In the 1980’s the Toronto Maple Leafs apparently hired a new coach whose name was Win Sumsoon. Many figured, as they were unsure of the spelling, that perhaps the Leafs had hired an unknown.
Those adept at puzzles, however, got the joke and spread the news. In 2009 the Leafs are the punch line of jokes again, but this time around “Win some soon” is the sentiment, not the coach.
Despite sporting the NHL’s worst point total, a sense of optimism should still be felt as the team slowly becomes better competition, and is able to keep games closer. Already out of the playoffs for longer than the team would want to admit, continued patience this season is called for once again.
With the much anticipated and heralded signing of GM Brian Burke, many assumed the team would change immediately and begin a new culture of winning. This culture of winning takes time and requires the management to make pragmatic decisions and build where and when the opportunity arises.
Phil Kessel comes to Toronto with a high price attached to his arrival, surrendering two first round picks and a second round pick. Kessel’s contribution must prove to outweigh that of the potential picks, and put the team in a position to sign the right people to compliment his skill set.
Burke inherited a team heavy on passengers. He has added pieces to the puzzle though, and as the passengers move on, that strategy will prove to pay dividends.
The defensive signings of Mike Komisarek and Francois Beauchemin will give the solid foundation a young defender like Luke Schenn needs to learn how to play his game to the fullest. This top three gives the Leafs the chance, once the forward ranks have been resolved, to keep the opposition’s best from shining.
With Toronto’s forward lines, large changes are needed to allow those players with upside to flourish. Kessel will undoubtedly show his worth given the opportunity to play with line mates who possess significant and specific skills. At present, players with skill are playing stiff and making mistakes because they play like a team trying to not make mistakes, which gives players less flexibility to be creative and interesting.
This incarnation of the Leafs is young; under previous regimes the Leafs have often resembled an all-star team—albeit one from ten years prior. Management is no longer looking to sign or trade for sure fire Hall of Famers on the downside of their careers like Gilmour, Housley, and Ron Francis.
They are finally looking to promote from within and build their own players through the college ranks and minors.
Following the completion of this season, the Leafs look forward to shedding roughly 30 million in salary cap space. This will allow for the signings of forwards who can play the team game that coach Ron Wilson and Burke are attempting to create.
The trade for and signing of Kessel led many to point out that he is hardly a player that makes those around him better. However, the fact that Kessel is there and putting up good numbers may lead others to see Toronto is making the necessary moves to compete.
The free agent crop among the forwards next year is very impressive, and Toronto could choose to look at Kovalchuk, Marleau, Savard, and veterans like Hejduk, Selanne, and Holmstrom. It would be irresponsible to look to any of these players as solutions, but in conjunction with the defensive signings last year and the mysterious emergence of rookie defenseman Carl Gunnarsson, the defensive core is in place. All that is required is getting the right fit on the forward lines.
At present the top Leaf combos are populated by third-liners and fourth line bumpers and grinders aside from Kessel and Hagman. John Mitchell, Jamal Mayers, and Colton Orr make it tough for the opposition to overwhelm this current Leafs team with physicality, which is the identity that Burke has wanted to create, though the team is still overwhelmed by the teams that have more talent offensively.
This particular experiment by the Leafs is taking time to bear results that please all fans, but the future can be seen as bright if the current philosophy of adding quality players is continued.
Without sounding cold, Leaf fans have been waiting since 1967 for the Stanley Cup. Many have tried, and all have failed.
What harm does it cause to wait for this management team to succeed?
Any good thing is worth waiting for, and with some positive moves made already, the road is taking the Leafs in the right direction.