As part of a continuing series, writer Benjamin Benya will be previewing all 30 NHL teams over the next two weeks in preparation for the 2010-2011 regular season.
Up next, GM Brian Burke and the Toronto Maple Leafs.
Key Additions: RW Kris Versteeg, RW Colby Armstrong, D Brett Lebda, D Danny Richmond, LW Clarke MacArthur.
Key Subtractions: LW Viktor Stalberg, C Jamie Lundmark, D Mike Van Ryn.
When Brian Burke took over as general manager for the Toronto Maple Leafs, it cast an immediate cloud of uncertainty of the team. Burke’s legend had grown to mammoth proportions as an elite general manager who could build a team from the ashes and make them an extended contender. Now entering his third season at the helm, Leafs fans are waiting patiently to see the investment pay off.
Burke’s substantial reconstruction in Toronto seems to take place over the course of the entire season rather than exclusively in the offseason. This year, however, Burke was as calm and collected as ever, making minor deals and signings to get all of his ducks (mind the pun) in a row.
First, Burke traded for tough scorer Kris Versteeg during the Great Chicago Fire Sale of 2010. Then, he made the team tougher by signing forwards Colby Armstrong and Clarke MacArthur. A few subtle signings later, and Burke was making waves with the same news we had heard a dozen times before: Tomas Kaberle may or may not be traded this week.
A perpetual topic of discussion for hockey fans worldwide, Kaberle’s love-hate relationship with Toronto management and the prospect of him leaving the team is well documented. But as the Leafs gear up for a new season with new promise, Kaberle’s expiring contract will make the rumors roar louder than ever in Ontario.
To the team itself, Burke has spared no expense (literally) in loading the offense with his kind of player. New acquisitions like Versteeg will join players like Mikhail Grabovski, who are one part grit, one part nasty, and all parts scoring threat. Armstrong should also fit well into this equation of a bruising force that seems to take some of its character from an old Philadelphia Flyers squad.
The youth movement in Toronto will continue full steam ahead as well, as Nikolai Kulemin and Tyler Bozak are primed to make bigger strides towards stardom. Bozak in particular was impressive in limited action last season, and will likely have the opportunity to see what he can do with a full season ahead of him.
The cornerstone of Toronto’s offense, however, will be former Boston Bruins draft pick Phil Kessel. After a lengthy negotiation period last year and some minor bumps and bruises, Kessel is ready to takeover for a full season as the leading scorer in Toronto. That said, one has to wonder just what Leafs center will be passing the puck to the former 36-goal scorer most often this year.
Bozak, Grabovski, John Mitchell, and even rookie Nazem Kadri are all potential suitors for Toronto’s top-line center with Kessel on the wing, but Bozak and Grabovski have to be considered front runners.
Despite their recent signings, the Leafs are still somewhat thin offensively, running in a number of entry level contracts and lumbering bruisers in the year to come to fill the void when players are hurt or, even worse, not performing. Colton Orr and Luca Caputi fall into the aforementioned category in potential players that will constantly be on the two-way train.
Defensively, Tomas Kaberle shouldn’t be the biggest story anymore. Despite having a great season last year in goals and assists, Kaberle’s atrocious plus/minus rating gave fantasy owners a headache and real coaches even worse. He’s a defensemen who is clashing with the team’s new direction.
With Dion Phaneuf’s huge contract and presence overshadowing anything Kaberle does on the ice, it’s hard to believe he’ll stay past the halfway point of the year.
Speaking of Phaneuf, he’ll have something major to prove if he wants to keep the captaincy awarded him last year. After three great seasons for the Flames as a physical, hard-hitting defender, Phaneuf struggled to adjust his scoring prowess in the East with an unremarkable 32 points, down from 47 the year before and 60 the year before that.
Phaneuf will be joined by Mike Komisarek, who, despite another large contract, also struggled to find his place in Toronto last year.
Komisarek is lucky to show up on the score sheet ten times a year, which is why his value as a defensive defensemen often goes unheralded. Though a shoulder injury cut his first year in a Maple Leafs jersey short, all indications are that he’s ready to forget about the rough debut and move on to the real show.
Rounding out the defense for Toronto this year will be Francois Beauchemin and Luke Schenn, both of whom will take away even more attention from the question mark Kaberle. Beauchemin could steal plenty of time on the Power Play from Kaberle while Schenn, still a fan favorite and still very young, gets better every time he picks up the play.
Perhaps the quietest goalie battle coming into the year is the one going on in Toronto between Jean-Sebastien Giguere and “Monster” Jonas Gustavsson. While both have had strokes of brilliance, neither had an all-too-memorable season in 2009-10. Gustavsson signed with such a low risk sum of money tabled his way in the off-season that it would be hard to say he’s a disappointment if he isn’t starting.
Giguere meanwhile, is still less than a year removed from his open issued comments that he would “rather retire than be a backup.” He’ll have an opportunity to show that he’s the Giggy of old early on, but it should become crystal clear that if the Leafs aren’t competing for any reason, Giguere, and his expiring $6.5 million contract, will take a backseat to the Monster.
Nazem Kadri may have accidentally played one NHL game last season, but he’ll likely have a full slate if he impresses in the preseason the way he has in the OHL. His numbers have skyrocketed each season from Kitchener to London and now he’ll have the opportunity to show that despite his size and age (5’11”, 19-years old), he came to play.
Just like any Brian Burke team of the past, the pieces are in place for something big to happen sooner or later. But as for the upcoming season, Toronto’s lack of depth up the middle and scoring questions (the biggest of which is “Who besides Phil Kessel scores 25 goals this year?”) could spell another year on the outside looking in. But, in time, this depression shall pass.
Fifth in the Northeast, 13th in the Eastern Conference.