Brian Burke's Toronto Maple Leafs: Is He Building a Contending Franchise?

James Hardie@@jrhardieContributor IFebruary 5, 2011

Many people think Burke should be building through the draft.
Many people think Burke should be building through the draft.Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

Brian Burke has been criticized for first leading the Leafs Nation to believe that he would be rebuilding a contending team within four to five years after his arrival, and then squandering away any potential of doing so. Well, despite popular belief, he may very well have been doing what he promised all along.

A contending franchise in the NHL is, at the very least, one which makes the playoffs on a regular basis. It should be noted that many will argue that to be a true contender, getting home ice advantage for at least the first round of the playoffs on a consistent basis. For either definition, Burke’s Leafs appear to be quite far away from achieving this sort of success.

With the parity existing in today’s NHL, I would suggest that the first definition is likely to be the more apt one the longer we exist in a salary cap world.

So what is required to make the playoffs most years? Well, if one is to judge by the numbers, scoring 220 to 230 goals for and allowing no more than 200 to 210 goals against.

So where do the goals come from? Well, if a team is able to rely on somewhere around 20 to 30 goals from their defence corps (an average of around four to five goals per defenceman), then the four forward lines will need to produce at least 200 goals.

If you were to further break this down, one could project 80 goals for the first line, 60 goals for the second line, 40 goals for the third line and 20 goals for the fourth line and any replacements which cover for injuries and poor individual play during the season.

Eighty goals for the first line would often require two 20-plus goal scorers and a 30-plus goal scorer. In terms of the current Toronto roster, the production of MacArthur, Kulemin (both 20-plus goal pace) and Grabovski (30-plus goal pace) has been on pace all season to satisfy the demands of first line scoring. Currently, this group is on pace to score 86 goals, which is very respectable production for a first line in the NHL.

To put this in a frame of reference, a superstar first line of Heatley, Thornton and Marleau in San Jose scored a total of 103 goals in the 2009-2010 season, while the Stanley Cup champion Chicago Blackhawks' top line during the regular season featured the duo of Toews and Kane, accompanied by a rotating left winger, and produced around 80 goals.

Secondary scoring often requires a second line which can average 20 goals across the entire line. Currently, this is where the Leafs' problems on offence seem to start.

While Kessel is on pace to put up half of the goals a second line would require, with Tyler Bozak only on pace to put up around 12 goals this season, another 17 goals would ideally have to come from the other winger on that line, but the man currently occupying that position (Joey Crabb) has zero goals.

A good third line in the NHL is often one which is big enough, fast enough and defensively aware enough to match up against the top lines of other NHL franchises while still putting up a total of around 40 goals on their own.

The current line of Versteeg, Armstrong and Boyce is on pace for 42. And while there were some questions raised about how effective Versteeg’s defensive play was at the beginning of the season, the past couple months have often displayed a Leafs third line which is capable of effectively defending against some of the top NHL talent out there.

A fourth line of Brown, Brent and Orr, not to mention frequent visitors such as Sjostrom or Mitchell, have shown themselves capable of collectively pushing in 20 goals over the course of this season.

While the Leafs have had a lot of trouble getting goals from their defenceman and from their second line, the rest of the team has actually been pulling its own weight offensively.

In fact, this season, the Leafs are currently collectively on pace to score around 210 goals. A fairly respectable total for a team which is generally viewed as offensively challenged. The problem is, they are also currently on pace to allow 250 goals against.

So, how can we break down the defensive effort of an NHL franchise. Well, unfortunately, the numbers are not quite as simple here. Defence is very often a reflection of an overall chemistry of the entire team, a willingness to commit to the system put in place by the coach and an ability not to panic when things appear to going a little astray.

While prior to the beginning of this season many experts pointed to the depth on the blue line, as the season has progressed, the bulk of the Toronto fans have thrown up their hands in surrender and pointed to the inefficiency of those same defencemen as the reason why more games have not been won.

I believe that is an unfair assessment, however. For as much as some of the Toronto defencemen had a horrible time during the early part of this season (Gunnarson comes to mind), defence is a team game, and it is no longer the sole responsibility of just six lonely men.

In the modern day NHL, the forward lines need to be strong on the back check for a team to succeed, and they need to be patient enough to stick with the game plan and not take huge gambles even when the goals have not been pouring in for them.

In short, many of the obstacles being described on the defensive side of the game are issues which many young players are notorious for having difficulty with. Thus it may not be such a coincidence that this year, Toronto has been one of the youngest, if not the youngest, teams in the NHL.

When you add into the mix an inexperienced (in the NHL) and still young goalie in Gustavsson who has been suffering through a sophomore slump, and the lack of strong secondary scoring which allows other teams to press the offence more often than they otherwise would, the goals against are even more easily identified.

The question that naturally comes to mind now is: so, what is missing? Well, quite simply, a centerman and a left winger to put up points alongside Kessel and some puck-moving, quick-skating defencemen.

In an ideal world, that centerman would be the proverbial “true No. 1 centerman.” If that were to be achieved, the Leafs might look very different on the offensive end indeed. Bozak seems to be better suited to playing the NHL game as a very strong third-line centerman. He wins draws, kills penalties and he has enough speed and scoring touch to keep opposing forwards honest (especially if he is flanked by some defensively responsible wingers).

On the other end, even if the left winger was a Joey Crabb, it is not entirely unreasonable to assume that a big, talented centerman paired with Kessel could put up 60 goals between the two of them, not to mention forcing other teams to play a less offensively-oriented system and focusing more on the defensive end of the game.

But, it is unlikely that Crabb would be that solution even as early as next season. If a centerman could be found, there would be no shortage of prospects in the Leafs system (starting, but not ending, with Kadri) who would be likely candidates to skate on the left wing.

Meanwhile, the biggest strength of this defence corps is also currently its biggest weakness. The Leafs have an abundance of big, hard hitting, tough defencemen. These are the kind of defencemen who are typically not known for being able to handle the puck much more smoothly than they would a live hand grenade, nor are they typically well respected for their footspeed.

In many instances, these defencemen are often paired with a quick-skating, puck-moving defenceman that they can protect with their size and who in turn offers them a simple 10 foot pass to let out of trouble, which is when the puck-mover can then get the play out of the defensive end.

Those puck-movers are who the Leafs are missing on the back-end, to get them out of trouble. Compounding that problem, is that the one true puck-mover on the Leafs defence corps (Kaberle) is likely on his way out the door without a ready replacement to step in.

When the Toronto fan looks at the depth of good goaltending prospects, there is strong hope that a very good goaltender will step up and start protecting the net within the next two to three years. This would mean that the Leafs might only be missing a good centerman and a couple puck-moving defencemen before they could be considered a contending team.

This would seem to be a difficult task, but not an impossible one. It could be as simple as trading for a good centerman with a less than desirable contract and finding a couple of free agent defencemen. Or, it could prove to be one last hurdle that Burke is unable to overcome.

But the reality is that our Leafs were a bunch of aging players with little potential, giving up around 300 goals a season before Burke came on board. Now they are amongst the youngest group in the NHL, whose goals against dropped to 267 last year, and look to drop again this year to around 250.

The potential for getting the goals against down to around 200 is not so entirely unreasonable as these young Leaf forwards mature. And with the addition of a good centerman and a couple of puck-moving defencemen, reaching up to 220 or 230 goals (if not more) is not a large stretch of the imagination.

Perhaps Brian Burke has been doing what he promised to do all along.


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