Sept. 18, 2009 was the day the Brian Burke rebuild of the Toronto Maple Leafs came to an end.
It was the same day he dealt two first round picks, this year’s and 2011’s, along with this year’s second round pick, to the Boston Bruins for sniper Phil Kessel. And, if the Leafs don’t start winning soon, it will also be a day Leaf fans live to rue.
Less than 10 months into his tenure, Burke succumbed to temptation to win now and the serious rebuilding the Toronto Maple Leafs need and the fans deserve came to an end. The era of “retooling” had begun.
It was an easy rationalization at first, and Leaf Nation got caught up in the exuberance of landing a 22-year-old proven NHL sniper like Phil Kessel so they just went along with it. A bird in hand is better than two in the bush, as the old saying goes.
The Leafs finished seventh from the bottom last season, and had retooled in the offseason, so they should improve their record this year, right? Boston would be lucky to get a pick in the top 10. Certainly former fifth overall Kessel will turn out to be better than whomever that ends up being. He is a proven NHL goal scorer after all.
By 2011, the Leafs will be comfortably in the playoffs so that first-rounder becomes even less valuable. The bottom third of the first round typically are lucky to even become NHL journeymen, so we’re still ahead with proven NHL goal scorer Phil Kessel, right?
On top of that, Burke had signed top college athletes Christian Hanson and Tyler Bozak, and had signed goalie Jonas “The Monster” Gustavsson from the Swedish Elite League. Those guys are apparently as good as first-rounders, so we had some draft picks to burn...right?
On paper this looked good. The team that surprised everyone by being marginally competitive last year could foreseeably make the playoffs this year. A few more big saves, a few more key goals, and just a few more wins and the Leafs are in eighth in the east and Burke has brought playoff hockey back to the centre of the universe.
Once that “making the playoffs” obstacle had been hurdled, Burke would find a way, through trades, free agency and aggressive college and foreign scouting, to keep the ball rolling.
Step one was making the playoffs, and Burke had put us in a good position to do that. Step two was winning in the playoffs, and that was simply a bridge to cross when he came to it.
The only problem is that winning in the playoffs is going to be an impossible bridge to cross in the East unless the landscape completely changes within the next few years.
The retooled Maple Leafs are going to have to compete with the completely rebuilt Pittsburgh Penguins and Washington Capitals. Those teams took the long hard road necessary to stockpile the kind of elite talent that they need to compete for the Cup for a generation to come.
All the retooling in the world is not likely to put the Maple Leafs in the same class as the Penguins or Capitals. And the most depressing thing is, even if everything goes according to Burke’s plan, the best we could hope for is to nip at their heels.
The Maple Leafs top three offensive prospects are Kessel, Kadri, and arguably Grabovsky. Not bad, but for the Capitals, their top three are Ovechkin, Semin and Backstrom. The Penguins top three are still Crosby, Malkin, and Staal!
Clearly, the Maple Leafs are outclassed, and with no first round picks until 2012, how are the Leafs going to acquire the talent to match up with cream of the Eastern crop?
The fact is they can’t. They could have, but now they can’t. For some reason, Burke didn’t want to pay the price to rebuild the team the way it should have been done. Maybe it was the brass at MLSE who demanded a quick fix, but nonetheless, once again, no matter who's running the Toronto Maple Leafs, short term gain has carried the day, and it will leave Leaf Nation with long term pain.
As if 42 years were not long enough.
The most mind-bogglingly frustrating part of all of this is that if there were ever a team with the luxury of having the option to tear it all down and spend four or five full seasons building back up, it's the Maple Leafs.
The fans have already waited this long, and selling out the building or attracting a TV audience is not a problem win or lose. A growing stable of young stars that rival the best in the league would have been consolation enough to see us through another losing season.
Leaf fans are a sophisticated bunch when it comes to hockey. We can stomach a five-year rebuild as long as we know management is committed to winning in the long term.
Leaf fans should be secretly happy their team is winless in seven to start the season. Because it means that by the start of next season they will have a bona-fide gamebreaker in their midst and will finally be able to realistically dream of a time when they don’t just make the playoffs, but compete for the Cup.
Unfortunately, for now, that dream will need to be retooled.