As the chants of "Lets go Blue Jays" rained down from the rafters of the Air Canada Center, so did any hope of finishing the season with some pride and the team's heads held high.
Looking back on it, when the city of Toronto chants for the Blue Jays at the end of March, you know things are at an all-time low in Leafs Nation.
To put it in other words, the Blue Jays sell out once a season (the season opener) and draw fans for the New York Yankees, Philadelphia Phillies and Boston Red Sox. Rarely, if ever, do you see 35,000-plus people fill the Rogers Center.
The Leafs, on the other hand, are a different story. They haven't won a title since 1967 and haven't made the playoffs in the modern era of hockey—post-lockout. Yet to no one's surprise, everyone still shows up to the games, packing the arena nightly, usually standing room only.
The Blue Jays are starting to ascend up the ladder after diligent work by new GM Alex Anthopolous to rebuild the team through drafts and develop their own talent. The Jays went from one of the top-five worst farm systems in baseball to one of the best in all of baseball in a matter of a couple of years.
Pretty amazing, right?
Now on to the Leafs, who have traded away two of their top first-round picks in the last few years, and right now as it stands, have only one first-round draft pick that they drafted still playing with the NHL club (Luke Schenn) in the last 15 years. Nazem Kadri remains in the minors.
Pretty telling, as the Blue Jays this season will have at least four first-round draft picks they've drafted playing on their regular 25-man roster, and many more down the pipeline, as well as other top ranked talent they have acquired who were first-round picks
I don't like comparing two different sports, but after the chanting going on tonight, I could not resist.
Anthopolous' challenge as a GM was to build a young team with controllable contracts. To this very day, Anthopolous has stuck to the plan and is just beginning to reap the rewards of sticking to his guns.
Unlike Anthopolous, Burke's philosophy on building a team was from the goalie-out. He believes that the foundation of a great team starts with their goaltender and works its way out. A solid top-four defence is the next part of the equation; without it, you run the risk of having to outscore teams to win. Usually a feat that's hard to keep going.
He believes that the best way to build a dynasty is to utilize drafting to the best of their ability and let them hone their skills in the AHL until they are ready for prime-time.
Lastly, he believes in a well-defined top six and bottom-six for a set of forwards. The top-six forwards are your skilled forwards, while your bottom six take care of penalty killing and defending leads .As a whole, along with the head coach, he believes the team should play with pugnacity, belligerence and testosterone.
Now I ask you: Does what I just said apply at all to the current Leafs roster? In a quick two-word response, I say, "hell no."
What Burke so far has built is quite simply a mish-mash group of players, all of whom don't really have a role with the team.
His team does not play with any sort of belliegerence because quite frankly, they aren't built to play that way.
He brings in a coach who thrives on tough play like that, but the results have been even worse than before simply because he's asking the Leafs do to something they just can't, and that's play with tenacity, grit and smarts.
If we take a quick look at the three most pressing needs of the Leafs—forwards, defence and goaltending—when in comparison with the rest of the Eastern Conference, the differences are very noticeable.
Just looking at the playoff teams, I'll compare every one of them to the Leafs.
Top Six: Phil Kessel, Joffrey Lupul, Mikhail Grabovski, Tyler Bozak, Clarke MacArthur, Nikolai Kulemin
Average Size: Six feet tall, 190 pounds. As a whole, a skilled offensive unit, but lack size and ability to play tough. Also not noted for their defensive play.
Bottom Six: Tim Connolly, Matthew Lombardi, Joey Crabb, David Steckel, Mike Brown, Carter Ashton
Average Size: 6'2", 205 pounds. As a whole, they have their moments, but they really lack any offensive ability to help spread the offence out.
Average Size: 6'3", over 210 pounds. On paper, it seems like a very good defence, but as a whole, they have stunk. Most of them can't move the puck with intelligence and have a tough time keeping up with many NHL teams.
Goaltending: Has been mediocre at best, and I'm being nice. No clear No. 1, and the team as a whole has no confidence in either goaltender.
The Rangers have a well-rounded team. Anchored by a world-class goalie, a stellar team defence and a great coach, the Rangers are the epitome of what the Leafs strive to be. They have built their team via trade, free agency and of course, mostly via the draft. They are where they are today because of the draft.
A belligerent, tough, nasty team to play against, the Bruins have given the Leafs fits this season. They have a clearly defined group of forwards, a tough veteran defence and two studs manning the pipes in Beantown. They have built their team through savvy trades, free agent pickups and via the draft. The likes of Patrice Bergeron, Tyler Seguin, Brad Marchand, Adam McQuaid and David Krejci are homegrown talents.
