With a Stanley Cup and Olympic Silver to his name, Toronto Maple Leafs GM Brian Burke has had a bit of success assembling hockey teams. He still hasn't won in the KHL—wait, who cares?
As the roster of the Leafs has seen dramatic changes in each season since the lockout, it's a fair question to ask, "When the Hell are some of these pieces going to come together?"
Three different coaches, two different GMs and an interim, four, maybe five, starting goalies, two captains (and a slew of alternates), and summer after summer of chasing aged, free agent busts.
However, something seems to be different under Burke; there is a core emerging.
After Monster-hunting in Scandanavia, Burke nabbed the best goalie outside of the NHL (sorry Robert Esche, your KHL accolades have been purposely overlooked). It also helps when you have a goalie with a ton of upside, like Jonas Gustavsson, that you hire the staff you need in order to help him reach his potential.
Enter goaltending guru Francois Allaire, under whose tutelage some guy named Patrick Roy had a good season here and there.
Another one of Allaire's best students goes by the name of Jean-Sebastien Giguere, a Conn Smythe winner in 2003, and Stanley Cup winner in 2007.
As the Leafs toiled through last season, it was readily apparent that the goaltending duo of Vesa Toskala and Jonas Gustavsson was not up to snuff. The answer?
Ship out the veteran who refuses to accept coaching of one of the more successful goalie coaches of all-time, and bring in a guy who loves the system and has successfully applied it in the past. Oh yeah, and let the veteran and the coach take your prospect under their collective wing.
Everyone knows that Toronto's defense received a shot in the arm last year with acquisitions like Francois Beauchemin and Mike Komisarek, right?
Well, if it didn't seem like it, you're not hallucinating. The upside to said acquisitions wasn't recognizable for a good chunk of the season, but, sans Komisarek, the defense tightened up in the final stretch of the season.
It helps that former Calgary Flames stud Dion Phaneuf came to Toronto via trade for...Matt Stajan? Alright, Jamal Mayers was shipped out too along with Nik Hagman (who I thought was good).
I have to be fair here, but I think that the "win" went to Burke on this trade.
With Dion on the blueline, Luke Schenn started to remember who he was.
Now, the 2008 first-rounder can be added to the list that makes the Leafs defense quite formidable, on paper. As of right now, it's Phaneuf, Schenn, Tomas Kaberle, Komisarek, Beauchemin, Carl Gunnarson, and, maybe, Mike Van Ryn.
Up front is where the team gets iffy.
It is Burke's philosophy to build from the net out. If the goaltending situation and group of rearguards assembled in the past year are any indication, Burke will assemble something on par with the other links in the chain of this team.
Burke's a top-six/bottom-six kind of guy, firmly believing that the first two lines should be scoring the goals, while the third and fourth lines bring the grit (I refuse to use the word "truculence") to wear down the opposition.
Phil Kessel is easily a top-six guy on any team. But where it goes from there for Toronto is a lot of speculation.
Former University of Denver phenom Tyler Bozak looks promising and Mikhail Grabovski has the ability to be a secondary scoring threat. Nikolai Kulemin, Viktor Stalberg, Christian Hanson, and Luca Caputi all have the potential to have relatively promising careers in the NHL, but that's just it.
There's a lot of talk of "potential" and what the players "could be." The Leafs' first-round pick—7th overall—in 2009, Nazem Kadri, "might" make the jump to the NHL this year. See what I mean?
On the bright side, the Leafs have one of the best groups of prospects in the NHL right now. However, the nature of a high profile, money making, flagship franchise is not conducive to developing teams over a series of years. Sadly, the current "rebuild", however limited it is perceived to be, has arguably started about three to four seasons too late.
Simply, Brian Burke will not follow the beaten path to a multi-year, prospect, and draft-based rebuild. It's going to be a mixed effort—this much has had to have been realized by fans and observers of the Maple Leafs.
