Brian Burke seems to be done making changes to the Toronto Maple Leafs this offseason. He's upgraded the defense substantially, added a big time enforcer, and brought in a back up goalie that might give Toskala the push he needs to perform well—and if not, steal the No. 1 goalie spot.
But what about the forward situation? Despite the Leafs' ability to put the puck in the net last year, many fans are decrying Burke's reluctance—or inability—to parlay Kaberle into Kessel, or sign a Zherdev. What gives?
Its about building depth in the forward ranks. It's boring, but it's necessary. And it's all about making a more serious run next year and the year after. Because, realistically, even if the Leafs sign or trade for a top six forward, they are not going to compete for the cup in any meaningful way—although they would most likely make the playoffs.
But more importantly, that top six forward would take time from a kid trying to develop; one who could make a huge difference in how the following years play out.
In today's NHL, having one or two young kids develop to the point where they are solid contributors while earning modest salary is a huge benefit to the team. It adds depth at a reasonable price, and enables a team to land a top six forward with a more established supporting cast in place.
Because of that business reality, this year the most important story for the Leafs will be that at least one of Bozak, Tlusty, Hanson or Stalberg step up and shows he can consistently compete at the NHL level. My guess is that Tlusty and Bozak have the inside shot. They will need patience and ice time; loads of ice time. Time an established top sixer would take away.
But if one of them does find their game in the NHL, suddenly next year and the year after are looking a whole helluvalot lot better. There's still the ability to add a top six forward, but you've got real depth.
The kind of depth that can make a real run.
Beefed-Up Leafs Will Help the Kids Play
But its not just about ice time. Burke has also created a situation where the kids will be protected instead of being intimidated. You've really got to hand it to Grabovski, who managed a very good rookie year with only Luke Schenn willing to challenge the oppositions heavyweights.
With bodyguards like Komisarek, Exelby, Orr, Schenn, and Primeau (instead of, um, Schenn, Mayers and Finger) this kid should develop into a 30-goal scorer. At the same time, Tlusty and Bozak can learn the NHL game without having to "pick their teeth out of the glass" on a regular basis.
Building depth at forward takes time, and it will unfortunately take away from the fans' summer-time trade fun. It will also mean a few more in the loss column next year. But it's essential if we want to really, and I mean really, compete for the Stanley Cup in the years to come.
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