Do not worry Leafs Nation, all is not lost.
The Leafs have good prospect-depth internally and have options via free agency and the NHL Draft that will help them turn things around next season.
General Manager Brian Burke and Head Coach Randy Carlyle could bring this team back to the postseason next year.
Current Leafs Top Prospects (from Hockey's Future)
|Nazem Kadri||C/W||First line forward||He should start the year at the NHL level and stay there.|
|Joe Colborne||C||Top six forward||He needs more seasoning and will likely start with the Marlies in the AHL, but will be one of the first call-ups.|
|Jesse Blacker||D||Top four defenseman||He will spend next season at the AHL level developing his game at the pro level.|
|Carter Ashton||W||Second line forward||He will spend most of the 2012-2013 season at the AHL level, but may see some in season call-ups in the event of injury with the big club.|
|Matt Frattin||W||Second line forward||He will be playing with the Maple Leafs at the NHL level next season.|
|Gregg McKegg||C/W||Second line forward||Will begin his development at the pro level in the AHL next season.|
|Tyler Biggs||W||Second line forward.||Likely to continue playing at the NCAA level next season.|
|Stuart Percy||D||Second pairing defenseman.||Will continue developing in junior hockey at the CHL level.|
|Brad Ross||W||Second line forward||Should spend much of the season at the AHL level|
|Jake Gardiner||D||Top-four defenseman||He will be playing with the Leafs next season at the NHL level and should see his playing time increase after impressing in his rookie season.|
|Jerry D'Amigo||W||Third line forward with offensive upside||He will continue to develop at the AHL level.|
Third pairing defenseman
|I expect to see him at the NHL level next year.|
|Spencer Abbot||C||Third line forward||He will develop his game at the AHL level.|
|Jussi Rynnas||G||No.1 or 1A NHL goalie||He will continue to develop and get more starts at the AHL level.|
|Mark Owuya||G||Backup goalie||He will bounce between the ECHL and AHL levels.|
|Ben Scrivens||G||Backup or 1A NHL goalie||He may land the backup role with the Leafs, but is more likely to spend most of next year at the AHL level.|
It is clear that the Toronto Maple Leafs have a much deeper prospect pool than when Brian Burke arrived on the scene.
Currently they stand to draft fifth overall or higher in the 2012 NHL Entry Draft.
That would give them a chance at the following prospects (from TSN.ca):
|Nail Yakupov||LW||First line winger|
|Mikhail Grigorenko||C||First line center|
|Ryan Murray||D||No. 2 or 3 shutdown defender|
|Filip Forsberg||LW||First line power forward|
|Mathew Dumba||D||Top-two defender and power-play quarterback|
|Jacob Trouba||D||Top-two defenseman|
|Alex Galchenyuk||C||Top-six center|
|Radek Faksa||C||Top-six forward|
|Morgan O'Reilly||D||Top-four offensive defenseman|
|Griffin Reinhart||D||Top-two defenseman|
|Zemgus Girgensons||C||A gritty two-way forward with second line potential.|
The Leafs need some top talent at forward and picking fifth overall or better in this year's draft clearly gives them the chance to select this type of player.
Who do the Toronto Maple Leafs have to deal with internally regarding free agency?
The Leafs have 11 restricted free agents needing contracts for next season.
This group is highlighted by Nikolai Kulemin, Matt Frattin, Cody Franson, Jussi Rynnas, Korbinian Holzer and Ben Scrivens.
Brian Burke will likely bring back all of these players. Franson could become part of a trade package in the offseason to acquire a starting netminder.
Brian Burke also has eight unrestricted free agents to consider this season.
This group includes Jonas Gustavsson, Joey Crabb, Philippe Dupuis, Mike Zigomanis, Matt Lashoff, Jay Rosehill, Ryan Hamilton and Jeff Finger.
Burke should bring back Crabb, Zigomanis and Lashoff. Joey Crabb has proven he is a solid third-line NHL forward and may be able to slot in amongst the top six in a pinch.
While Zigomanis is excellent on faceoffs and could fit well as a fourth liner in Randy Carlyle's system.
Lastly, Lashoff had an unfortunate injury that sidelined him early in the season. However, he is a good puck-moving defenseman which could be effective on the Leafs' third pairing.
Do not expect Gustavsson or Finger to be back with the Leafs.
They clearly believe Reimer is their goalie of the future and there will not be room for "The Monster" once they acquire a veteran netminder to tandem with Reimer.
Finger, on the other hand, may wind up elsewhere in the NHL as a sixth or seventh defenseman with a much more cap-friendly contract.
External free agents the Leafs should consider:
|Chris Mason||G||35||He has shown that he can be a solid tandem goaltender who can be the starter in a pinch. Would be a good veteran presence for Reimer to learn from.|
|Tomas Vokoun||G||35||Despite his struggles in Washington this season, the many years he was a solid starter for Florida and Nashville are no fluke. He could give the Leafs solid goaltending for another few seasons while Reimer develops.|
|Martin Biron||G||34||He would come on a cap-friendly contract, is a great teammate and is great in the room. He also can still be an effective starter in this league.|
|Josh Harding||G||27||He has been working on his game, waiting for his chance behind Nicklas Backstrom in Minnesota for a few years and is ready to be a solid NHL starter.|
|George Parros||F||32||Still not overly old and the Burke-Carlyle-Parros Anaheim connection is obvious. He is a good enforcer that can still play the game.|
|Arron Asham||F||33||He is a solid bottom-six player and is tough as nails. A perfect fit in Carlyle's style of play. He would also be good in the room and provide veteran leadership.|
|Brandon Prust||F||28||Another solid bottom-six player, much like Asham. He can fight and still play the game effectively.|
|Brad Stuart||D||32||He has played for the Red Wings and is an efficient puck mover and stay-at-home defender. He would be a good pairing partner for Jake Gardiner|
|Greg Zanon||D||31||He is a solid defensive defenseman that blocks many shots, but can still move his feet well.|
|Chris Campoli||D||27||He is not overly physical, but does not shy away from contact. He is an effective third pairing, puck-moving defender.|
Other players like Zach Parise and Ryan Suter are a given that Burke should try for. But I do not believe it is realistic that they will land in Toronto.
How much salary cap space will Brian Burke have to work with (CapGeek.com)?
Currently the Leafs will have $58,843,333 in payroll committed to 19 players for the 2012-2013 NHL season.
If the cap rises to the expected $70,000,000 range they will have $11,156,667 to work with in free agency.
Therefore, they would be best to target players like I have discussed above and expect internal improvement from Kadri to form a one-two punch with Grabovski as the top-two centers.
Will the Leafs be as bad next season?
The short answer is, no, Leafs fans.
This team is on track for success and firing Brian Burke now will only stall any progress that has been made. While he has not done a traditional rebuild, he does have this team on the right path.
With internal improvement from their prospects and two or three shrewd free-agent signings, at minimum—including a veteran starting netminder—this team could challenge for the playoffs next season under Randy Carlyle's leadership.