There has been a lot of debate as to whether or not the Toronto Maple Leafs are a player or two away from playoff contention, or still a team caught in an exhausting rebuild that never seems to end.
The truth is, Maple Leafs general manager Brian Burke is just a player or two away from taking his team to the Promised Land, and the biggest reason this organization is finally headed in the right direction is his work over the past two and a half seasons.
If you were to look over the Maple Leafs' roster, a few things would stick out. First, Burke has only one player on the roster older than 30 years of age, veteran goaltender J.S. Giguere. Second, the current roster has a total of seven former first round draft choices on it.
If everything went according to plan, Giguere would be traded to another team before the February 28th trade deadline. Given Giguere’s current injury status, a trade will be next to impossible. That said, rest assured that come July 1st, Giguere will likely be wearing another NHL team's sweater, leaving Burke with zero players 30 years of age or older.
As it stands now, defensemen Mike Komisarek and Brett Lebda would emerge as next season’s elder statesmen at just 29 years old.
Captain Dion Phaneuf, Colby Armstrong, Phil Kessel, Mikhail Grabovski and Joffrey Lupul are the Maple Leafs most experienced players. Burke has assembled a nice collection of young yet experienced players to build around and, going forward, go to war with.
Combining that group with a supporting cast that will likely include Nikolai Kulemin, Tim Brent, Mike Brown, Tyler Bozak, Clarke MacArthur, and Colton Orr at forward along with Keith Aulie, Carl Gunnarsson, Luke Schenn on the backend and James Reimer and Jonas Gustavsson between the pipes, the future looks a whole lot brighter for the Maple Leafs than it did when Burke signed here a little over two years ago.
Burke has always been a firm believer in building from the net out and building four solid lines.
Thus far, Burke has assembled one of the NHL’s better second units in MacArthur, Grabovski and Kulemin. His third and fourth lines, while spotty at times, look to be getting more consistent (at least five-on-five), and his goaltending, while inconsistent at times this season, looks to be developing in the right direction(at least Reimer is).
Where Burke has failed is in assembling a legitimate first line. Sure, he has Phil Kessel flanking the right side, and Joffrey Lupul’s edgy play appears to be a valuable asset, but this team still lacks a legitimate number one centre.
Never one to sleep on the job, Burke aggressively shopped several players prior to the trade deadline, netting him two first round draft choices in the upcoming NHL Entry Draft, a tremendous pass-first centre prospect in Joe Colbourne and a mid-tier puck moving defenseman in Jake Gardiner.
The additional depth to a development system that has come a long way in two short seasons suggests that Burke has made good on his promise to build a team that would be supported by tough competition from Toronto’s AHL affiliate (Toronto Marlies).
The additions of Joey Crabb, Jay Rosehill, Christian Hanson, Keith Aulie, Darryl Boyce and James Reimer have allowed Burke to trade the likes of Tomas Kaberle away and has paid dividends in the win column.
Now don’t get me wrong, nobody is confusing Crabb, Rosehill, Hanson or Boyce as “blue-chip” prospects, but all three have done a solid job while they have been up with the big club.
James Reimer looks to have supplanted both J.S. Giguere and Jonas Gustavsson as the Maple Leafs’ number one goalie. This is a testament to what Toronto Marlies head coach Dallas Eakins is doing in terms of teaching and what Burke has done in acquiring players while having little to work with and few top draft choices.
Earlier in the month Brian Burke was quoted as saying, “Getting into the playoffs by the skin of your teeth and getting your ass kicked in the first round is not my idea of building a championship team here.”
The point Burke is making (and his recent moves are signalling) is this: Burke has always been building a championship team here in Toronto. His methods may be unconventional and some of his moves may not be very popular in the media or with some of the fans, but when you look at what Burke has accomplished and the team he has constructed in his short time with the Blue and White, things look pretty decent.
The struggles of Dion Phaneuf and Phil Kessel are well documented. Both players are going to have to do more if they are going to be impact players both on the Leafs’ roster and within NHL circles. That said, with little support both players have (to a degree) been unfairly thrust into their roles as saviour of this franchise.
Both Phaneuf and Kessel need to be better. In fact, both Phaneuf and Kessel would probably tell you that if you asked them.
That said, Burke has yet to assemble a proper cast of linemates for Kessel, and, when it comes to Phaneuf, his expectations may just be too high.
Burke knows he’ll need to add to his roster in order to be not only a playoff team, but a Stanley Cup contender. Burke has upwards of $24 million available to him in cap space next summer. Some of that $24 million will be spent on re-signing Clarke MacArthur (RFA), James Reimer (RFA), Luke Schenn (RFA), Carl Gunnarsson and possibly Tim Brent (UFA).
What remains will be spent on acquiring a top six forward—preferably a number one centre and a top four defenseman—which Burke is working on as we speak.
The Toronto Maple Leafs are not that far off from being a contender. If you don’t believe me, take another look at the roster, consider the cap room, and consider that Burke is not a fan of losing and will do everything in his power to prove everyone wrong who said building Toronto into a winner couldn’t be done.
From my seat, Burke is just two or three players away, which, at the pace Burke is working, should be in place by July second!
Until next time,
***This article was featured on NHL.com***
The Slap Shot thinks the Toronto Maple Leafs are a player or two away from contending.
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