Likely the worst team to make the playoffs, they have long been the franchise you wanted to avoid. Because of a plethora of cap space, it allowed GM Dale Tallon to build his team via free agency and salary dump trades, which can easily improve your team quickly.
Their forwards are all fast and somewhat skilled, but pretty small. Their defence is led by veteran Brian Campbell who has anchored them this season. Goalie Jose Theodore has been a stable presence in between the pipes in South Beach.
With rookie Jacob Markstrom ascending quickly, the Panthers are set for years in net. Markstrom has been compared to a young Henrik Lundqvist when he was drafted.
A classic example of how to build your team through the draft. The Penguins were on the verge of collapse before Sidney Crosby was drafted. A team with an aging arena and a fanbase that had all but given up on them.
Unlike the Leafs, who have constantly screwed up with draft picks, the Penguins have pretty well hit gold with their top draft picks. Evgeni Malkin, Sidney Crosby, Kris Letang, Jordan Staal and Marc-Andre Fleury make up five of their top six players, along with forward James Neal, who was acquired for homegrown talent Alex Goligoski.
They managed to even get a replacement defenceman in Matt Niskanen in the deal, a deal to this day the Stars probably regret.
This is how you build a team via the draft as well, but unlike the Penguins, they have mostly built their team up with later first-round picks. The likes of Mike Richards, Jeff Carter, Claude Giroux and Matt Read were all taken in the first round or later.
Richards and Carter were shipped out for young talent like Jakub Voracek, Wayne Simmonds, Brayden Schenn and Sean Couturier, all of whom play major minutes for them this season. The defence is a battered group, but they are a veteran group when healthy. I really commend their young defencemen for filling the void left by Chris Pronger and Andrej Meszaros very nicely.
In the offseason, they filled their goaltending void they had for years by signing Ilya Bryzgalov to a monster deal. Although I don't agree with the length of the contract, that presence of Bryzgalov between the pipes has allowed the young kids to develop. It also helps that they have vets like Jaromir Jagr, Kimmo Timonen, Scott Hartnell and Danny Briere there to help guide the youngsters.
The Devils may be in trouble in the coming years, but as a whole, they are a pretty good team. Their forwards are very good offensively, but are even better defensively. Their defence isn't flashy, but it gets the job done. Meanwhile, they likely have the best goaltender to ever play the game in net for them.
They are a veteran group led by the likes of Ilya Kovalchuk, Zach Parise, Patrik Elias and Travis Zajac. Although they are aging and in need of a goaltender to eventually replace Brodeur, the Devils are always a threat to make the postseason.
Along with the Panthers, they are the other surprise team to possibly make the playoffs. They are a team led by three players: Jason Spezza, Erik Karlsson, and Craig Anderson. The rest of the team is rather pedestrian, but these three players are the reason for where they are today. Spezza's been a beast offensively and is one of the best faceoff men in the game.
Erik Karlsson has been Bobby Orr like on the back end, nearly averaging a point per game as a defenceman. He has been out of this world. Anderson has led the Senators in net playing consistent hockey while tending the nets.
The Senators are a team in transition right now. They still could use some additions, especially with Daniel Alfredsson soon retiring, but the future is bright in the nation's capital.
This is yet another team that fits the mold of what Brian Burke builds his teams as. However, the Sabres are more finesse rather than bruising. An absolute stud manning the pipes, Ryan Miller has single handedly led the team back to the playoffs after sitting in as low as 14th in the Eastern Conference.
They have a clearly defined top and bottom six, and meanwhile, boast one of the deeper defences in the league led by young defenceman Tyler Myers. Veterans Robyn Regehr, Jordan Leopold, Andrej Sekera, Christian Ehrhoff and Mike Weber give the club stability on the back end. Also, Marc-Andre Gragnani and Alex Sulzer add to the Sabres' depth on the back end.
Clearly, the Leafs are still in a state of flux. What direction do they want to go?
Obviously, by hiring Randy Carlyle, the team wants to play a more defensive, tougher game, so moves should be made to build the team in that direction.
With the drafting of the likes of Brad Ross, Tyler Biggs and Stuart Percy, it's clear the Leafs have some key pieces to soon add to the puzzle, but in reality, they are still a good two to three years away.
My question to you all is, after looking over how every playoff team has been built, what exactly are the Leafs doing wrong?
I want to hear from you, so feel free to comment.
Thanks for reading.
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