It feels like ages since the Maple Leafs truly mattered. And it's been over a decade since they claimed a division title and they are staring at being on the outside looking in for a franchise-record sixth year in a row.
Thin ice is a nice way to put it when forecasting the job security of just about every Maple Leaf player and front office executive. Sweeping changes are likely and the grumbling is building to a fever pitch that's sure to explode through all media outlets once they are mathematically eliminated.
But what should Maple Leaf fans expect? What would be best for the franchise?
As of 1/26/11, the Leafs are 12 points out of the playoffs with 33 games remaining. It's not impossible, but it's unlikely given their schedule is void of any extended homestands or non-playoff opponents. In fact, 30 of their 34 games are against quality foes. In February, they play three road games against Montreal, Boston and Buffalo. At the end of March they square off against Minnesota, Colorado and Detroit on the road with two games against Boston (one home, one away) and a home game against Buffalo.
That schedule is daunting for the best of teams, but less can be expected from the Leafs since they figure to be neck deep in rumors and transactions. They could be a shell of a team. Consider that when Boston plays them there is added interest in beating them since Toronto's record influences where Boston's first-round pick will be as the last part of the Phil Kessel trade.
A best-case scenario depends on what you deem to be more important. Is it the present or the long-term future?
That's what Brian Burke will struggle with over the next five weeks. A vote of confidence from ownership could help him make the shrewd move over the quick fix.
The smart move could easily be trading away players like Giguere, Kaberle, Komisarek and just about anyone else for a fair price. The idea here is to acquire draft picks and create more cap space for maximum flexibility once the offseason hits.
The suggestion isn't just to give up and disappoint the fanbase. It's to spark a bigger future.
This will be brief.
If the Maple Leafs hover around .500, they're sure to return. If Toronto can swing several deals in order to gain picks and create more cap space, they may be given more leeway since the roster would be weakened.
However, if the Maple Leafs bomb and are unable to acquire financial flexibility or picks, then a major shakeup could be in order.
It's that simple.
Oh, if they stay on next year, both Burke and WIlson will have freakishly short leases.
Before the grandiose rumors get ramped up about how the Maple Leafs are going to re-load and sail off into the 2011-12 season ready to contend, I offer you a quick peak into there finances.
According to CapGeek.com, the Maple Leafs will have 11 players under contract at a cost of $36.3 million. This leaves them under the cap by $23.1 million, but the Maple Leafs' list of restricted and unrestricted free agents points to them having enough to be a moderate player in the free agent market.
Clarke MacArthur will get a raise from his $1.1 million salary and figures to command somewhere in the $5-$8 million dollar range. Then there are decisions to be made on Tyler Bozak, Luke Schenn, Carl Gunnarsson and James Reimer. Each are likely to return, but they all look poised to receive increases. Fortunately, these players are all restricted free agents meaning that the Maple Leafs could receive compensation if they lose any of them.
Soon to be free agents J.S. Giguere and Tomas Kaberle figure to be dealt soon. These deals won't create more cap space, but if the Maple Leafs acquire players in return that could further influence offseason spending.
While Brian Burke has been fairly and unfairly criticized for acquiring the wrong mix of talent, his front office team has made the most of their draft selections and rookie free-agent signings. While the Toronto farm system isn't the best, they do have some talent that will contribute to the big club over the next few seasons. But there isn't a plethora of sure-fire top line talent.
Thankfully, this draft will be the last touched by the Phil Kessel trade.
Unfortunately, this is another draft without a first-round pick. This is why moving Giguere, Kaberle or any other players for valuable draft picks is important, as they continue to bolster their system with hopes of reaping the benefits for seasons to come.
We can trust Burke to be excellent at this portion of his job.
A foundation piece is an important addition here. A can't-miss younger player could help transform the morale and swagger of the underachieving core.
If the Maple Leafs enter the free agency period with around $12-$15 million in space they would be wise to make bids for left winger Alexander Semin, center Brooks Laich and goalies Ilya Bryzgalov and Jimmy Howard. Pulling down one or more of these players would address one of their multiple deficiencies.
In the case they are able to stockpile draft picks, defensemen Dustin Byfuglien, Brent Seabrook, Drew Doughty (although he's rumored to be a lock to re-sign with the Kings), Shea Weber and forwards Zach Parise and Matheiu Perreault are available. These unique talents would cost valuable draft choices, but depending on the cost they could be worth it.
Adding valuable role players to bolster a new young impact player could help shift the focus from Dion Phaneuf and Phil Kessel, and could transform their careers back to the upward track they were on a few seasons ago.
The free agency period tends to begin with a flurry of signings by teams eager to blow through their cap space. Here is an opportunity for the Maple Leafs to make a push to acquire a marquee player. While many teams immediately go out and add more names to make their offseason loot seem super plentiful as a way to sell more tickets, Toronto isn't in that same spot.
Make a splash and wait for the waters to calm and the other teams' budgets to tighten. The players demands will come down.
Someone like Maxime Talbot could find himself on the outside of the initial signing bonanza and become an affordable coup to some wannabe contender. However if the Maple Leafs grab significant talent during the early stages of free agency, a role player like Talbot who has performed at the highest level and excelled would be a great addition to support a youthful core of players.
Toronto figures to enter next season with several new faces so this may be the right time to allow a captain to rise up and possibly give Dion Phaneuf a break from the role. It's not completely to blame for his tough season, but something seems off and maybe lifting the title could set him free to focus on himself instead of being the leader.
Another mistake waiting to happen would be slapping the "C" on some new guy who may have sported it or an "A" at their previous stop. Whenever that happens it always speaks to how poorly the former captain performed in the role. It's beyond desperation.
What's important here is taking the opportunity to establish a more organic identity that's a reversal from the forced personality that has proven counter-productive to the original goal of the group.
When you miss out on six years of playing for hockey's Holy Grail your team may need more than a roster change. It needs an attitude adjustment.
Make sure to be reasonable about expectations out of the gate.
This means the panic button isn't to be touched until at least the 30th game.
It's a lot to ask for patience when it has been beaten to the point of hopelessness. Brian Burke is a good hockey guy and Ron Wilson is one of hockey's better head coaches. It's time for them to get back to doing the things that made Toronto want them here in the first place.
This season isn't done with, but it can be an acceptable loss if it means there are brighter days on the horizon. A long-awaited return to 1967's heights could be closer than you think.