As the 2008-09 season winds down for the Leafs, it's time to take stock of this past year. Despite Burke's angst about missing the playoffs, and how that makes the season a failure, the truth of the matter is that this season has been a huge success for the Toronto Maple Leafs.
From almost the top down, the Leafs are doing the things they need to turn the ship around and become a perennial contender.
The Leafs have finally figured out how to run a hockey organization. They hired one of the best GM's in the business and are letting him run it without ownership getting in the way. While, to date, Burke has not made many major moves, you can be sure that they will be his moves, and not Richard Peddie's moves.
Burke moved his two movable assets at the trade deadline for draft picks, and found a way to get another pick from Florida in a complex deal that showed his shrewdness. He then went out and signed two of the top US college prospects to entry level contracts.
Not only is Burke fully in charge—he is doing some exceptional work building up the young prospects of this team that had so few just a year ago. The Leafs also have a solid position with regard to the cap—something that will be needed as the cap fluctuates over the next few years.
Love him or hate him, Ron Wilson is showing what a good coach can do. He is a coach who is unafraid of benching $5 million players, a coach who is committed to playing young players—the proof of which you can see in the development of the likes of Grabovski, Kulemin, and Mitchell. More proof was given in the signings of Hanson and Bozak. These kids could have gone anywhere.
In Toronto they found the two things they needed: playing time and a great coach.
Even with a great coach, the players need to do the work and actually play the games. Despite the goal-tending issues, the Leafs forged the beginnings of an identity: a fast, fore-checking, aggressive team.
They dominated the best in the league at times. Burke said it right: in those 10-15 minute spurts when the Leafs could be so dominant—there lies the future. Burke and Wilson need to get the team to be more consistent by continuing to develop its current players, as well as by adding more size and grit—to be able to respond when the opposition pushes back.
Hockey is a team game, no question, but who can't be extraordinarily pleased with the development of Grabovski, Kulemin, Mitchell, Schenn, and in the minors, Tlusty? Grabovski, in particular, is a great story—a player who was given tons of ice time to become better defensively and at sharing the puck with his line mates.
Oreskovic and Sifers also look like they have potential. Blake rebounded in a huge way this year under Wilson, took his lumps, and played extremely well after getting benched early in the season. It's too early to think about what Hanson and Bozak can do, but I think it's safe to say at least one of them will emerge as a top six forward.
The only ugly spot for the Leafs this year was in net. Toskala played poorly due to a chronic injury and it showed. Gerber, Pogge, and Cujo were not nearly enough to make up for it.
I agree with Burke that goal-tending cost them a real shot at the playoffs. Look for a better backup next year, a better Toskala, and more time in the minors for Pogge.
It was billed as a year where the Leafs would take a step back, and some thought they would be so far back as to challenge for the Tavares sweepstakes. Instead, they've ended up pretty much a .500 club, and to me this is much higher than expected.
If Burke can add some finish and size, if the rookies from this year can make some more strides, and if the goal-tending can return to form, this team will make the playoffs next season, and be very well positioned for the years ahead.