Three steps? Really, that's it? Somehow I thought it would take longer.
Follow along and see how easy rebuilding a franchise can be.
Trade one or all of the following players for quality first and second round selections in the 2009 draft. Antropov, Ponikarovsky, Stempniak, Grabovski, Van Ryn and potentially Toskala.
If there is any interest, the following can be traded for lesser draft choices: Stajan, Mayers, Moore, White and Joseph.
If Jason Blake can increase his tradeability, then he must be traded at any cost.
Every player on this list has a very reasonable cap hit after the trade deadline (with the exception of Blake) and all have had periods of exceptional play (with the exception of Joseph).
In the absence of a lottery selection, you must trade up as often as possible in order to select the most talented of the group. This is the Leafs opportunity to load up on potential talent and they need to take full advantage. They'll need at least 4-5 selections in the first two rounds of the draft. We're looking for players with leadership qualities and high-end scoring talent.
Use some of the cap-space created in step one, and sign a top-line centre and a scoring winger. Short term, high dollar deals are fine so long as they don't include a "no-trade clause." In the absence of legitimate top line free agents, the Leafs should sit back and wait for the inevitable squeeze of mid-tier free agents and fill any roster holes with cheaper, short-term solutions.
Each step is made possible by it's predecessor and no steps can be missed. If the stars align, each step can create an opportunity to succeed in the next.
Look up, here's my blue-sky rebuild. (~Cue wavey lines and elevator music~)
Burke trades Antropov, Ponikarovsky and Van Ryn at the deadline and collects three picks in the first two rounds of the draft. Burke finds a taker for Blake and in return takes a player with a shorter contract and/or a manageable buyout. Jamal Mayers, Dominic Moore and Ian White are traded for depth selections in the third and fourth round of the draft.
The Leafs win the draft lottery and manage to trade up to another midround selection in the first round. In all they make five selections in the first two rounds including first overall.
Burke signs a top-line centre and left winger. Both are capable of putting up 80-90 points and both agree to sign front-loaded, long-term deals with the Leafs. Antropov resigns in the offseason. Any holes in the bottom six forwards are filled with young players and tough/gritty free agent signings.
Just like that the Leafs are no longer in playoff purgatory, and can legitimately ice a team with the types of game-breakers we've been missing since they printed sweaters with names like Clark and Gilmour. I wouldn't make any promises of playoff glory, but there is no reason to think that the team would need to sink any further in order to "rebuild." They'd have the talent to compete now and a window of opportunity would open toward a steady push for the Stanley Cup, something that's been missing since the lockout.