Toronto Maple Leafs: Is Brian Burke's Bottom Six Good Enough?
When Brian Burke was hired to be the Toronto Maple Leafs president and general manager in November of 2008, there were a lot of Maple Leaf fans who were ecstatic that the franchise had finally delivered on bringing in one of the top men in hockey.
While nobody is taking anything away from Cliff Fletcher (the man Burke replaced), there is no question that when you consider Burke’s education, league experience, draft record, personal awards and Stanley Cup Championship, Burke was “the man” for the job.
When Burke arrived in Toronto, he promised to bring in players who were ready and able to drop the gloves while bringing a compete level that would be the envy of the NHL.
"We require, as a team, proper levels of pugnacity, testosterone, truculence and belligerence. That's how our teams play," said Burke.
"I make no apologies for that. Our teams play a North American game. We're throwbacks. It's black-and-blue hockey. It's going to be more physical hockey here than people are used to."
Thus far Burke has tweaked his roster to bring in a number of players that are willing to “bring it” on a nightly basis.
Dion Phaneuf, Colby Armstrong, Tim Brent, Keith Aulie and Colton Orr have led the way in the physical department, while mid-season call-ups Joey Crabb and Darryl Boyce have also contributed to the Leafs’ snarl.
While nobody would believe Burke is finished addressing his top-six or bottom-six forwards just yet, there is plenty of evidence that he is on the right track on making good of his promise to assemble two very distinct units without prejudice.
"I don't care where players are born. I don't care where they come from. I don't care what color their passport is. But they've either got to be a contributing offensive player in our top six forwards or they've got to be a hard-hat guy in our bottom six," he said. "If they can't fill a role, regardless of what their passport says, then they're not going to be here."
To Burke’s point, he doesn’t care where you are from, just as long as you come as advertised.
Those who do not fit the bill will quickly find themselves in another NHL uniform—just ask Kris Versteeg, who, despite being a very talented player, did not fit into Burke’s plan, which led to Versteeg being shipped off to the Philadelphia Flyers in return for some valuable draft picks.
As good as Burke’s lower six forwards have been this season, Orr, Crabb, Boyce, Armstrong, Brent, Brown Jay Rosehill and Fredrik Sjostrom (Burke’s most consistent bottom six players) have combined for a paltry 29 goals on the season, which, simply put, is not good enough.
Tyler Bozak looks to be headed to a full-time role in Burke’s bottom six, which could potentially boost the offense, but even his 12 goals (five of which were scored on the power play) is not enough to make Burke’s bottom six a major threat offensively.
For Burke more offense may come in the form of Bozak filling that bottom six role, or perhaps a player like Nazem Kadri or Joe Colborne. More likely, Burke will look to free agency to bolster his bottom six forwards.
The names of Brooks Laich and Scottie Upshall look to be front and centre as potential upgrades in most Leafs’ fans minds, with others hopeful that the likes of Christian Hanson, Luca Caputi or Marcel Mueller can somehow help fill the offensive void.
Whether the improvement comes from within the organization or via free agency, one thing is for certain—Burke will be making upgrades this summer, somehow, someway.
Don’t get me wrong, Burke will still look to add an additional element of toughness and testosterone to add to his bottom six. That said, given the Maple Leafs offensive woes this season (keeping in mind the Buds have been shutout a total of 11 times this season) additional offense will be a priority for Burke—both on the bottom and top six forward lines.
Building a winning team, never mind a winning organization, is no easy task. It appears as if Burke has done a fine job of building a competitive team in his short tenure with the Maple Leafs, now, with a little tweaking, it appears as if Burke may very well lead the Buds to their first playoff berth in what feels like a decade, which would all but bring the Leafs Nation to tears (tears of joy that is).
So, are Brian Burke’s bottom six forwards good enough? Not yet, but by the end of next summer, once Burke has made a few signings, I expect they may very well be amongst the NHL’s best.
Until next time,
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