Do Toronto's Familiar On-Ice Weaknesses Mean Familiar Off-Ice Problems?

Chris MontaniniContributor IOctober 11, 2009

TORONTO - OCTOBER 10:  Vesa Toskala #35 of the Toronto Maple Leafs lets one go through his legs (Shot by Sergei Gonchar) as Jordan Staal #11 of the Pittsburgh Penguins looks on during a NHL game at the Air Canada Centre on October 10, 2009 in Toronto, Ontario, Canada .  (Photo by Abelimages/Getty Images)

At the end of the year, one of two things will be discussed among the masses of Leaf nation.

Brian Burke will either be praised as a genius for signing the future of the Toronto Maple Leafs, a stable group of defensemen and franchise forward Phil Kessel, or in an all too familiar way for fans of the blue and white, he will be criticized for sacrificing the future of a rebuilding team in a misguided attempt to make the post-season without curing the problems that have been staring the team in the face for the past four seasons.

Two things needed to happen in Toronto for them to finally rebound into the playoffs—they had to improve their league-worst penalty kill rating and find a way to solidify their goaltending situation.  

Both issues were widely reported in all corners of Leaf’s media, and both were addressed, at least in principle, by the additions of Francois Beachemin, Garnett Exelby, Mike Komisarek, and Jonas Gustavsson.

After a productive offseason, hope abounded in Toronto that their team was finally on the right track.

Not only were the new additions to the club part of a seemingly straight-forward strategy to build the team from the net out, the organization finally had stock for the future—a group of promising young players poached from the NCAA and a strong showing at the draft.

But then something changed.

Suddenly the progress that was made was deemed to be enough before the puck even dropped on the 2009-2010 season, and Brian Burke dealt two first round draft picks and a second rounder to Boston for sniper Phil Kessel.

Although the merits of Kessel will be feverishly discussed until his debut sometime in November, Leaf fans have a lot more to worry about if the GM that was supposed to change the culture in Leaf-land has suddenly started sipping the same blue kool-aid that has put the organization in a tail-spin since the lockout.

Sacrificing draft picks for a shot at the postseason—the same old song and dance.

 It would be a lot easier to swallow if the newest additions were clicking on the ice, which was certainly a possibility after a strong pre-season. But right now, the Leafs look awful.  

They aren’t tougher to play against, they haven’t improved their penalty killing, and they don’t have a capable number one goalie.

With a 53.8 percent penalty kill rating in their first four games, the new “Bay Street bullies” will be hard-pressed to do their job if the team gets buried every time they are a man short—just like last year.

Although Jonas Gustavsson has looked strong, the organization’s supposedly rebuilt number one goaltender, Vesa Toskala, might not be able to live up to the pressure of the ACC—just like last year.

The Finnish goaltender doesn’t have the numbers to get these Maple Leafs into the post-season so far, and he’ll need that prophesied turn around sooner rather than later if he wants to stay off the end of the bench.

With the two most obvious problems still plaguing the Maple Leafs, the question needs to be asked if Brian Burke was a bit hasty paying such a high price for Kessel.

With the tenth best offense in the league last year, there was no reason to believe the Leafs without Kessel could have accomplished a similar feat this year. The Leafs managed seven goals in their first two games, surely enough for at least one win, especially in front of the supposedly meaner blue-line.

But their offensive efforts only garnered them one point in their first two games, an OT loss to Montreal and a humbling 6-4 defeat to the dangerous Washington Capitals.

With their confidence levels visibly low, goals were hard to come by against the Sens and Pens as the Leafs continued to get pummeled with players in the penalty box.

There was no doubt that the team could use a top-six forward, especially one as young and promising as Kessel. But was it really such a pressing priority? Was it really worth three high draft picks without yet seeing if the new buds could fill the defensive gaps on the ice?

Unless Kessel can improve the penalty killing 25 percent, they will be as vulnerable with him in the lineup as they are without him.

What happened to building from the net out? Surely Burke had to realize simply putting pen to paper wasn’t going to be enough for the Leafs defensive lapses to suddenly disappear.

Not to mention the far-from-proven Toskala. It was hoped his hip surgery complete with ample rehab time would allow him to play to his potential, but it should never have been taken for granted.

Burke has always been known to take risks, but the acquiring of Kessel should seem a little eerie, especially if the Leafs biggest problems keep them from achieving their goals for a fourth straight season, and the Bruins suddenly find themselves with two first-round chances to replace their former 36-goal scorer at the Leaf’s expense.

But maybe Burke has done everything he could to shake up the organization. His roster moves and management decisions even convinced some of the most critical Leafs media that this team could make their way into the playoffs.

If you believe the pieces are in place, the question becomes whether or not Ron Wilson’s system is going to work in Toronto. Clearly something is missing in the dressing room when the Leafs have three days off to prepare for the Stanley Cup champions, and then get outshot 14-2 in the first period and fall behind 2-0 on the scoreboard.

Wilson was free of criticism last year when nobody expected the Leafs to accomplish anything notable, but now that the organization is again throwing around the phrase “playoff contenders,” it’s time to take a hard look at how Burke’s pieces are fitting together on the ice.

After losing to the Sens, Wilson said he needed to find a way to light a fire under some players—after only three regular season games.

If the Leafs can’t show up for an important inter-division matchup against one of their biggest rivals, it’s hard to believe the change of culture being preached by the new Leafs management exists at all.

It’s almost impossible to think that the Leafs could actually take a step backwards this year after stumbling for so long, but if the worst case scenario does happen and Burke is unable to reacquire at least one of the picks he traded for Kessel, it’ll be a hard case to argue that he hasn’t fallen into the same trap that has swallowed up so many of his predecessors.


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