Let's all agree on one thing right from the get go: Brian Burke has failed to deliver on most of what he has promised since he was hired as the Toronto Maple Leafs' next president and general manager in November 2008.
Despite growing the Leafs' farm system to a level few thought possible in such a short period of time, none of that growth has translated to success at the NHL level. And lets face it—the Toronto Maple Leafs' prospect pool is improved, but it is nowhere near strong enough to expect their budding NHLers to rescue the franchise anytime soon.
The Leafs' roster has many questions surrounding it at all positions. It is reasonable to expect that there may be an answer or two coming from the Marlies at some point; however, Brian Burke is going to have to shore up his roster in short order for any noteworthy change in this team's general direction since they last made the playoffs.
Trades are certainly a possibility. I would expect that if Burke is going to bring any kind of star power into town, the trade route is really his only option. In my opinion, he should exercise that option in favour of bringing in a No. 1 center.
After all, Zach Parise and Ryan Suter are not rumoured to have any interest whatsoever in playing in Toronto. Few could blame them when a franchise such as the Detroit Red Wings has so much cap room and a winning tradition to offer.
Thankfully, free agency is not limited to the few stars who may be available come July 1st. The Leafs have many more deficiencies than simply a first-line centerman, which will likely only be acquired via trade, and are certainly more than just one player away from making the postseason.
Instead of discussing positional needs, I would like to focus on what's available in this year's free-agent class to address what this team needs more of, and what Brian Burke promised he would deliver:
Sheer size, infinite tenacity, unrivaled toughness and a raw, unbridled will to win.
One of Brian Burke's goals that will be very achievable through free agency this year will be to simply sign forwards that are bigger than the ones he is working with currently.
As per Burke and Carlyle's shared philosophy of having a top-six/bottom-six configuration of the roster, when looking at the bottom-six grouping, a glaring lack of size presents itself. These players play a much different role than the top-six grouping. One of the best assets that Carlyle's bottom six forwards can possess is flat-out size.
I don't mind Kessel, Lupul and Bozak as a first line because they bring enough skill to compensate for their lack of combined weight and height. The same goes for the Grabovski-Kulemin-MacArthur line.
Kulemin is by far the biggest forward in the Leafs' top six and he is by far the best defensive forward in the mix right now. Could he be more effective on the third line in a checking role? If so, then, does Kadri or Frattin replace him? Neither are upgrades in the size department, but I do think one of the two will be ready for second-line duty this season.
As far as a checking line is concerned, grinding down the opposition on a nightly basis would be much more effective if the players were simply bigger. Through free agency and a quick lineup shuffle, Burke can address this need as follows:
Paul Gaustad (6'5", 212 pounds) centering Taylor Pyatt (6'4", 228 pounds) on the left wing and Nikolai Kulemin (6'1", 225 pounds) on the right wing.
Or was the line of Tim Connolly centering Matthew Lombardi and either Kadri, Frattin or Armstrong working and I just didn't realize it?
In addition to the top-six/bottom-six philosophy that Randy Carlyle employs, there is another facet of his coaching style that is equally as simple, and equally as important: work ethic.
Carlyle was quoted as saying that the Leafs he inherited had some work to do on their level of conditioning in order to be able to play his style of hockey. In fact, Toronto media could not seem to get over the length of his practices. It was as if these journalists could not wrap their heads around the fact that a team needs to practice to get better.
And every time a practice went an hour longer than what they had come to expect from Ron Wilson, stories of the new dictatorship in town were printed. Every. Single. Time. Fast learners, these media-types, were not.
In order to play the infinitely tenacious style of game that Carlyle wants to unleash, conditioning is of the utmost importance. In some cases, players aren't even aware that they have potential that has gone untapped in this department.
Sometimes, a new voice in the room can do the trick. Not the voice of a coach, but the voice of a teammate who knows what it means to push their bodies to an elite level of fitness.
So then what does free agency have to offer in this department?
Gregory Campbell, Travis Moen and Jordin Tootoo are all available as potential third/fourth-liners in this year's free-agent class. Campbell and Moen both have Stanley Cup rings, and Jordin Tootoo is just a firecracker, plain and simple. I would even include Adam Burish, Jesse Winchester and Arron Asham as players available that would serve Carlyle well and lead by example when it comes to the tenacious pursuit of the puck.
