Leafs' Fundamental Signings Expose Lack of Skill

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Leafs' Fundamental Signings Expose Lack of Skill
(Photo by Jim McIsaac/Getty Images)

When Brian Burke made his first official transaction in January to acquire the services of brawny left winger Brad May, the direction of the Toronto Maple Leafs’ reconstruction was realigned. It was only fitting that the Anaheim Ducks, for which May formerly plied his trade, was involved, considering Burke’s success with the team before heading a massive overhaul in Toronto.

That move stills stands as a microcosm of the mentality harboured by Burke, whose aim to perfect his current project disregards the common Western adherence to and obsession of time—except for the number of minutes posted in the penalty box.

"I don't give a rat's ass what they do in Pittsburgh or Detroit," he told reporters last week after being questioned about the lack of grit employed by the two Stanley Cup finalists. "There's been four different Cup winners the last four years, and I got one of them (Anaheim) and it was a fighting team. We're playing it that way regardless."

It was evident he approached July 1 in that way.

After the Sedin twins—both of whom Burke sought to sign—were announced and secured as Vancouver Canucks for another five years at a deserved $6.1 million cap hit per season, Burke immediately began to pursue other players required to enhance the foundation of his franchise.

Colton Orr, who recorded 193 penalty minutes last season with the New York Rangers, was signed to a four-year deal worth $1 millon per year as the first addition of the free agent frenzy.

Then there was a moot trade consummated later in the evening when Pavel Kubina and his $5 million cap hit were sent to the Atlanta Thrashers in exchange for Garnet Exelby and Colin Stuart, both recognized for their size and ability to use their weight as a hitting mechanism. Although roughly $2 million has now been cleared for the Leafs to maneuver, it is expected that it will be exploited for a future asset.

Part of the allocated cap space was handed to Mike Komisarek, as he inked a five-year, $22.5 million contract, the sole singing made by the Leafs for a coveted player and shutdown defenseman known across the league.

To be sure, these guys haven’t been selected for their flair; all four players have accumulated a meagre total of 22 goals in 963 games. But when there aren’t goals to be scored, then we are to assume their aggregate 1,556 penalty minutes are part and parcel of their character and attributes, primarily the stock into which Burke bought.

However, this is not the appropriate juncture to begin comparing the Leafs’ newfound aggression and value to that which was seen in Anaheim.

We can be assured Burke is using his former team as a template, but it has also had talent in players such as Corey Perry, Scott Niedermayer, Teemu Selanne, Ryan Getzlaf and Andy McDonald. Some were inherited; some were obtained through the entry draft.

The Leafs are in a similar position, but they are lacking a few requisite add-ons before their identity as a contender is fully realized.

Jonas Gustavsson now becomes a must-sign for Burke, who was not able to land a legitimate backup to Vesa Toskala. Even collegiate stars like Tyler Bozak and Christian Hanson—if they’re to become the great players of whom so many scouts projected—have somewhat of a heightened onus to live up to their billing, considering that the Leafs are replete with secondary and tertiary scoring.

Freshly drafted Nazem Kadri is expected to hone his skills for one further year in the OHL; while the Leafs’ AHL affiliate will have to do a great job moulding their prospects in order to verify the merits of their promotion.

The abundance of defensemen on the Leafs’ roster—with the new signings, there are about 10 potential d-men—suggests Tomas Kaberle may be expended in order to garner that elusive elite forward the Leafs are missing.

But there is also that sentiment dictating that if Kaberle was dealt, the team would be bereft of any puck-moving or offensive defensemen. Another avenue would be consulted to retrieve someone of his stature, and Burke has stated his impetus on keeping Kaberle should no deal “blow off his socks.”

Waiting until next year’s free agency will require a lot of persistence on Burke’s behalf, as there is some discussion about current Columbus Blue Jacket Rick Nash and his availability next summer. The trading route will pose difficulties, too, with Kaberle being the only reasonable option that would bring in a significant return.

The Leafs also have ample cap room, and Burke could still play that card this month if a team would like to unload a few unattractive contracts.

It is obvious, though, that Burke no longer wants to see his team be tossed like a top and no longer be courted as the loveable loser. For Leaf fans, there should be vested confidence in the structure and strategy implemented so far by Burke & Co., which has yielded modest, but fundamental signings.

"It was apparent from the time Brian Burke took the job, he wanted the Leafs to be tougher," said assistant GM Dave Nonis. "We wanted players who would not just fight, but play hard. We think we accomplished that."

A lot is still on the table, however, and Burke would be wise to confer with all his outstanding priorities by the end of this offseason.

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