Maple Leafs' Message To Phil Kessel: You're On Your Own, Kid

Jon NeelyAnalyst IMarch 3, 2010

NEWARK, NJ - FEBRUARY 05:  Phil Kessel #81 of the Toronto Maple Leafs warms up before playing the New Jersey Devils at the Prudential Center on February 5, 2010 in Newark, New Jersey.  (Photo by Jim McIsaac/Getty Images)
Jim McIsaac/Getty Images

Where did everybody go?

Those might be the first words that come out of Phil Kessel's mouth the next time he walks into the Maple Leafs dressing room. This cannot be what he signed up for.

He obviously knew the Leafs were in a stage of rebuilding their core of forwards, but this might be the most extreme makeover he's ever been a part of—without the emotional "move that bus" chant at the end of it all.

And Leafs GM Brian Burke smiles a lot less than Ty Pennington.

Burke has been focusing almost exclusively on rebuilding the Leafs defense and goaltending this season, which has meant the rapid depletion of the forwards that the team started with. Not that it's a bad thing; it's just that for the time being—the final 20 games of the regular season—Kessel finds himself almost completely on his own when it comes to players who can score.

Since Jan. 31, when the Leafs made the trades that brought Dion Phaneuf and Jean-Sebastian Giguere to Toronto, the Leafs have traded away five of their top six scoring forwards, who scored a combined 79 goals while with the Leafs this season.

Since that same date, the team has gotten three NHL forwards in return who have combined to score six goals this season. Yes, six goals.

Gone is Niklas Hagman (20 goals), Alexei Ponikarovski (19 goals), Matt Stajan (16 goals), Lee Stempniak (14 goals), and Jason Blake (10 goals). Including the departure of defenseman Ian White and his nine goals, the Leafs have lost more than 80 goals of offense this season.

The players the club has gotten in return are Fredrik Sjostrom (one goal), Jamie Lundmark (four goals), and Luca Caputi (one goal). If it wasn't for Phaneuf's 10 goals, the Leafs new players wouldn't even have combined for a double-digit goal total.

That doesn't bode well for their goal-scoring chances from here on in.

Out of the players remaining on the roster, three of them have more than 10 goals this year: Kessel, Phaneuf, and Nikolai Kulemin (11 goals). That's it. The rest of them might not even be aware the stick they're holding is used for anything other than taping.

It's certainly going to be interesting the see how this team fares offensively the rest of the way. Or to put it another way, Tomas Kaberle and Luke Schenn are in the top 10 in goals on the team. Oh boy.

The question since Kessel first stepped foot on Toronto soil has been who's going to play on a line with him. The only question answered is who isn't. In fact, at this point, Kessel might be playing on a line of his own while the rest of the forwards battle it out for third- and fourth-line duty—where they'd be on any other team, if that.

After Kessel and Kulemin, the remaining 12 forwards on the roster have combined for a whopping 26 goals this season—seven of those by the injured Mikhail Grabovski.

It's a good thing playoffs are out of the question at this point, because this could be the worst 20-game span a team has ever had offensively. With the trade deadline come and gone and no help on the way, the Leafs will be relying on four rookies, a few role players, and Colton Orr to pick up the scoring load.

Like I said, this could be a struggle.

Kessel could be playing on a line with Tyler Bozak and Luca Caputi until this season is done—two players who combined have played fewer career NHL games than Kessel has goals this season.

Burke has clearly added skill in the net and on the blue line, but now that he's almost completely emptied the cupboard when it comes to goal scorers, its time to shift to an offensive frame of mind and fill some spots up front—or there won't be any pucks filling the net in the near future.

This summer, with the free agent pool sparse and precious little on the team to dangle as trade bait, the GM is going to need more than one trick up his sleeve if this team is to have playoff aspirations in 2011.

It doesn't help that there are no first-round picks in 2010 or 2011, either.

Burke planned on coming to Toronto and building a team of his own, and with the slate now completely clean, he has his chance. There is arguably only one top-six forward on the club in Kessel, and if Burke wants to fill all those roles by the time the postseason arrives next season, this summer better be a busy one.

There are just 20 games to go in the season for the Leafs, which was lost from the start. In Burke's press conference after the trade deadline passed, he finished with a stern warning to the remaining players on his club: They'll need to perform at a high level as the season winds to a close if they want jerseys next year.

The only problem for him is that if he gives away any more forwards, he'll be asking Coach Ron Wilson to stretch his legs and get ready for game action.

And as for Kessel, alone on an island surrounded by an empty pool of offense, this could be the toughest stretch of games he's ever had to deal with. If he didn't have much help before, I don't dare ask what he has now.

His GM is making moves and improving the club at the back end, but the time has come for the moves to be focused up front. The Leafs need goal scorers—and they need them now.

But for the rest of the season and the foreseeable future, the Leafs message to Kessel is simple: You're on your own, kid.

For now, anyway.