In September 2007 there wasn’t a lot happening of note—unless you’re a fan of OJ Simpson.
Fans of the NHL were frantically following their team as they geared up for the regular season, some tryouts were going successfully for seasoned veterans and untested, unsigned rookies, while others were going about as well as Three’s a Crowd .
Leafs fans were hoping that the streak of penniless playoff seasons would stop at two, before a record for futility was set. After all, the last time the team missed the playoffs three straight years, they underwent an identity crisis after year two, and dropped the moniker (and color) of the St. Patrick in favor of the Blue and White.
While trying to capture the history of an organization that’s older than Betty White (and sometimes, just as comical) is a difficult task, along with one that’ll always be met with disagreement and dissent, there was another part to the book that’s particularly eye-catching.
Over the final pages of the book, Leonetti starts to list players who could be moving up or down the list in the next couple of years, along with a handful of guys who could crack it.
Movers and shakers included Mats Sundin (12) and Darcy Tucker (85) up front, along with Tomas Kaberle (54) and Bryan McCabe (47).
As far as young guys who could crack it? You’d see names like Kyle Wellwood, Alex Ponikarovsky, Nik Antropov, Alex Steen, Jiri Tlusty, and Carlo Colaiacovo listed on the final pages of the book.
Three seasons later, the prospective future of the Leafs has become it’s own episode of Where in the World is Carmen San Diego . Ponikarovski is in Pittsburgh, Wellwood to Vancouver, Colaiacovo and Steen traded their way St. Louis, Tlusty went Carolina’s way, and Antropov went to Atlanta through New York.
And the man who had them primed and ready to “take the helm” from Mats and company? Let’s just say there are more than a few Leafs’ fans who would make John Ferguson Jr.’s walk down Bay Street a tad less awful than embarrassing, degrading, or wretched.
But it was in reading that, that I realized something.
Love him or hate him, Brian Burke has worked hard to change this team.
When he initially came to Toronto, there was a lot of doubt being spread around. Some saw him as a savior, while others decided to hold their breath and see what he could do without Scott Niedermayer’s brother acting as enticement for certain free agents, or Chris Pronger willing to play anywhere that didn’t list “snow” as a residential perk.
Things started off slowly. There was no immediate fire sale for draft picks, no steals from his former team, and no game-changing names brought in.
Brad May was acquired from Anaheim (for conditional picks—if that’s a steal then Zdeno Chara is vertically challenged) and Ryan Hamilton was swapped for Robbie Earl—moves that brought about the standard “start planning the parade” chuckles from anti-Leafs.
And while the trade deadline brought about some change (Antropov and Dominic Moore out, and two second-round picks in), the public grew antsy.
The signings of Tyler Bozak and Christian Hanson also did little to convince people that this was more than just a post-NCAA tryout for a variety of players.
Burke continued to tinker though. At the draft he brought seven new players in to the system including one of the top offensive threats in the OHL (Nazem Kadri) and two promising forwards out of the U.S. (Kenny Ryan and Jerry D’Amigo).
The bulk of draft picks over the past two seasons (eight came in during the 2008 draft for a two-year total of 15) was something that had become fossilized in recent Leafs’ history.
The Leafs used back-to-back first rounders (Luke Schenn and Kadri) for the first time since Tuukka Rask (2005) and Tlusty (2006) were selected.
Granted that doesn’t seem too bad, but consider that they had lost three first rounders since 2003 for essentially no on-ice contributions.
After that, Burke watched eight players walk to free agency, while picking up Swedish free agent Jonas Gustavsson, and two penalty boxes worth of grit.
Then he made it so that the Leafs (barring trade) would have consecutive first-round picks just twice between the 2003 and 2012 drafts, grabbing Phil Kessel from the Boston Bruins—a move Burke defended by essentially saying Kessel could score the Leafs 70 goals by the time he makes that 2011 selection.
As expected, this past season wasn’t a great one for the Leafs, but there were some bright spots.
Kessel rebounded from offseason shoulder surgery to gel with Bozak, who began his development as an offensive threat from centre in the NHL. Nikolai Kulemin, Viktor Stalberg, and Carl Gunnarsson also proved that a few bright spots were emerging from the previous regime, while Burke turned some much-maligned spare parts into Dion Phaneuf and Jean-Sebastien Giguere.
Burke added a few late-round picks in this year’s draft, and tried to offset the loss of those earlier draft picks with the signing of Brayden Irwin, Jussi Rynnas, and Ben Scrivens.
While it’s been an unconventional ride, Burke has at least been active during his time in Toronto.
He’s acquired a top-line goal scorer, drafted a player with first-line potential, traded for a top-four defender (two, counting Francois Beauchemin), swapped a former-first rounder for a more controllable player (Tlusty for Philippe Paradis), and may have been able to lure his goalie of the future out of Sweden.
The truth of it is that Toronto is a market that won’t be satisfied until it’s shown results—results which can’t be guaranteed for at least another season.
A year-and-a-half into the experiment and Burke has undoubtedly reshaped the future of this team.
Whether it’s for the better, well…we’ll just have to wait and see.
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