Toronto Maple Leafs: How Will GM Brian Burke Fix This Mess?
Fresh off a 7-0 loss to the New York Rangers on Wednesday night, the Toronto Maple Leafs pulled a 180 degree turn, thumping the Anaheim Ducks 5-2 in Toronto Thursday night.
The Maple Leafs will salvage some respect in bouncing back so well, but the team's penchant for Jeckyll and Hyde results has Leafs Nation and team management wondering just what they have at the end of the day.
Numerous players have shown flashes of brilliance, followed by lengthy cold spells, while others have proven to be better than expected.
Case in point, a year ago just about every Maple Leaf fan was willing to sell off Mikhail Grabovski for a case of Budweiser and a bowl of pretzels.
Now, given his strong performance this season with 35 points in 44 games (the same amount he had through 59 games in 2009-10), it appears as if Grabovski has finally turned the corner, rounding into form as a legitimate scoring threat (he has 18 goals on the season) and effective second-line centre.
Aiding Grabovski along the way has been the play of his linemates—mainly Clarke MacArthur and Nikolai Kulemin.
Kulemin was also the subject of numerous trade rumors and a considerable amount of debate surrounded his contract status last summer—especially the amount of money he was worth.
In the end, Maple Leafs general manager Brian Burke made the decision to sign Kulemin to a two-year deal worth $2.35 million per season, which, in the minds of many, was fair value for Kulemin’s services.
MacArthur came to the Maple Leafs after the Atlanta Thrashers turned their backs on him, believing that his arbitration award of $2.4 million was out of line. MacArthur eventually settled on the Maple Leafs' one-year offer of $1.1 million.
With 15 goals on the season (one of which he scored last night against the Ducks), MacArthur is third on the team in goals and first in points with 40 through 46 games.
Signing MacArthur may have been the steal of the summer, especially when you consider just how little Burke paid for his services.
MacArthur, Grabovski and Kulemin have combined for a total of 110 points on the season—good enough to go up against most of the NHL’s second units.
While it is still early, there is already talk about locking MacArthur up for another two or three years as without him, Grabovski and Kulemin would not be as effective as they are. Simply put, the combination of these three players is more valuable than any individual player—you can’t have one without the other, right?
As good as this trio has been, they are not without flaws, but on this team, they are about as good as it gets.
For Burke, he must first decide on the future of MacArthur. Will he sign MacArthur to an extension, costing him between $2.5 and $3 million per season, or will he let MacArthur walk in favor of pursuing another free agent?
For me the choice is clear—Burke must re-sign MacArthur. There are no guarantees that MacArthur, Grabovski and Kulemin will continue their magic next season and beyond, but it would be suicide not to try to keep the Maple Leafs' most consistent line together.
With the second line addressed, Burke will have to set his sights on addressing his teams biggest need, a centreman.
Tyler Bozak and Nazem Kadri are still in the developmental stages. At 24, Bozak still has plenty of time to improve on his strengths (faceoffs) and add an element of scoring to his game. More likely, he will continue to be what he is—a defensively challenged centre (he is minus-11 on the season), who will continue to be overwhelmed when asked to play against the league's top players.
Facts are facts, and when you are ranked 207th in goal scoring (8), 229th in assists (12), 232nd in points (20) and 750th in plus/minus (-11), you are NOT a first-line centre, and probably should be on the third line where, with a little luck, you can excel.
Kadri’s struggles are well documented. That said, there is a lot of raw talent there, that with the right development, should net the Maple Leafs a solid forward. Despite his lack of size, Kadri’s best hockey looked to have been as a winger. Clearly, the Maple Leafs would like to see him evolve as a centreman, but if his game is more suitable to the wall, so be it.
Every Leaf fan from here to kingdom come wants to see Brad Richards in the Blue and White next season, but with Richards’ future in Dallas unsure (he may very well re-sign) and no guarantee he would sign in Toronto, there is little hope that we will be seeing Richards in a Maple Leaf uniform next season.
