The Evolution of an Agitator (Part 2/2)

Nashville Predators forward Jordin Tootoo (right) has more in common with Vancouver Canucks emerging star forward Alex Burrows (left) than many people might expect. Vancouver’s infamous sandpaper merchant, Burrows, has grown into a consistent NHL scorer over the past three seasons. Tootoo looks to continue his own transformation from agitator to complete player in 2011-12. (Photo: Canucks.com)


The Jordin is Rising
In this story’s previous installment, I paid somewhat begrudging homage to the Vancouver Canucks’ mercurial forward, Alexandre Burrows, whose play in the Stanley Cup Final series versus the Boston Bruins has been the epitome of that adjective.

However, such is pretty much par for the course for The Agitator, and Burrows in particular, although his overall play has indeed come a long way in recent years and has become, quite frankly, his saving grace in my opinion.

I’ll have to admit that I didn’t know a lot about Burrows’ pre-NHL career, prior to writing this story. However, looking over his junior and minor league stats, I was struck with the realization of their surprising similarity with another player whom I do know a lot about; a player who fills a similar role in the Nashville Predators’ lineup.

It seems that every team has at least one player that everybody on the outside loves to hate. For the Preds, that guy is Jordin Tootoo. Toots is, quite vocally considered one of the most hated players in the league. In my opinion, it’s not because he’s dirty but because he’s great at what he does. However, I’ll refrain from the temptation of drawing any direct comparisons between Tootoo and Burrows over the question of their respective ‘dirtyness’ or lack thereof. That’s because despite playing similar roles for their respective clubs, I personally do not believe that the systems and/or philosophies of the coaches for whom they play operate on the same principles. They are, in my opinion, apples and oranges.

But that’s just my opinion, and perhaps a discussion for another time.

However I will comment briefly on one very positive similarity between Burrows and Tootoo that I believe might surprise some people. It’s in regard to offensive potential, which at first glance, particularly given that what he’s accomplished in recent years would appear to be squarely in Burrows corner.

But not so fast, my friend.

The Same…Only Different
At age 30, Alex Burrows is two years older than Tootoo, but has been an NHL player for one less season, having spent all or part of six seasons in juniors, the ECHL, and the AHL before sticking with the Canucks at midseason of 2005-06.

Likewise, Tootoo spent six seasons in preparation for his NHL career, having played four years of junior hockey before making the Preds out of training camp and playing the entire 2003-04 season in Nashville. He was subsequently sent to AHL Milwaukee to play during the NHL lockout season of 2004-05. Finally, he split time between Nashville and Brew City in 2005-06, before becoming a permanent fixture beginning in 2006-07.

Okay, so you know all that. What you may not be aware of is that in the 321 games he played in preparatory leagues (220 in Juniors; 101 in the AHL), Toots, as you might expect, racked up the penalty minutes —a whopping 1273 over those six years. And while those numbers at least used to fit his M.O. on the NHL level, here’s some that don’t. In his pre-NHL career, Tootoo averaged nearly 42 points per season, including his final two seasons for the Brandon Wheat Kings of the Western Hockey League, in which he averaged 72.5. Overall, he amassed 251 points in 321 games; an average of 0.781 points per game.

“So,” you say, “Lots of guys are better scorers in juniors and the minors than they end up showing on the NHL level. What’s that prove?”

Maybe nothing, maybe a lot; you see, I haven’t given you Alex Burrows’ numbers yet.

Burrows likewise spent six years in juniors and the minor leagues of North American pro hockey. He played two seasons of major junior for the Shawinigan Cataractes of the QMJHL. He then spent three of the next four years shuffling between three different ECHL teams and the AHL’s Manitoba Moose, which then was the Vancouver Canucks top minor league affiliate. Like Tootoo, Burrows’ only full season in the AHL was with Manitoba during the NHL lockout season of 2004-05.

But here’s the interesting part. In his six prep league seasons, Burrows played 368 games and registered 267 points for a per-game average of .725. For those non math-majors with bad short-term memory, that’s not nearly as good as Jordin’s numbers — more than half a goal less than Tootoo’s .781.

So, am I suggesting that Jordin Tootoo has more offensive upside than Alex Burrows?

In a word, no.  But…

Could The Best Be Yet to Come?
With the renewed vigor and resolve we saw in Tootoo following his stint with the NHL-NHLPA Substance Abuse and Behavioral Health Program from late last December through February be the start of something big? The ‘NEW’ Toots followed up his new mental and physical attitude with a that translated to more postseason points in the 2011 playoffs than in all of his previous five appearances combined. Could what we’re seeing now be the real Jordin Tootoo revealing himself for the first time? Could we be witnessing a Burrows-like transformation?

Or didn’t you know that prior to the 2007-08 season, Alex Burrows was little more than a bad Tootoo impersonator?

