Four Questions Facing The Toronto Maple Leafs Heading Into The 2012-13 Season

July 26th, 2012 7 Comments

When the 2012-13 NHL regular season schedule ended the Toronto Maple Leafs were once again left on the outside looking in when it came to the playoffs. While the downside of that is pretty obvious, the upside can be a little more difficult to see.

One of the advantages to missing the playoffs (if there are any) is that your general manager gets an extended period of time with which to evaluate his roster. Theoretically, this should have given Toronto Maple Leafs general manager Brian Burke plenty of time to plan for change, which should have included making some key roster changes.

Thus far Burke has added veteran forward Jay McClement to his bottom six forwards, bought out the injury-prone Colby Armstrong, added veteran forward Keith Aucoin as a depth move and traded defenseman Luke Schenn to the Philadelphia Flyers for forward James van Riemsdyk to help out his top-six forwards.

While the McClement move should help the Maple Leafs penalty kill and the addition of JVR should bring another offensive threat to the lineup, Burke still has several areas that need to be tweaked.

With that in mind, here is a look at four questions facing Brian Burke and the Toronto Maple Leafs heading into the 2012-13 season.

Goaltending:

While many fans of the Blue and White seem content to head into the 2012-13 season with James Reimer and Ben Scrivens between the pipes, one only has to look back to last season’s results (or lack thereof) to see how dangerous entering the season with two goaltenders with limited NHL experience can be.

Sure, Reimer had an excellent run in 2010-11, but injuries and sub-par play all but erased whatever he accomplished in his rookie season. Reimer’s struggles, combined with an injury that could reoccur at any time must give Burke nightmares at night; this despite his unwavering loyalty and love for the one they call Optimus Reim.

In Scrivens Burke has a goaltender that, while impressive during his Calder Cup run with Toronto’s AHL affiliate Toronto Marlies, has very limited NHL experience. Let’s face it folks, when Scrivens has been up with the big club he has been less than impressive, so what makes any of us think he is NHL ready?

Simply put, despite Burke announcing that he is confident that Reimer and Scrivens could be Toronto’s 1-2 punch between the pipes he also said that he would like to start the season with more experience in net, which leads me to believe Burke will look to upgrade his goaltending before the season begins.

Centre:

Try as he might to land a top-flight centre Burke has failed miserably. As good as Tyler Bozak was on the first line last season nobody has ever mistaken him for a first line centre and I doubt that will change this season.

Bozak, Mikhail Grabovski, Tim Connolly, Matthew Lombardi, David Steckel and the newly acquired James van Riemsdyk will compete for icetime at centre this season. With Grabovski penciled in as Toronto’s second line centre, Bozak, Connolly, Lombardi and JVR (who is more comfortable on the wing) are the only real options Burke has to fill his number one centre role.

Connolly was a disaster last season and, while somewhat excused by his injuries, Lombardi was a flop as well. As good as Bozak was last season he is not good enough to lead the Maple Leafs to a playoff birth and with JVR’s inexperience at centre it is doubtful he will get the job done either.

The uncertainty at centre has been a constant for the Maple Leafs since former captain Mats Sundin left so unceremoniously midway through the 2008 season after refusing to waive his no-trade clause at the trade deadline.

With Burke’s goaltending already a question mark and the middle looking weak, it is hard to take the Maple Leafs seriously when it comes to being a playoff contender. Too many questions down the middle spells big trouble for the Blue and white. It is about time Burke did something about it.

Defense:

I keep hearing about Toronto’s tremendous depth on the blueline…and then I keep reading that Toronto finished the 2011-12 season with the 29th ranked defense, which was actually a step back from the 2010-11 season when they finished 25th overall.

On paper Toronto’s defense looks decent enough with veteran John-Michael Liles, captain Dion Phaneuf, sophomore sensation Jake Gardiner, the always steady Carl “Uzi” Gunnarsson and the up and coming Korbinian Holzer expected to receive the lion’s share of the workload.

At the end of the day looking good on paper is simply not good enough. This group needs to step up its game in a huge way this season, but with no real stud defenseman (with apologies to Phaneuf) and plenty of holes down the middle, the Maple Leafs will be hard-pressed to improve on last season.

Former Montreal Canadien Mike Komisarek was supposed to be a pillar of strength on Toronto’s blueline when Burke signed him as a free agent in 2009. Thus far throughout his tenure as a Maple Leaf he has been about as useless as tits on a bull and a complete and utter waste of $4.5 million in cap space every season.

