Desperate to make the post season for the first time since the NHL lock out the Toronto Maple Leafs looked like a lock to do just that at the Christmas break.
Then, everything went horribly wrong!
In one of the most epic regular season collapses, the Leafs went from first in the Eastern Conference all the way out of a post season birth, and into the draft lottery.
The failure cost recently extended Head Coach Ron Wilson his job, and has drawn General Manager Brian Burke under fire from media and frustrated Leaf fans.
Despite the fact that the Leafs American Hockey League affiliate the Toronto Marlies are having a very successful playoff and are in the hunt and looking strong for a Calder Cup Championship, the expectations are that the Leafs MUST return to post season play in the 2012-2013 season.
In his postmortem press conference Burke stated clearly his desires for the off season are to make changes in goaltending, increase the size and toughness of the team, and secure a number one center. Will the Leafs achieve those goals?
What should we expect Burke’s plan of attack to be this summer?
Perhaps he will blow it up and build through the draft? Following the model that lead Pittsburgh to its return to glory
“Pittsburgh model my ***!” proclaimed Burke. “They won a God damn lottery and got the best player in the World”.
No, the opportunity for Burke to build through the draft has passed. He said he was not interested in a long term rebuild, and proved it by trading away first round picks (Tyler Seguin and Dougie Hamilton) for All-Star Phil Kessel.
The Leafs proved in the first half of the season that they can win games in the NHL, they simply need to take the next step and prove they can do it all season long.
The breakdowns for Toronto occurred in goal. On too many occasions when Toronto needed the big or timely save it never happened. The injury to James Reimer early in the season cost the Leafs dearly. While Burke commended Jonas Gustavsson earlier in the season saying “He saved our ***”, he made it clear they were not interested in resigning the unrestricted free agent. In his presser Burke said while they believe in James Reimer and that he is the real deal there will be changes in goal. Burke has also long been public about his intentions of securing a number one center. Tyler Bozak became that by default for the second straight season. While his second tour of duty in that role was far improved, he is still miss-cast. The team defense was also a liability. Heading into the season that was thought to be a position of strength with team Captain Dion Phaneuf, Luke Schenn, John-Michael Liles, Mike Komisarek, Carl Gunnarsson, Keith Aulie, and Cody Franson the leafs should have had a defense corps in the top half of the league.
New Head Coach Randy Carlyle was Burke’s bench boss during their Cup Championship together in Anaheim. While Burke and Wilson at times did not see eye-to-eye on hockey strategies, Burke and Carlyle do. Wilson preferred speed, while Carlyle thinks that grit is more important. Burke will be happy to oblige Carlyle by adding a healthy dose of truculence this summer!
With a coaching change, the Leafs should prove to be a bigger and tougher team to play against next year. Team defense will be vastly improved and there will be several roster changes.
Up front the Leafs will look to make a big splash by acquiring a star player. With several young players within the system, but no top prospects perhaps Burke makes an attempt to package multiple assets. There are too many players who have NHL potential if not star potential in the Leafs system, too many in fact to house them all and keep them all content. Matt Frattin is shining in the AHL playoffs and has locked up a roster spot in the NHL. Jerry D’Amigo has also been drawing attention from his great play and is in serious consideration as well. Nazem Kadri and Joe Colborne are the Leafs two top prospects on the cusp of breaking into the NHL and with Tyler Biggs, Brad Ross, Marcel Mueller, and Caret Ashton all capable of playing in the NHL the Leafs have a real log jam!
There are a number of players on the Leafs roster who could be moved. Clarke MacArthur was nearly moved at the trade deadline for a late first round pick. That is a deal Burke may wish to revisit. Colby Armstrong is often injured or in the press box. As an alternate Captain it creates a leadership problem having an assistant not in the locker room. Matthew Lombardi made a nice comeback from his concussion injury, but with a cap hit of $3.5 million he or Tim Connolly whos cap hit is $4.75 million may be attractive to a team such as the Islanders or Blue Jackets who will need to spend up the cap floor. Toronto would be happy to move such big contract for little if any return.
