TORONTO – It only seems fitting that assistant coach Tim Hunter was running practice for the Toronto Maple Leafs when a fight broke out.
He’s been through more than his share of battles, as evidenced by a hooked nosed that juts in a couple different directions. Hunter’s face was also framed by a small grin on Wednesday after watching Dominic Moore and Jeff Finger tangle with each other during a defensive zone drill.
Finger caught Moore with a hard cross-check in the corner before the two exchanged a couple punches. Teammates were quick to get between the players and calm things down.
Even still, it made for an eventful skate on a day where Hunter and assistants Rob Zettler and Keith Acton were left in charge while head coach Ron Wilson attended the Toronto Marlies game.
Hunter didn’t mind seeing a little scrap happen on his watch.
“We talked to them at the end of practice and I said, ‘I like it. It’s good you guys compete, you’re teammates, that’s what we want,”‘ he said. “That’s the compete level we need from the drop of the puck, right through the lineup for 60 minutes. I know it’ll come.”
That message was even more pertinent after the Leafs got pushed around during a 6-3 loss to the Atlanta Thrashers on Tuesday night. A couple different players were caught with their heads down and winger Jason Blake suffered a suspected concussion thanks to a hit from Colby Armstrong in the third period.
He’ll be unavailable for Thursday night’s game in Ottawa so the Leafs called up tough guy Andre Deveaux from the AHL’s Marlies to replace him.
The 24-year-old Deveaux has yet to appear in an NHL game, but he has turned some heads with his play for the Marlies this season – in addition to racking up 54 penalty minutes in 13 games, he’s also scored six goals.
That he was summoned from the minors instead of a more skilled player speaks volumes about what the Leafs management thinks of the team’s current level of toughness. It’s an issue the players are looking to address.
“Frankly, (the loss to Atlanta) was quite embarrassing with our effort in terms of standing up for guys,” said defenceman Ian White. “We obviously aren’t the toughest group but everyone can stick together – there’s five guys out there at a time. You can be in guys’ faces.
“I think the biggest thing is that if they have a skilled guy coming across the middle, don’t be trying to poke the puck away from him. You’ve got to put him on the ice.”
The Leafs are 2-6-2 in their past 10 games and should have no trouble playing with a sense of urgency against the Senators. Brian Burke is expected to become the team’s new general manager as soon as this weekend and he’s certainly never made a secret of his love of hard-nosed hockey.
White spoke at length about the importance of creating doubt in the mind of an opponent by finishing bodychecks. It’s a relatively simple thing to do, but he hasn’t seen enough of it from players in blue and white lately.
“Just getting in the mix or make sure you finish every hit instead of maybe turning away,” said White. “If you’re going all the way down the ice, why stop in front of him? You might as well hit him.”
The Leafs don’t currently carry an enforcer, although Deveaux isn’t exactly a lightweight at six foot three and 240 pounds.
Jamal Mayers currently leads the team with five fighting majors and admits he’s dropped the gloves more often than he’s used to this season. However, the veteran forward doesn’t think that’s the kind of toughness the team needs to exert.
“It has nothing to do with fighting,” said Mayers. “It just means being tough to play against, being mean, killing the right kinds of penalties and sticking together above all else.”
Just because Moore and Finger exchanged some punches at practice doesn’t mean that there’s any division in the dressing room. Both players had already shrugged off the incident before boarding a flight to Ottawa on Wednesday afternoon.
“We need to pick up the intensity, it wasn’t there (against Atlanta),” said Finger. “We definitely don’t want to go around fighting our teammates, but like I said, it’s nothing personal. Stuff like that happens every year on every team I’ve ever played on.”
Added Moore: “We made up but there was no kissing.”