Brian Burke's decision to stick his neck out for his old buddy Ron Wilson is admirable on a certain level pertaining to loyalty. However, for a fan base like Leafs Nation, with a team that hasn't seen the playoffs since 2004, this very move has placed the target squarely on the back of Brian Burke.
I for one was not in favour of giving a coach who has achieved a less than mediocre record an extension. Yet, I also didn't believe firing Ron Wilson was the answer. That being said, if you are going to extend a coach who has achieved so little because he wasn't given good pieces to work with, it is now on the GM to give his coach the necessary pieces. The penalty kill has been atrocious in the three-and-a-half seasons that Wilson has been at the helm, and the internal candidates have done absolutely nothing to fix it; it is clear they will not. Brian Burke must make some key moves to fix it. Making the conservative move of picking up a journeyman is not going to cut it.
The Leafs are one of the NHL's youngest teams with John-Michael Liles and Tim Connolly being the only players 30 years of age or older. I am not suggesting that the Leafs go out and acquire a grey-beard to right the ship. Instead, what Burke and his charges must acquire is an impact forward, one who can make a difference on the score sheet and on the penalty kill all at once.
The most logical target is Eric Staal of the Carolina Hurricanes, who is easily on pace for his worst season since his rookie year. The Hurricanes are flat-out bad this season, and the concussion suffered by their young star Jeff Skinner has all but derailed their season. Burke must stick his neck out further and put a package together that 'Canes GM Jim Rutherford cannot refuse. I know other GMs will make a play for a star like Staal, but since he has a no-trade clause and a cap hit of over $8 million per season, it puts the Leafs in the driver seat to acquire his services. According to capgeek.com, the Leafs have about $1.4 million in cap room due to long-term injury players, so to make this trade work the Leafs would likely need to include Mikhail Grabovsky and Luke Schenn, along with a likely prospect such as Stuart Percy and a first-round pick.
Failing to land Staal is a realistic possibility, since it seems likely that many teams will jump into the fray, and the offers could get stupid. However the Leafs are more desperate than almost any team in the league, despite what Burke and Wilson would lead to you believe. Other potential names that could be made available would be Bobby Ryan, Ryan Getzlaf and Rick Nash, all players that Brian Burke covets, and players who would make a huge impact on this Leafs squad. At the very least Burke must land a great penalty killer, as this penalty killing debacle has already spiraled out of control and cost the Leafs dearly. Amazing as it is, the Leafs' penalty killing, which was 27th last year, has fallen to last in the NHL, and that is with the hiring of two new assistant coaches who were meant to help the horrific special teams that the Leafs suffered with (their power play has been near the top all year long).
With new ownership set to take over, Burke must land an impact player to not only save the Leafs season, but to save himself from being in the line of fire. If the Leafs miss the playoffs for the seventh season in a row, Ron Wilson, extension and all will be fired, and Burke will be the next to go. As of this writing, the Leafs sit 10th in the Eastern Conference after a disappointing 3-2 defeat to the Winnipeg Jets, a team that was tied with Toronto coming into the game with an identical 18-14-5 record. What made this loss even worse for the Leafs was the fact that two of the three Jets' goals came on the power play, and the other came mere seconds after another power play ended.
Knowing Brian Burke, he will make that splash, and it will be made in the next 30 days well ahead of the February 27 trade deadline.