Five Players That Must Come Through For Brian Burke Next Season
While the worlds focus is now on the Summer Olympics the Leafs Nation is still dialed into their beloved Maple Leafs. Loyal to a fault, fans of the Toronto Maple Leafs have hope that for the first time in what feels like a decade their beloved hockey team will finally make the playoffs.
Complicating matters is the fact that just about every Eastern Conference team has made considerable improvements.
The Carolina Hurricanes traded for talented centre Jordan Staal and recently signed enigmatic forward Alexander Semin to a one-year, $7.0 million contract. Those two additions alone will likely take the Hurricanes from also-rans to legitimate playoff contenders and maybe a team that will compete for the Stanley Cup.
Meanwhile, the Pittsburgh Penguins added a number of depth players including rugged forward Brandon Sutter (attained in the Staal trade) as well as solidifying their goaltending with the addition of veteran Tomas Vokoun.
The Philadelphia Flyers made numerous moves last season, many of which have already paid huge dividends, including the acquisition of power forwards Wayne Simmonds and Jakub Voracek and youngsters Sean Couturier and Brayden Shenn, who all look like the real deal.
The Florida Panthers added defenseman Filip Kuba to their mix, while also extending ex-Maple Leaf Kris Versteeg.
The Tampa Bay Lightning signed free agent defenseman Matt Carle to their backend, while bringing in goaltender Anders Lindback via trade to help solidify their shaky goaltending.
The New York Rangers continued to make moves to strengthen their Stanley Cup hopes by trading for this summers top available player Rick Nash, while several other Eastern Conference teams continued to add depth.
Meanwhile, Toronto Maple Leafs general manager Brian Burke traded under-performing defenseman Luke Schenn for former Philadelphia Flyers forward James van Riemsdyk and added depth forwards Jay McClement and Keith Aucoin to the mix while disposing of hard luck veteran forward Colby Armstrong.
The JVR trade should boost Toronto’s offense, but losing Schenn may hurt the team on the backend where Schenn was a solid contributor in hits and blocked shots last season.
Needless to say, regardless of the moves Burke made there will always be critics waiting to pounce on Burke for his apparent lack of action this summer. Dreams of signing free agents Jaromir Jagr and Alexander Semin, while not entirely realistic, were bandied about by many fans, while the media pushed hard for Burke to land Nash for months.
All and all the 2012-13 crop of free agents had some very good talent at the top of the list, but the rest of of that list held a ton questionable depth players, many of which are still available today.
When you add it all up, Burke is going to have to get some improved play from a number of key roster players next season if he is to have any chance of icing a squad that will compete for a playoff spot.
With all that in mind, lets take a look at five players that must elevate their play if the Maple Leafs are going to compete for a playoff spot in the Eastern Conference next season.
Burke has always said that he likes to build his teams from the crease out. Whether or not he still believes that with the likes of James Reimer and Ben Scrivens currently looking like the Maple Leafs starting goaltenders next season is debatable, but you have to think, despite the question marks surrounding his goaltending heading into the 2012-13 season that his feelings haven’t changed.
When Reimer went down with what was first thought to be a concussion issue (later said to be neck related) the team went down with him. Despite Burke voicing that he felt Backup netminder Jonas Gustavsson saved his teams butt last season, he was anything but a “Monster”, finishing the season with a paltry 17-17-4 record. Meanwhile, youngsters Ben Scrivens and Jussi Rynnas combined for a 4-6-2 record.
When you add it all up, the Maple Leafs failed to miss the playoffs and finished the 2011-12 season with the 29th ranked defense.
With Gustavsson joining the Detroit Red Wings this summer via free agency the time for Reimer to shine is now. If Reimer could return to the form he displayed in 2010-11 it would go a long way in getting the Maple Leafs into the playoffs and probably save Burke’s job.
Given the way he has performed (or lack thereof) since joining the Maple leafs via free agency in the summer of 2009-10 Brian Burke probably isn’t putting a lot of stock in Mike Komisarek having a great season in 2012-13. That said, if there was ever a time for Komisarek to shine it is the upcoming season as there are a few holes on defense.