When Burke cleaned house by buying out Colby Armstrong the fans applauded loud and clear. The only move that would garner a bigger reaction would be if Burke somehow found a way to buy Komisarek out of his bloated contract so he could find a capable defenseman to take Komisarek’s place.

Given Komisarek’s lack of icetime you cannot blame all of Toronto’s defensive struggles on him. On the other hand, if Komisarek were to somehow find a way to reignite his game next season it would go a long way in helping this team on the defensive side of the puck.

As it stands, Burke has a ton of question marks on the blueline. Don’t believe me? Check the stats again, they do not lie.

Physical Play:

When Burke fired former Maple Leafs head coach Ron Wilson and brought in current head coach Randy Carlyle in his place he made several comments that both he and Carlyle shared the same philosophy of icing a team that puts a premium on physical play.

Thus far, through Carlyle’s short stay in Toronto, his team has been severely lacking in physical play, causing Burke to state that Carlyle simply didn’t have the right mix of players.

While the acquisition of Jay McClement will help out in the physical department his presence alone will not be enough to allow Carlyle to ice a physical team. As it stands now Burke is setting Carlyle up for failure by failing to add more truculence and testosterone to his roster.

Don’t get me wrong, it’s not just the forwards where Carlyle will need some help. Liles, Gardiner, Gunnarsson and Holzer will have to up their physical play, as will captain Dion Phaneuf, who has gone from one of the most feared hitters in the NHL to a shadow of that player since his arrival in Toronto.

Simply put, Burke looks to be sending Carlyle into a gunfight with a knife and we all know how that typically ends, right?

Every time I see a Maple Leafs player lose another physical battle I have visions of the movie The Slap Shot when, with his team getting pummeled by the opposition, Joe McGrath (the general manager of the Charlestown Chiefs), runs down to the locker room and let’s his team have it:

“Every scout in the NHL is out there tonight, with contracts in their pockets, and they’re looking for talent, for winners, Said McGrath. All my years of publicity, of the fashion shows and radio-thons for nothing… They come here tonight… to scout the Chiefs…the toughest team in the Federal League. Not this. Buncha… pussies.

Wouldn’t it be great if we caught Burke running down to the Maple Leafs locker room and let the likes of Komisarek and the rest of the slackers have it? I digress…

The bottom line is Burke promised the fans and now has promised Carlyle a physically tough team and I simply do not see a roster that looks anything like that heading into next season.

I don’t know about you, but unless there are some major moves from Burke coming this summer I simply do not share the Leafs Nation’s optimism that the Blue and White are going to be playoff bound in 2012-13. Many of the Eastern Conference top teams have made improvements that far outweigh what Burke has done, while the rest of the East has also made improvements.

Ask yourself this: is the addition of JVR and a healthy Reimer enough of a difference for the Maple Leafs to make the playoffs when you take into account all the question marks AND the fact that Burke has weakened his 29th ranked defense by dealing Luke Schenn away?

If that’s enough for Burke and Company to make the playoffs this season I will buy a Montreal Canadiens jersey and take my picture in it. In other words, it’s just not happening, not at this point anyways.

Until next time,

Peace!

7 Comments

  1. Dave says:

    Nice work dude. Super creative and I love the Slapshot quote – how fitting!

    If there is one thing I am optimistic about if this is to be our 2012/2013 Leafs is that we will have a real good opportunity to evaluate and develop our younger talent. Of course, I agree a million percent however, that will not equal a playoff birth and a shot at Canadas sacred mug.

    Given we know there will be underachievers and injuries, my guess is that by February, we’ll be seeing the likes of Mark Owuya, Jerry D’Amigo, Jesse Blacker, Joe Colbourne, Carter Ashton and possibly Greg McKegg. If some or any of those boys see NHL ice it will likely open spots of importance at the Ricoh for guys like Brad Ross, Andrew Crescenzi, Nick Deschamps, Kenny Ryan, etc. After throwing out all of those young names, I sincerley hope we see a full year of Kadri at the NHL level. I like the guy and see the upside. Just not convinced he’ll be put in a position to suceed and may flourish elsewhere.

    All of that said, I still think were two (if were lucky) or three years away from seeing real development in our system with guys like Reilly, Percy, Biggs (if at all), and Matt Finn.