Besides, Richards will likely cost any potential suitor upwards of $8 million per season on a five to seven-year deal. That’s $40-$56 million for one player, which may be too pricey for the Maple Leafs when you consider they already have Dion Phaneuf at $6.5 million per season and Phil Kessel on the roster at $5.4 million. That’s almost $20 million per season for three players!
While I am not completely sold that wingers Phil Kessel and Kris Versteeg are the answers up front, it remains to be seen what these two are capable of if they had a capable centreman to play with.
From what we have seen thus far, Bozak never gelled with Kessel or Versteeg and Kadri (who may not even make the team next season) failed to get the desired results either.
Third and fourth-liners Colton Orr, Tim Brent, Mike Brown and Fredrik Sjostrom are either facing free agency or have little impact on the games. Burke must decide which players he wants to go to war with next season—my bet is that Sjostrom will be a casualty, while Brown and Brent should join Orr as part-time enforcers and grinders.
Colby Armstrong can fit in as a third liner and penalty killer, but unless he finds the back of the net more often the Leafs will have overpaid for his services, which may make him trade bait over the summer.
On the back end there are plenty of question marks—will Tomas Kaberle return? Will Mike Komisarek ever find his game? Is Carl Gunnarsson for real, or just another failed prospect? Will Francois Beauchemin be traded? Will the “real” Dion Phaneuf ever show up? Does Brett Lebda find a new home at the deadline? Does Keith Aulie fit into next season’s picture? How much will it take to keep Luke Schenn in the Blue and White?
Between the pipes Burke is no further along in his evaluation of Jonas Gustavsson, and as good as James Reimer was in his short stint with the big club, it’s pretty risky to be heading into next season with those two as your number one and number two goalies when neither one has proven anything yet.
Blowing up the team, such as shipping out Phil Kessel, Armstrong and Versteeg looks to be unpopular with Leafs fans, and it’s doubtful Burke would consider such a housecleaning.
With that in mind, it appears as if Burke will try to build his team around the following players.
Clarke MacArthur (pending RFA)
Tim Brent (pending UFA)
Mike Brown (pending UFA)
Tyler Bozak (pending RFA)???
Luke Schenn (pending RFA)
What do you think of Brian Burkes progress thus far?
Assuming Tomas Kaberle, Fredrik Sjostrom, J.S. Giguere, Brett Lebda and John Mitchell will not be back next season, Burke will need to fill a number of roster spots.
Some of those spots may be filled by the likes of Joey Crabb, Marcel Mueller, Darryl Boyce, Nazem Kadri, Jerry D’amigo, Brad Ross or any number of other prospects, but as we witnessed with Kadri, nothing is for certain, and in the cases of Ross and D’amigo, their additions to the big club next season are unlikely.
That means Burke will have to either find a way to make a few trades or enter into a severely thin free agent market to try to improve his club.
Either way, the prognosis isn’t very good. It’s very unlikely any of the Maple Leafs prospects can step into a first line role. The second line is already occupied by Grabovski, Kulemin and MacArthur (pending a new contract) and Burke already has more third-liners than he knows what to do with.
With that in mind it would seem that Burke will be in the market for quality rather than quantity, at least where free agency is concerned.
The addition of Brad Richards or Alexander Semin is little more than a pipe dream. But, if either one of those players is available Burke may make a strong pitch for their services—especially Richards, who exemplifies the skill set and leadership the Maple Leafs are missing.
There are no easy answers for Burke. In all fairness, any expectations that Burke will right this sinking ship by the end of next summer are both optimistic and unfair. I don’t care how good a GM you are, re-tooling the Maple Leafs is going to take three years and (taking the first summer out as a clean-up) Burke will have one more season to play with before he and his club can truly be judged.
The bottom line is this: if the players Burke and others have drafted pan out, this team has a chance of competing for a Stanley Cup. If not, it will be more of the same—a continual roller coaster of two steps forward and two steps back, with no real progress being made, year after year, season after season.
Burke says he is in the player development business, time will tell if he’s any good at it.
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(***This article appeared on NHL.com)
Until next time,
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