Burke is going to have to make some considerable splashes with free agent signings and trades for forwards. If anything, it will raise the stature of the club while allowing time for prospects to come into their own.
So, maybe Burke could trade for Nathan Horton; he's a lock for at least 25 goals per season.
Oh, wait, he's a Bruin now.
Hmm, well perhaps adding Dustin Byfuglien could open up a little ice for our more diminutive forwards. Damn, he's relocating to Atlanta.
What about that Plekanec guy from Montreal? He had a decent season and looks to have a bit of upside. Re-signed by the Habs, you say?
OK, fine, but how about Patrick Marleau? He said he loved playing for current Leafs bench boss Ron Wilson during his stint in San Jose, and Wilson said he'd love to coach Patrick again.
Well, unless Ron Wilson gets fired from the Leafs and re-hired as San Jose's head coach within the next four years, he won't be coaching Patrick Marleau. Why four years? Because that's the length of the contract Marleau just signed to stay with San Jose.
Indeed, a lot of options seem to be escaping the Maple Leafs GM. We still have chips to play with though.
Sorry, Tomas Kaberle, but if you're still a Maple Leaf on the day after the draft, I will do something mildly embarrassing. According to the latest reports from Burke's own mouth, the number of teams interested in Kaberle's services are in the "double-digits."
It's almost certain that Kaberle will be, and should be, dealt for a top-six forward (I like Patrick Sharp). And it is almost certain that Anaheim's Bobby Ryan will not be condo shopping in T.O. while Kaberle reads about stories of shark attacks in the local Southern California newspaper.
I'm alluding to a trade there. Clever, huh?
Brian Burke could certainly offer up Kaberle to the Washington Capitals for Alexander Ovechkin, though, I'm not sure how effective Burke would be at doing his job from an institution for the mentally unfit.
I, for one, wouldn't be terribly upset if Burke opts to get picks—or a pick—for Kaberle. He's worth a late first-rounder at least.
Anyway, I'll leave the trade speculation to Damien Cox because he gets paid to propose crazy ideas; Burke needs to make some moves in free agency.
That said, according to Maple Leafs blogger-guy Mike Ulmer, if the Leafs move Kaberle and bury Jeff Finger's gross contract in the minors, the Leafs have something close to $20 million in cap space to work with.
Brian Burke has $20 million dollars to play with (all figures US and rounded up)? The Toronto Maple Leafs have $20 million to throw around? Well, there are some issues, like re-signing guys after next year, to think about, but still, that's a lot of money. Who could they spend it on?
I tend to bring up, with a brother and father who follow the New York Rangers, how the Rangers seem to be the team making the moves that Toronto should be making.
Glen Sather, however unpopular with the fans, knows how to make moves. Remember when Chris Drury and Scott Gomez were free agents and there was speculation on which one the Rangers would go for?
Well, I do because I had to hear it all of the time. When July 1st, 2007 came the Rangers grabbed Drury and Gomez.
They were ranked 1 and 2 on the free agent list. We went after Jason Blake. Now, while Drury and Gomez didn't exactly work out as hoped in New York, they still made the playoffs.
In 2008, the Rangers got Nik Zherdev. That didn't work out much either, but he was the best free agent available that summer. Oh, and the Rangers still made the playoffs.
In 2009, the Rangers got Marian Gaborik. Again, top player in free agency.
He performed better than expected, and though the Rangers missed the playoffs, the point is that they won't hesitate to make splashes in order to get their man.
In the same time, the Leafs chased guys like Blake (as mentioned), Vesa Toskala, Jeff Finger, Curtis Joseph, and Mike Komisarek. Of these, the latter may turn out to be the best pick up in years, but that's purely in the role of a shut-down defenseman.
So, again, Ilya Kovalchuk.
But Kovalchuk is soft! Wrong. He's not a "Burkesian" player! Wrong. He's not a team player! Wrong. He's going to go to the KHL! Wrong. Wrong, wrong, wrong.
