As the season winds down to an end, the Maple Leafs see themselves once again on the outside of the playoff circle. They basically need to win every game from this point on to even have a chance at making the postseason, with some losses coming to the five teams ahead of them. Chances are it isn't going to happen, and the Maple Leafs will be swinging their golf clubs in April instead of their hockey sticks.
What makes this season particularly hard is the fact that the Leafs were in a playoff spot for quite some time. Usually, they were trying to make up for a lack luster first half by pooling together a bunch of wins in the second half but just coming up short. This year was the complete opposite, in the fact that the Leafs went on a free fall and collapsed out of a playoff spot.
While this collapse may not have been as earth shattering as what happened to the Boston Red Sox or Atlanta Braves this past MLB season (both teams had a playoff spot with a 10-game lead before eventually losing on the last day of the season and not qualifying for the postseason), but for Toronto fans who had been suffering through seven years of futility, an eighth straight season seemed unfathomable.Not to mention that 45-year drought of no Stanley Cup. This city and its fans just wanted to see some postseason play, and it won't see any at the Air Canada Centre in 2012.
At the helm of this disaster is President and General Manager Brian Burke. I'm not saying it's his fault that the Leafs aren't in the postseason, but after watching this team not make the playoffs for a fourth straight year under his management, something has to give. After firing head coach Ron Wilson, he brought in Randy Carlyle to try and get some kind of spark out of his team. It has yet to happen, and it makes me wonder just how long Burke will remain at the top of the Leafs hierarchy.
Let's take a brief look at what has happened since Burke took over the Leafs.
It was his initial idea to come in and make this team tougher, adding some grinders to the roster. Not a bad idea, but you need to make sure that's the kind of system your coach wants to run and is capable of doing it successfully.
Then in his first offseason, he publicly stated that he would be doing anything he could to get John Tavares. The Leafs had the seventh overall pick while the Islanders (who were, and still are a rebuilding team) had the No. 1 overall pick. It didn't make sense for the Islanders to give up their pick unless they were going to get a significant package.
Instead of Burke being able to move up and acquire a higher pick—which could have gotten them a player the likes of Victor Hedman, Mat Duchene or Evander Kane—Burke picked Nazem Kadri with the seventh pick and has yet to see him live up to his potential.
That same offseason, he signed Mike Komisarek and Francois Beauchemin to a monster deal. He continued to add toughness, signing Colton Orr and Time Brent, and got their supposed No. 1 future goaltender in Jonas Gustavsson.
With all these moves being made and the level of veteran experience being brought in, Burke had thought he was closer to the playoffs than originally planned. He therefore sent two first-round draft picks and a second rounder to Boston in exchange for Phil Kessel. While Kessel has done well for this team since being acquired, the thought of losing out on a player like Tyler Seguin (who the Bruins got with using the Leafs pick that year) will really hurt them for years to come.
What hurts even more is the fact that the Bruins offered Kessel for defenseman Tomas Kaberle just a few months prior but Burke couldn't get Kaberle to move his no-trade clause. He also couldn't get the deal done in the summer months when the no-trade clause was lifted for a specific amount of time. Ironically Kaberle was eventually moved to Boston for Joe Colborne and a draft pick, but more on that in a bit.
When the season started to go down the drain, Burke realized he needed to really blow up the team. In came Dion Phanuef and Jean-Sebastian Giguere; out went Matt Stajan, Ian White, Jason Blake and Vesa Toskala, among others. This almost effectively put an end to the John Ferguson Jr. era as almost every player now on the Leafs roster was either acquired or drafted after JFJ left.
In the 2010 offseason, Burke named Dion Phanuef the Captain, signaling this was a new team that was fully ready to compete for a playoff spot. He brought in players like Clarke MacArthur, Kris Versteeg and Colby Armstrong and gave Keith Aulie time on the big league roster.
Once again, however, the team was not playing up to standards; before he could finish one full year with the Blue and White, Versteeg was traded. Francois Beauchemin was sent in what was thought to be a salary dump but ended up as a lopsided trade for the Leafs as they acquired Joffrey Lupul and prospect Jake Gardiner.
At the same time, the Leafs sent Kaberle packing on his way to Boston. They also discovered goaltender James Reimer after several injuries to both Giguere and Gustavsson and the Leafs (again) thought they had their future net minder. They also saw promise out of Kadri, Tyler Bozak and Luke Schenn. They went on a significant run at the end of the season but fell eight points shy of the playoffs. It was still a run that gave Leafs nation hope and put that thought of "maybe next year" in their heads once again.
This past offseason, all the experts were suggesting the Leafs needed one more top-six forward to carry them over the hump. They agreed the blue line (if all went well) could be solid, and if Phil Kessel and Joffrey Lupul continued to have chemistry as well as the Mac-Russian line (MacArthur, Grabovski, Nikolai Kulemin), then they could be competitive—but would still need a veteran top-six presence. Burke tried to address that by signing Tim Connolly. He also picked up Cody Franson and Matthew Lombardi from Nashville and David Steckle from New Jersey.
After a hot start, the Leafs have fallen out of the playoff mix, and Burke is once again scratching his head for the answer. It could have been when Montreal's Brian Gionta struck Reimer in the head and gave him a concussion, consequently ruining Reimer's confidence. It could have been when Brian Burke failed to make a move at the deadline. It could have been when he let go of head coach Ron Wilson.
We will never be able to pin point the exact moment the Leafs lost their playoff swagger. It's not as if they gave up, but they just seemed to have failed to remember how to win.
How much of that can be blamed on the GM? We have looked at some of the moves he has made in trying to turn this team into a contender. But how many more moves will he be allowed to make before the heads of MLSE decide they have seen enough and show him the door. Although rebuilding a hockey team does take some time, it seems as if Burke has changed his game plan from year to year, and so far none of them have worked.
Does he get one more season to make things right? If so, what lies ahead in the summer months? It always seems as if there are more questions than answers surrounding this team and the questions will pile up at seasons end. Can the Leafs afford a big contract and finally land at top six forward? Do they try and get a legitimate number one starting goalie? Does Randy Carlyle get through to this team with a full offseason to work with? It's Brian Burke’s job to answer these questions as best he can. He has been trying to get this team into the post-season for four years now and it has been the same result every year.
The only for sure thing is that Leafs nation is starting to get really fed up and if Burke wants to avoid hearing the ACC patrons chanting "Fire Bur-ky" he is going to have to make some convincing moves this off-season, if he gets that far.
Realistically, Burke blew up a roster that was going nowhere and gave it some potential. While not giving it as much fuel as it needed he still gave it a new life. That life is starting to fade and Burke will need to start searching for a way to rejuvenate it for next year.
Richard Wolowicz/Getty Images