Finishing in fifteenth place in the Eastern Conference is nowhere near expectations from fans of the Toronto Maple Leafs, but also not far from what they're used to.
Last year, the Leafs picked up Phil Kessel in hopes of adding some firepower to their offense, merely resulting in giving up what became the second overall pick in this year's draft. Midway through this season Toronto GM Brian Burke traded for veteran goalie Jean-Sebastian Giguere and star defenseman Dion Phaneuf and also picked up a bunch of draft picks at the trade deadline. Things were starting to look optimistic for Leafs' fans.
That's exactly the problem. It's been almost a decade since their last postseason appearance, and with the Leafs are once again going through the routine of a poor finish during the season hopes are high moving into the summer. After hearing a lot of big names being thrown around I'm starting to get excited, and to be honest, with good reason.
It might seem as though Burke traded away all of the scoring talent we had in getting Giguere, Phaneuf and the draft picks, but that's not the case. The Leafs have some young players who are stepping into leadership roles in the roster quite nicely. Rookie goaltender Jonas Gustavsson had a pretty solid year as well as forwards Nikolai Kulemin and Tyler Bozak. There is a solid core of Leaf players who will be the fulcrum in turning this team around in the pursuit of making the playoffs.
The draft picks are also a huge part of the off-season this year. If Burke can change the terrible drafting pattern that has plagued the Leafs in what seems like forever, then he would only add to the positive change that he is trying to implement. As we can see from this year's playoffs, some of the best players in the NHL right now were not drafted earlier than 150th overall, never mind the first round. If GM Burke can make some smart drafting decisions that pay off down the road then he'll look like a genius to all those who doubted his trade deadline moves.
Then there's the free agent pool. A lot of big names are up for grabs this year, at pretty much every position. With all the trading that's been going on, there has to be some cap space for at least 2 big name players who could save Toronto another embarrassing finish. Goaltending was taken care of last season, as well as recently in the signing of 22 year-old Finnish goalie Jussi Rynaas, who looks like he could step in to a back-up role very shortly. Defense was muscled up with Phanuef coming over from Calgary, so now all we need is some depth to help Kessel out. We need those playmakers who will get him the puck and get it done on the special teams. Penalty killers and power play finishers. That should be the focus in some new blood.
It's a rather simple undertaking for Burke in the next few months: don't draft obviously terrible picks like past Leafs GMs, pick up some scorers up front and keep the current guys happy. It looks like it's going to be an exciting summer.