As it stands, Cody Franson (RFA) is still unsigned and with Luke Schenn being shipped out in the James van Riemsdyk deal Burke will be looking for someone to step into the lineup.
Dion Phaneuf, John-Michael Liles, Jake Gardiner and Carl “uzi” Gunnarsson will make up the Leafs top-four defensemen with Komisarek, Korbinian Holzer and either Franson or a player from the Toronto Marlies making up the sixth spot. The Maple Leafs also re-signed 25-year old Mark Fraser today. At 6’4” and 220 pounds he could be a legitimate threat to crack the Maple Leafs lineup, especially when you consider how well he played during the Marlies’ Calder Cup run.
At a cap hit of $4.5 million Komisarek has been nothing short of a pant load thus far, registering a grand total of two goals and 17 assists through 154 games while posting a brutal plus/minus of -30 and a paltry 167 penalty minutes.
Admittedly, health issues and a lack of confidence have hurt Komisarek’s game, but the fans are tired of the excuses—simply put, Komisarek needs to put up or shut up.
More importantly, Komisarek lost his swagger and while I still have my doubts that he will get it back, it would be a huge bonus to Burke and the team if he could regain the hitting prowess that made him so effective in Montreal when he played with the Canadiens.
At just 23-years of age, James van Riemsdyk is being looked at as the Maple Leafs latest savior.
Known for his work along the wing, early reports have JVR competing for the number one centres job. With little competition for the job, the role as Phil Kessel and Joffrey Lupul’s centre is his to lose. The feeling is if JVR shows even the slighted ability between Kessel and Lupul he will be given every opportunity to develop during the pre-season and beyond.
Burke has frantically looked for a number one centre since he arrived in 2008. Tim Connolly and Matthew Lombardi never worked out, and while Tyler Bozak did an admiral job last season, nobody really thinks of him as a true number one centre.
Imagine if JVR could do the job—how huge would that be for Burke?
Should JVR fail he will still be a valuable addition to the Maple Leafs top-six, but make no mistake about it, Burke needs him to play centre and to a certain degree the Maple Leafs playoff hopes likely depend on it.
Fresh off a 30-goal, 57 point season in 2010-11, Nikolai Kulemin was penciled in for 25-goals last season. Kulemin fell well short of expectations, putting up his worst NHL season, notching just seven goals and 28 points through 70 games with the Blue and White.
While there were calls to trade Kulemin at the deadline, Burke chose to keep Kulemin in the fold, rewarding him with a two-year, $5.6 million contract this summer. As bad as Kulemin was last season, he is still just 26-years old.
Clearly, Burke is banking on Kulemin having a rebound season. That said, should Kulemin falter Burke will have options this season in the form of the aforementioned Connolly and Lombardi—who both need to have better seasons as well.
While I am all for giving players a second chance and I will acknowledge Kulemin still has a ton of upside, he will be on a short leash next season.
As team Captain and the main cog on the Maple Leafs’ power play, Dion Phaneuf must find a way to elevate his game.
Sure, he was an all-star last season, but he was also very inconsistent in his play, which had the fans, coaching staff and management pulling their hair out last season.
Rule changes may make it impossible for Phaneuf to return to the style of play he played when he was a Calgary Flame but one has to believe Phaneuf has more to offer in terms of physical play and overall energy.
Long gone are the days when Phaneuf’s hits were a nightly feature on TSN’s highlight of the night, if Phaneuf could lay out one more player a week it would go a long way in regaining the fear that many NHL players had for Phaneuf early on in his career.
Admittedly, we could have put Mikhail Grabovski (Toronto’s highest paid forward) on this list, but with Grabo demonstrating a high compete level for much of the 2011-12 season nobody is expecting a huge drop from his 23-goal, 51-point effort.
We could have also put the obvious players on the list, such as, Kessel and Lupul—who will be expected to lead the team in offense. But like Grabovski, there is no reason to believe their games will drop off, especially when you consider the ice time they will get in 2012-13.
To me, Reimer, JVR, Komisarek, Nikolai Kulemin and Phaneuf will be under the radar for the entire season. While I suspect Komisarek will be a dud, the rest of the lot have something to prove and should they falter Burke will be up to his knees in you-know-what.
Until next time,