Burke has always felt that an NHL team should be built from the net out and, just as importantly, expects his players to be put into roles that they can succeed in.
For Burke, that means creating four lines, each with a specific duty, each as important to the team's success as the next.
To be fair, in a perfect world Burke’s philosophy is how all NHL teams should be built—great goaltending, complemented by four lines that know and buy into their roles.
Since arriving in Toronto Burke has put his stamp on the blue and white. Gone are many of the players that Burke inherited. In fact, of the members of the 2008-09 starting roster only Mikhail Grabovski, Nikolai Kulemin and Luke Schenn remain.
Burke (as many NHL general managers do) has put his stamp on the Maple Leafs franchise bringing in “his guys,” which include the likes of Dion Phaneuf, Colby Armstrong, Joffrey Lupul, Phil Kessel, Tim Brent, Mike Brown, Colton Orr, Mike Komisarek, Clarke MacArthur and Jonas Gustavsson.
While not every player has worked out for Burke, the vision of building a well-rounded team has always been there. Burke has assembled a team that, while not Stanley Cup ready, should be a playoff team in 2011-12, which is saying a lot when you consider just how little Burke had to work with when he arrived on Nov. 29, 2008.
With the 2010-11 regular season winding down, the Toronto Maple Leafs find themselves in their first playoff race in nearly six years. While making the playoffs may be overly optimistic for this franchise, there is no denying that there has been a culture change and that playoff success is not that far off.
Still, as good as the Maple Leafs have been since the All-Star break, it is easy to see that there are still a few holes Burke needs to fill.
This summer, Burke will enter free agency with upwards of $24 million to spend.
Pending restricted free agents Luke Schenn, James Reimer, Tyler Bozak, Darryl Boyce, Clarke MacArthur and Carl Gunnarsson will get plenty of consideration for a new contract by Burke. Conversely, unrestricted free agents Fredrik Sjostrom, Joey Crabb, Tim Brent and J.S Giguere will be hard-pressed to get another contract for next season.
Realistically, Burke will likely only sign four or five of the aforementioned players to new contracts this summer, with Schenn, Reimer, MacArthur, Gunnarsson and Brent likely getting the nod.
That’s not to say Burke will not qualify the likes of Darryl Boyce and Joey Crabb with two-way offers (for the record I believe he will), but the futures of Sjostrom, Giguere and even Tyler Bozak are in jeopardy in my opinion.
With a few roster spots to fill, Burke is likely to enter the free-agent market come Jul. 1.
Burke’s top priority will likely be a top six forward, with top-flight centre Brad Richards emerging as his preferred signing.
Sure, top prospects Nazem Kadri and Joe Colborne are waiting in the wings to contribute to the big club, but neither one appears to be ready for upwards of 20 minutes a night at the NHL level, at least not yet anyway.
Another area of need for the Maple Leafs is within the bottom six forwards where they could use a legitimate penalty kill specialist and some more grit.
One player that could help fill that role is Washington Capitals forward Brooks Laich, who, while not known as a penalty kill specialist to many NHL fans, could help the Maple Leafs in that respect.
Known as a scrappy, hard-working forward, Laich currently averages 2:19 of ice time (42nd in the league) on the penalty kill, helping to lead the Capitals to the fifth-best PK in the NHL.
Through 66 games Laich has registered a total of 14 goals and 36 points, emerging with a plus/minus rating of plus-11. Laich can also play the power play—an area that, while improving, the Maple Leafs could use a shot in the arm as well.
The point is, unlike many penalty kill specialists, Laich can give you quality minutes in many aspects of the game, which makes him a very valuable asset to any organization. Laich is baseball’s equivalent of a “utility player,” capable of chipping in wherever you need him.
At 6’2” and 200 pounds, Laich has size, is known as a tough player and at 27 years of age, looks to fit right into Burke’s roster.
The only thing that may deter Burke from signing Laich is price point. Laich currently carries a cap hit of $2,066,667. He is expected to get a similar contract this summer, but if several teams get on the Laich bandwagon his salary demands could rise exponentially.
Pittsburgh Penguins forward Pascal Dupuis is another option.
Through 66 games with the Penguins, Dupuis has accumulated a total of 11 goals and 28 points to go along with his plus-11 plus/minus rating.
At 31 years of age, he too fits into Burke’s plan and with over 650 NHL regular season games, a Stanley Cup championship and 69 playoff games on his resume, Dupuis could bring an element of experience, success and leadership to the Maple Leafs as well.
Dupuis currently carries a cap hit of $1.4 million and while it is unlikely he will leave the Pittsburgh Penguins organization, you never know what free agency may bring.
Penalty killing is a skill—one that few players can excel at and one that the Maple Leafs badly need should they want to be a successful regular season and (dare I say it) playoff team in 2011-12.
Laich and Dupuis appear to be Burke’s two best options. Otherwise, the improvement is going to have to come from within the organization and, frankly, I just don’t see which player/players would step up in that regard.
Until next time,