Now, do we need all of these players? Of course not. Will we get even one of them? Perhaps not. But the point is, there are upgrades available to play in the bottom six that will do a better job than Tim Connolly, Matthew Lombardi, Colby Armstrong, Joey Crabb and guys like Kadri or Frattin, who just don't belong in those roles for different reasons. And no disrespect is intended toward any of these players. The fact of the matter is, the philosophy has changed, and these players need to be replaced.
I would be happy if Burke signed any one of the players mentioned in this slide, and so would Carlyle. Readers may question that notion, especially when it comes to considering whether or not signing one of these players actually improves the team.
In response, I will point out one thing: These players will not be signed to score 30 goals, 70 points and rocket up the depth chart to play with Phil Kessel before the season is over.
They will be signed to hammer the opposition into submission.
The ability to grind the living daylights out of a team is based upon a drive that just does not exist in the Leafs' bottom six right now, outside of Mike Brown. That is why signing one of the aforementioned players is something that must happen in order for the Leafs to improve under Randy Carlyle.
That's right, signing these players would have been useless under Ron Wilson.
Face the facts: Fighting is a part of hockey.
Until that changes, if your team is going to employ players that are willing to drop the mitts, why wouldn't you want to sign the toughest men available?
I will not get into the debate about the role of the fighter in "today's NHL." However, I have always been of the opinion that is often voiced by NHLers themselves on a regular basis: You can not underestimate the effect that a well-timed scrap can have in swinging the momentum in your team's favour.
Toronto has had its share of tough guys over the past few seasons. Names such as Mike Brown, Colton Orr, Jay Rosehill, Wade Belak, Andre Deveaux, Kris Newbury, Ben Ondrus, Ryan Hollweg, Brad May and Jamal Mayers come to mind.
The only trouble is, arguably the only player who has really managed to play the role of a fighter and actually be trusted as a responsible defensive player is Mike Brown. Most of the rest of the players mentioned had very short stints on the Toronto Maple Leafs for many different reasons.
My vote? An upgrade is in order.
Clearly, Colton Orr and Jay Rosehill are not currently capable of making an impact at the NHL level. Rosehill was effective in stints, but he could not consistently bang bodies the way a guy like Mike Brown is able to.
To the free-agent class we go!
Immediately, a few names pop out. The connection to George Parros is obvious, and there is a very legitimate chance that he ends up being signed by Burke on July 1st. In my opinion, a heavyweight may be important to Burke, but if he's just going to end up relegating Parros to the minors the way he did Orr, there is not much point in signing him.
Other names that may be better options include Brad Staubitz, Brandon Prust, Zenon Konopka and Brad Winchester. Each player has a varying mix in terms of being a pure fighter vs. actual hockey playing ability; however, I think Burke will be making phone calls to at least one of them. Toronto could use a little extra toughness if they hope to establish a reputation as being a difficult team to play against.
So far, I've posited that the Toronto Maple Leafs need more size, tenacity and toughness in their lineup. I've attempted to demonstrate that these areas can be addressed by the players that are going to be available as of July 1st as unrestricted free agents.
This brings us to the fourth area I want to address: a raw, unbridled will to win.
Like the categories before it, this is an area that can be addressed by Burke via free agency.
However, I would like to end by suggesting that if Burke can address his team's issues with size, tenacity and toughness, he will in turn be shaping his club into one that has a raw, unbridled will to win.
In my opinion, Stanley Cups are won and lost with the teams' third and fourth lines. Of course the top six matters, but in the late stages of the playoffs, the teams that are left over always have stars that are able to put the puck in the net. There are a lot of things equal across two Stanley Cup finalists' top-six forward groups.
The differences, and what makes a champion a champion, lie in the bottom-six grouping. These players may be easy to overlook. They may not score very many goals, and in fact, any offensive contributions are simply bonuses. Their true value lies in their ability to make the opposition's stars look over their shoulders every time they step on the ice.
These players wear down the enemy and, because the Stanley Cup is a trophy that is won almost solely through a war of attrition, having the bigger, more tenacious, tougher group is the ultimate key.
Burke will have challenges in bringing in any players, because in order to do that, he will have to move players out. And there will not be many suitors for the likes of Connolly, Lombardi and Armstrong. But should he be able to move even one of them, his team will improve, however slightly, if he is able to sign even one of the players listed in this article.
Every improvement counts.
Thanks for reading!