I swear, listening to the arguments against chasing Kovalchuk sounds more and more like George W. Bush pushing to invade Iraq.
But, Burkey said he doesn't want him! Touche, but with a caveat—Burke also said that the rumors of him leaving Anaheim to take over as the Leafs GM were ridiculous.
If you're looking for a feisty, yet extremely skilled, Russian, Ilya Kovalchuk is the prototype. He hits, he fights, and he sticks up for his teammates and himself. Kovalchuk plays with a good edge to his game.
Alexander Ovechkin and Kovalchuk have known each other since childhood, and if Ovechkin says that he's a good leader, and if the Atlanta Thrashers were willing to offer him, their captain, the league max in salary for ten years or so, he's probably somewhat of a "team player" at least.
The New Jersey Devils want to keep him, and they should want to keep him because they gave up quite a bit to trade for him. But that's not the only reason.
He's a marquee player that does not ooze offense—it gushes from him. This is a 27-year old who has averaged 46 goals a season since the lockout five seasons ago.
Yet, this is what we hear from Leafs Nation: "Eh, we'd better pass on this guy..."
Kovalchuk also loves to play in Toronto. He has also expressed interest in playing there for the home team.
If I'm Brian Burke, that's 1+1=2 for me.
But, Kovalchuk is weak on defense! That's because he's busy scoring 45-50 goals, buddy. Sorry. If I'm signing Ilya Kovalchuk, I'm not signing him to block shots. Though, in the almost certain event that Tomas Kaberle is traded, the Leafs lose a pivotal power play guy on the point - where Kovalchuk is oft used.
Furthermore, this guy is likely the most talented free agent ever. Ever. This isn't Eric Lindros in 2005, or Jason Blake. Kovalchuk is a sure thing. If Toronto signed Crosby, he'd deliver. If they signed Ovechkin, he'd deliver. Kovalchuk is a player that has the offensive attributes to be mentioned in the same sentence as those other guys.
Nothing against Phil Kessel, because he's an important building block, but when do the Maple Leafs get to have their superstar? He's certainly not coming via the entry draft.
Imagine Phil Kessel and Ilya Kovalchuk handling the scoring load for Toronto for the next few years while our prospects get a little less green. Kessel is good for 30 to 40 goals a season, while Kovie will add 40 to 50.
Aside from the type of contract that Kovalchuk wants (multimillion, long-term), there's simply no reason to not aggressively pursue him come July 1st. I'm not getting into possible contract scenarios; that's what Burke gets paid to do, and it's not very likely that he's going to come to bleacherreport.com to figure out how to do his job.
Still, the Leafs have the cash to dish out for a considerablely big contract. But what is Toronto's money compared to SKA St. Petersburg of the KHL, which is offering Kovalchuk something in the way of a billion dollars, tax free, four supermodel wives (Russian ones of course), a statue, a seat in the Duma, and free caviar for life?
Like the aforementioned offer, Kovalchuk's "flight risk" is a bit exaggerated.
He wants to play, and win, in the National Hockey League. He's a dynamic player who deservedly wants a big contract, but if that request can be modified a bit, then Burke's mission this summer begins and ends with Kovalchuk.
With offers flying in for Kaberle, that situation will almost take care of itself. Going after Kovalchuk is now essential to Burke's blueprint for the Leafs.
If Burke signs Kovalchuk, I wouldn't care if he traded Kaberle for league bogeyman Derek Boogaard straight up (yes I would).
The more people dismiss Kovalchuk to get excited over guys like Raffi Torres, the closer my head gets to exploding. This is Burke's chance to sign a killer—a real, legitimate killer.
Toronto isn't simply going to fight its way to a Stanley Cup championship, or a playoff spot, or a division title. Toronto—as a city and a sports market that seems to be only marginally more hockey-oriented than Nashville, Phoenix, or Miami—deserves to have a player like Ilya Kovalchuk.
There's a reason why his photo is at the top of the article.
Make it happen, Burke (please).