With the only free agents at forward being Joey Crabb and Jay Rosehill as UFA’s, and Nikolai Kulemin and Matt Frattin as RFA’s the Leafs will have to look at trading, buying out, or burying players in the minors depending on the new CBA.
Potential Forward Depth
Lupul – Vacant – Kessel
Kadri – Grabovski – Frattin
Vacant – Bozak/Colborne – Kulemin
Brown – Steckel – Vacant
This is assuming the Leafs are able to move out Colby Armstrong, Tim Connolly, Matt Lombardi. Also expect some of these names to be included in trades; Tyler Bozak, Nazem Kadri, Joe Colborne and Nikolai Kulemin. I would also not rule out the possibility of any player being traded for that matter, including Joffrey Lupul to acquire a star player such as Jordan Staal, or Rick Nash.
On defense Dion Phaneuf will lead the Leafs again. Beyond that there are serious questions. While Luke Schenn, John-Michael Liles, Mike Komisarek, and Carl Gunnarsson are all under contract, any of them could be included in the right trade.
Potential Defense Depth
Gardiner – Phaneuf
Schenn – Liles
Gunnarson – Komisarek/Franson
The Leafs should be very active in the trade market for a goalie as the market could be rich this summer. Potentially Roberto Luongo, Tim Thomas, and Miikka Kiprusoff could all be in play. Not to mention Josh Harding and Tomas Vokun as free agents. A veteran goalie with one or two years remaining on his contract would be ideal as it would allow Reimer time to mature and develop confidence while in apprenticeship. Thomas and Kiprusoff should be the prime targets via trade while Vokun as a UFA would be the best solution.
Ben Scrivens is presenting Toronto with a dilemma as well. His outstanding performance with the Marlies and in his brief audition in the NHL has been impressive. He could be the solution for the Leafs, or he could be another one hit wonder. But if the Leafs do acquire a veteran and see Reimer as the future, Scrivens could fetch a handsome player in return.
Potential Goalie Depth
Given Burkes statement in his press conference, I doubt that will be the Leafs two main goalies next season. Look for a veteran to be added.
At the Draft:
Toronto owns the fifth overall selection. Chances are they target a forward with the pick in hope of acquiring a franchise player. Targets include Mikael Grigorenko, Alex Galchenyuk, and Filip Forsberg.
While willing to spend, the Leafs have limited cap space and Burke will only offer a maximum five year term. Again the CBA situation clouds this somewhat and with such a poor market, there is little the Leafs can do. Don’t expect Zach Parise or Ryan Suter in a Leaf uniform next season. Players such as Dustin Penner or Jordin Tootoo are more realistic. The biggest name player who has a realistic shot of joining the Leafs is Justin Schultz. Schultz is a top prospect in Anaheim but has not signed and may become a UFA July first. He has strong ties to former NCAA blue line partner Jake Gardiner and was originally drafted by Burke.
The Leafs will be very active in the trade market this summer. Toronto has quantity of players within its organization, but is lacking in elite quality. No question Burke will try to trade five nickels for a quarter this summer in order to acquire a first line center or a super star forward. Rick Nash, Roberto Luongo, Jordan Staal, Chris Stewart, Dustin Brown, and James Van Riemsdyk have all recently been rumored as potential trade targets for Burke. Potential trade chips include every player in the organization not named Dion Phaneuf, Jake Gardiner, or possibly Phil Kessel. Every other player would without question be in play in the right deal.
Salary Cap Situation
Toronto has 17 players under contract at a cap hit of $56.7 million leaving around $7.5 in projected cap space according to cap geek.
The pressure this season in Toronto will be enormous. Brian Burke commented midway through last season they were not interested in making the playoffs just to get their asses kicked! Perhaps he is his own worse enemy with statements to that effect as their failure to even make the playoffs has left a bad taste in the cities mouth. The fact that Toronto will be featured with the Detroit Red Wings in this seasons Winter Classic and on the HBO series 24/7 will only provide more pressure.
With the goals of acquiring a starting goalie, adding leadership and a star forward or two (ideally a number one center) have clearly been identified by Burke it remains to be seen if he will be able to achieve any of those goals.
One thing is clear however, failure for the Leafs next season is not an option!
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