    I almost feel like an Oilers fan on this one. Either dump the veteran forwards and make room for development and stock pike another lottery pick or make a few key trades or hell, pull off the blockbuster – theres names out there!

    ENOUGH MEDIOCRITY ALREADY!!!!

    Dave

  2. MarkRitter says:

    Totally dude! and despite my harsh criticism of Burke’s roster, I too can see the light at the end of the tunnel. Like you, I see a team that can be very good in 2-3 years. Of course, Burke will have to find a way to A) stay employed B) sign his key UFA’s in two years time and C) make a few impact moves along the way. Seems simple, but that is a lot of heavy lifting for any NHL GM!

    One of the goalies, Reimer, Scrivens, Owuya has to work out, if none of them do Burke is in deep trouble. Of course, he could pull the trigger on a deal for a goalie like Bernier, adding his name to the mix, or go out and get a proven vet, but we have been waiting for months and there is no end to the rumors in sight.

    I like the core group of youngsters on the farm. All the guys you mention have a decent shot at making the big club and a few of those kids fit the Burke mold of being tough and skilled.

    Kadri…what can you say? He has been and will continue to be given every shot to make this club and be “the guy”. I keep saying ti, but I really do not see him working out here. I think his best hockey will be played with another organization.

    Burke has a ton of flexibility and cap room both now and for the forseeable future. Add that to the numerous prospects he now has and there are not too many deals he cannot be part of.

    The hard part will be getting this team to the point where players want to come here (UFA’s) without completely ridding yourself of the prospects.

    Burke is no genius, but he has a good hockey mind and I am confident he can turn this sinking ship around.

    Unlike some, I am not that disappointed in his work thus far. I am not impressed either, but I think he is above board and I like the direction we are headed.

    Hopefully they keep Burke around and he is given the proper amount of tenure to get this team back to the playoffs and if that is 2 years from now, so be it, as long as once we do make it we stay a playoff team for a very long time.

    have a good one man!

  3. JF says:

    Reims has all summer to condition himself and get healthier! GO OPTIMUS REIM!

  4. Hudson says:

    Yep, I loved the article too, as I do all of them.

    I am feeling so much less hopeful this year than last year. But like you guys, my hopes have shifted toward development and seeing a real rise in a few years. I no longer sit here hoping for one good season to get back into the playoffs. Where has that gotten us?

    Mark, I agree with everything you wrote, literally everything. What about Carlyle’s impact, though? No more Ron Wilson. Could it be possible that he really does find a way with this group? I don’t feel confident in saying it (Wilson was a massive letdown after raising my hopes), but the possibility is there, isn’t it?

    Just consider the mind-fuck Wilson put on his players. Look how many of them caved either individually, or a disaster together. Could Randy have a completely different method that, forgetting hockey strategy even, could end up more effective from a purely player management standpoint? I think we have to entertain that Randy might be more than just that one-dimensional stereotype we’ve been talking and hearing about. Yeah we have holes, but it takes a village, eh?

    Lots of questions to be answered. I really have a gut feeling that Burke is not done. And I have a sense his recent signings could be setting the table up for some action. Something is coming…..

  5. Mark Ritter says:

    Hey Hud—

    Thanks for the props!

    I think Carlyle will make a difference, but again, if Burke fails to bring in the right troops Carlyle will struggle to get the job done. Perhaps Carlyle will have to tweak his coaching style to suit his roster?

    In the end the coach can only do so much, but I’d like to see Carlyle work some magic for sure.

    Time will tell….

  6. Dave says:

    “Perhaps Carlyle will have to tweak his coaching style to suit his roster?”

    As we sit here today dude, I think that will have to be the case or we’re doomed. We cant play the crash and bang wearing down top lines and then run and gun. We just dont have the players to do it with and be effective.

    If the roster stays as is, I think a trap style game is in order and force opponents to make mistakes and then have our top two lines capitalize.

    D

  7. MarkRitter says:

    Agreed Dave. We don’t have the troops to go into a dogfight with. I have been saying that the Maple Leafs should be playing a defense-first style of play. Carlyle insisted on better D when he got here, hopefully he takes the next step and, as you said, makes them play a trap of sorts. I hate that kind of hockey, and I appreciate that Burke is no fan either, but if it winds games and develops our players defensively, I have no issues with it. There will be no playoffs if we have to score 4-5 goals every game, this much I am sure of.

    Summer is running out dude, beers, patio, very soon…hit my facebook and throw me your digits, we’ll make a plan.

    Peace!

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