Early in his NHL career, Burrows was a light-scoring agitator who spent most of his ice time either on the penalty kill or running opposing players in order to get them to take penalties. For all his aggressive play, however, he had notoriously poor reputation as a fighter, unlike Tootoo, whose claim to fame as a disturber has always been his ability to do more than merely hit-and-run. Pound-for-pound, Toots is one of the best fighters in the NHL, having prevailed time and again over players bigger and taller than he.

Burrows, on the other hand, has long been accused of picking fights with typically smaller, and/or ‘non-fighter’ types, while further employing questionable checking tactics to accomplish his aggressive brand of sandpaper play. And often when he did raise the ire of an opponent whocould inflict damage on his wiry 199-pound frame, Alex is also well-known for cowering, or ‘turtling’ on the ice to escape harm — and more importantly — avoid the likelihood of a trip to the penalty box himself, which is usually the fate of his retaliating opponent.

And while he’s always been more offensively minded than Tootoo, it has only been in recent years, after finally being given a chance in an offensive role that Burrows has become the more complete — and infinitely more dangerous player that he is now. It is my contention that with a similar opportunity, given their past, a similar offensive awakening might be in the offing for Tootoo.

Alex Burrows, the NHL scorer, has only been in existence since just following the All-Star Break of the 2008-09 season. On February 12, 2009, in an effort to shake things up for his team, mired in an 8-game winless streak, Vancouver coach Alain Vigneault promoted Burrows to center the top line featuring the Sedin twins. He made the switch and never looked back as Burrows instant chemistry with the twins over the last two-and-a-half months of the regular season elevated his station as a scorer and playmaker like never before. Burrows’ 51 points for the season was 20 more than his previous NHL best.

Hockey, like no other sport is steeped in chemistry, teammate to teammate. For Burrows and the Sedins, the combination was magic. It makes you wonder how much better Jordin Tootoo could be with a full year playing with a more offensively-minded pair of linemates, such as the combo we saw at season’s end and in the playoffs with Blake Geoffrion and Matt Halischuk. Was the energy and confidence we saw in Toots at the end of the year a revelation or just an aberration?

Another point of comparison I believe to be significant is the comparative number of games played between Tootoo and Burrows, relative to the maturity of their respective game. Injury-wise, Burrows has been the far more durable of the two, which too has undoubtedly has played a positive role in his development as a complete player. Prior to missing the first month of the regular season last October, while recovering from offseason shoulder surgery, Burrows had remained remarkably injury-free throughout his career. He registered at least 81 games played in each of his four full NHL seasons, and enjoyed three consecutive years playing in all 82.

The oft-injured Tootoo, on the other hand, has never really come close to playing an 82-game campaign in his six full seasons with the Preds; his closest effort coming in 2008-09 when he took the ice 72 times. Sandwiched around that high-water mark of healthiness were seasons of 70 games his rookie season of 2003-04, followed by 65 (’06-‘07), 63 (’07-‘08), 51 (’09-10), and 54 (’10-’11).

Nevertheless, even with the in-and-out-of-the-lineup injury issues he’s battled, there were the beginnings of a definite maturation in Tootoo’s game, beginning in 2009-10. Though shortened to 51 appearances, largely due to a broken foot courtesy of a Shea Weber slapshot, when Tootoo was in the lineup he made the conscious effort to trim his affectation for the sin bin, and concentrate on defensive responsibility and offensive aggressiveness.

After averaging more than 113 penalty minutes in each of his three full seasons in the NHL, his 2009-10 totals were less than half that average the following season. Unfortunately for Tootoo, the reputation he earned early on has continued to precede him in spite of his apparent change of heart as a player.

In a game versus St. Louis last October, Toots was assessed with a charging major and a game misconduct, accounting for more than 40% of his penalty minutes for the season in one shot.

Nevertheless, Tootoo matched his season high totals in points while registering his second highest shot percentage. His engagement offensively was tremendous, particularly following his return from treatment in March. He’s no longer the guy shooting up the ice like a loose cannon, just looking for someone to destroy.

He’s no longer a one-trick pony.

The X-Factor
It may be pie in the sky to believe that such a change is possible, and in the grand scheme of things, it doesn’t really matter. The important part is that whatever destructive forces that were troubling Toots are now being dealt with and eliminated from his life. That’s the X-factor in this equation, and Tootoo may well be a significant x-factor in Nashville’s success in 2011-2012.

Whatever it was that spurred Jordin’s entry into the league substance abuse program this past season will no longer hamper his effort to play the game he loves to the best of his ability. Who knows how pervasive and to what extent that circumstance might have affected his performance up to now?

One thing is for certain, it was a different Jordin Tootoo who returned to the ice in March for Nashville following his involvement in the program. Will an even better Jordin Tootoo return to the ice in October?

Alex Burrows is a solid example of the power of chemistry and getting the shot to prove one’s talent in the NHL. Jordin Tootoo may not have the same talent, but he’ll definitely have the same shot to prove to himself how good he can be next season.

Roll on, Mighty Jordin. Roll on.

 

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finis

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