be pushed around. The guy who made a career out of constructing big, bruising hockey teams was going to muscle up an organization that had gone soft.
After using a similar recipe with success in places like Vancouver and Anaheim, the plan was a simple one. The first two lines would be scoring lines and the third and fourth lines would be the intimidation crew.
Now, three years into his tenure it seems that in some ways that mantra has changed.
As the NHL moves away from a time where big hits, fights, and the neutral zone trap defined the league into a new era where skill and speed are what precipitate success, the Maple Leafs have been following suit. Burke and his management team have adopted a new philosophy, one that will feature skilled players sprinkled much deeper into the lineup than in years past.
For Monday's first pre-season tilt against the Ottawa Senators, head coach Ron Wilson debuted a new lineup combination exhibiting that new philosophy. Playing alongside the physically bruising Colby Armstrong were two skilled playmakers in Tyler Bozak and Nazem Kadri. And if early results are any indication of things to come, it could be a third-line that stays together until opening night.
Combining for four points in Monday's 4-2 win, the trio were obviously the best line on the ice and they could be just what the doctor ordered for a team that finished near the bottom of the league in secondary scoring. They may not be the 'truculent', 'nose to the grindstone' type line that Burke would have envisioned when he first arrived here, but they could be a revelation.
A guy like Armstrong, who also has the ability to put the puck in the net, could be the main beneficiary of the new setup. He was brought to Toronto as a prototypical "Burke" kind of guy -- a scorer, mucker, grinder and big hitter all in one package -- and on a line with players like Bozak and Kadri he has the potential to reach the 20-goal mark once again. The relationship has the potential to be a symbiotic one as well, with Armstrong opening up the ice for his smaller, quicker linemates.
With more freedom on the ice Bozak didn't waste any time showing off the results of his strenuous summer training regimen on Monday, scoring a pair and adding an assist. While Nazem Kadri looked faster and more explosive than he did at any point last season.
However, for Kadri to be successful for an entire campaign, he needs to realize that the fancy moves that worked in Junior won't always work in the NHL. Once he figures that out and gains a few more pounds he should be fine, because his skill with the puck is undeniable.
As we get closer to the start of the regular season the success of the third line might not be the first, second or even third storyline that fans will follow. How newcomer Tim Connolly fits with Phil Kessel and Joffrey Lupul on the top line or whether James Reimer can find success in his sophomore year will surely dominate the headlines, but the team's new depth should not be overlooked. More scoring from the role players will be crucial if the Leafs are going to have any chance at playing post-season games in April.