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Big Changes for Toronto Maple Leafs; Which Players Will Return?

Mark SmithCorrespondent IApril 20, 2009

For so many in Toronto, Brian Burke is a gift from the heavens.  Not only is he a good hockey man who has already started to make smart moves that will rebuild the club…he actually encourages the idea that Toronto is the center of the hockey world and feeds the dreams of Leafs fans.

This is great news for those in Leaf Nation, who see the playoffs as simply a distraction until they can once again focus on the Leafs.

What will the team look like next year?  Who will they draft?  Who will they trade for? Will they sign all the best free agents? 

Most boldly, of course, Burke has thrown out there that he is after the No. 1 ranked player for the draft, John Tavares. 

This alone will have Leaf fans plotting and starting rumours until draft day.  Beyond this, however, Burke has made many things clear regarding his plans;

1)   The Leafs need to become both bigger and faster

2)   There needs to be much stronger competition for ice time

3)   Goaltending needs to improve

Burke has already made some ground on creating more competition and becoming bigger and better with the signings of US collegiate free agents.  He will help address the need for better goaltending with the signing of Gustavsson after the world championships end. 

What does all of this mean for this year’s Leafs?  Well, the changes will be bolder than many expected.  Leaf fans tend to fall in love with their players, even while they are losing, and the late season flashes the team demonstrated had many fans believing “success” (ie. slipping into the playoffs) was only a couple of player upgrades away. 

Burke has his sights set higher, so let’s take a look at each player from this season, and their prospects for 2009-2010.

GOALTENDERS

VESA TOSKALA

Contract: $4 million

Evaluation: Very weak year, even before he was apparently hurt.  Burke made it clear that he felt goaltending (ie. Vesa) cost Leafs a spot in the playoffs.

2009: He will be back as No. 1, at least to start the year.  He will play better, but he will also face real competition for starts.

MARTIN GERBER

Contract: Unrestricted free agent

Status: Had some good starts as a Leaf, but inconsistent and hot-headed in a bad way

2009: Not returning, but will likely get a chance on another NHL team

CURTIS JOSEPH

Contract: Unrestricted free agent

Status: Popular Leaf had terrible year, confirming he is finished even if he does not realize

2009: Thanks for everything Curtis...see you at the pseudo sweater retirements

JUSTIN POGGE

Contract: Restricted free agent

Status: Many chances, but consistently disappointing after his first start.

2009:  Leafs plan to have Pogge spend a full year with the Marlies, hopefully after a long playoff run.

DEFENCEMEN

PAVEL KUBINA

Contract: $5 million

Status: Good offensively, but weak in own zone, and got caught pinching again and again.

2009:  Burke would like to deal Kubina, but his huge contract makes Kaberle the man to go.

TOMAS KABERLE

Contract: $4.25 million per year until 2011

Status: Aside from Schenn, this is the Leaf every team wants.  He ate up ice time, during a so-so season. 

2009: He will be traded for a strong return, unless Burke finds someone to take Kubina.

JEFF FINGER

Contract: $3.5 million per season until 2012

Status: Solid, as advertised.  He blocks shots making him a fav of Ron Wilson. 

2009: No question he and his big contract come back.

MIKE VAN RYN

Contract: $2.9 million

Status: Injuries kept Van Ryn out of most of the season.  When he did play he was a strong Top 4 defenseman, and Leafs won more than they lost. 

2009: Back after a rigorous off season training program.

LUKE SCHENN

Contract: $2.975 million per year until 2011

Status: Exceeded everyone’s expectations, by delivering the goods almost every night, including solid defense and good hits.

2009: Tavares trade aside, Luke will return, and seems to have a good chance to avoid the sophomore jinx.

JONAS FROGREN

Contract: $1.065 million

Status: Unspectacular in games he played.

2009: Frogen will lose out to numbers, and be with Marlies to start the season.

IAN WHITE

Contract: $850,000

Status: White was the best Leaf playing on many nights, and took over even more ice time when  Kaberle was  injured.  Highest plus/minus on team.

2009: Burke will bring White back. White will continue to emerge as a leader on the team, and improve on a strong season.


FORWARDS

JASON BLAKE

Contract: Three years remaining at $4.5 million, $3 million, $3 million.

Status: Blake brought his best game last season, and led the Leafs in scoring.  Still too selfish with the puck.  At 38, he would be good trade bait if not for a ridiculous contract. 

2009: Back with Leafs, but not as effective.

NIKLAS HAGMAN

Contract: $3 million per year until 2012

Status: Solid player who took advantage of ice time to show scoring ability. 

2009: Leafs’ third line

LEE STEMPNIAK

Contract: $2.5 million

Status: Fletcher’s last bad move only seemed to give it a full effort in last games of the season. 

2009: Stempniak is not Burke’s type of player (although he will have even more time to audition at the World Championships).  He will start next season with the Marlies. 

ALEXEI PONIKAROVSKY

Contract: $2.105 million

Status: Most consistent season ever, and actually became stronger after Antropov was dealt.  He emerged as a leader in the dressing room, especially of the other Russian players.

2009: He is Burke’s style of player, and will be back as a top 6 forward for Leafs.

MATT STAJAN

Contract: $1.75 million

Status: After being called out by Wilson at start of the year, Stajan improved, but confirmed he is at best a third line player.

2009: Stajan is clearly one player Burke has in mind when he calls out those who have become too comfortable with ice time on weak team.  He will look to deal Stajan before start of the season.

NIKOLAI KULEMIN

Contract: $1,487,500

Status: Showed ability and aggressiveness offensively, but weak defense had him split season with Marlies.

2009: He will start season with Leafs and be a key project for Wilson and coaches. Look for him to exceed 20 goals.

JAMAL MAYERS

Contract: $1,333,333

Status: Did not give Leafs the physical play they were looking for.

2009: Another Fletcher mistake that will not start year with the Leafs.

JOHN MITCHELL

Contract: $487,500

Status: Showed flashes of offensive brilliance, but weak defensive play held him back.

2009: He works hard is exciting to watch.  He will start year on third line.

MIKHAIL GRABOVSKI

Contract: Restricted free agent.

Status: Grabovski clearly showed he has talent, and he combined this with hard work that was not always smart. 

2009: He will return for more drama next season, potting 30 goals.

BOYD DEVEREAUX

Contract: Unrestricted free agent

Status: Hard-working player lacking in talent.

2009: Not returning.

BRAD MAY

Contract: Unrestricted free agent

Status: One of the team leaders, he played as expected.

2009: Could be back if Burke doesn’t feel he has done enough to improve team size and aggressiveness.

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