Great Expectations: Brian Burke Has The Toronto Maple Leafs On Right Track To Make The Playoffs
When Brian Burke took over at the helm as the Toronto Maple Leafs general manager he promised a number of things. First, he promised that the cottage-like environment would be made a thing of the past by making sure the organizational depth was improved from top to bottom. Second, he promised to ice a much more physical team and third, he promised to turn the Maple Leafs into a perennial contender.
Thus far, after three seasons of trades, tweaks and free agent signings, Burke has little in the way of success with which to measure his work, but there is hope that the Buds are on the right track.
Under Burke’s watch the Maple Leafs have consistently iced one of the worst squads in all of hockey, finishing 24th in 2008-09, 29th in 2009-10 and 22nd in 2010-11.
While the results in the standings have not been there, one could argue that Burke has made good on his other promises—icing a tougher/more physical team and improving the organizational depth from the bottom to the top.
Case and point, the Maple Leafs currently employ five competitive goaltenders in the form of James Reimer, Jonas Gustavsson (Free Agent signing), Ben Scrivens (FA signing), Jussi Rynnas (FA signing) and Mark Owuya (FA signing)—all of whom have the talent to be NHL goaltenders.
Comparatively, the Maple Leafs depth on defense is considered to amongst the best in the NHL with a top seven that features Dion Phaneuf (acquired via trade), John-Michael Liles (trade), Cody Franson (trade), Luke Schenn (drafted by Burke), Keith Aulie (trade), Carl Gunnarsson and one of Mike Komisarek (FA signing) or the up and coming Jake Gardiner (trade).
In terms of developing defensemen the aforementioned Gardiner looks to be leading the pack, followed by a collection of prospects and veterans that includes Jesse Blacker (drafted by Burke), Simon Gysbers (FA signing), Mikus Juraj, Matt Lashoff (trade) and Korbinian Holzer.
Of course, building from the net out has always been a top priority for Burke with every team he has managed, so there is no real surprise that he has assembled a ton of depth at the two defensive positions. Where the Leafs are still a work in progress is on the front lines—but it is getting better.
Assembled mostly through free agent signings and trades, Burke has put together a top-six that will include Phil Kessel (trade), Tim Connolly (FA signing), Joffrey Lupul (trade), Mikhail Grabovski, Nikolai Kulemin and Clarke MacArthur (FA signing).
As far as NHL top-sixes go, the Maple Leafs will ice a pretty average group, which, if they incur an injury or two, could put the club in big trouble. Connolly and Lupul have a history of injury, which could bite the Leafs in the butt at some point this season, but given Burke’s options this summer, “it is what it is”.
Nevertheless, with the additions of Colby Armstrong (FA signing), Nazem Kadri (draft), Mike Brown (trade), Colton Orr (FA signing), Darryl Boyce (FA signing), Tyler Bozak (FA signing) and Matthew Lombardi (trade), Burke has all but completely re-tooled the Maple Leafs up front, assembling a competent/hard working group that could surprise a few teams this season.
In terms of depth at the forward positions, Burke has added the likes of Joe Colburne (trade), Phillippe Dupuis (FA signing), Matt Frattin (FA signing), Greg McKegg (draft), Jerry D’amigo (Draft) and others to build an element of depth at the forward position throughout the organization.
At the end of the day, the depth Burke has assembled has, in turn, created a much needed competition for NHL roster spots throughout the organization, which had been sadly lacking prior to Burke’s hiring.
While still a work in progress, McKegg, Colburne and Frattin represent three very good prospects, all of whom have the potential to be top-six forwards in the not so distant future.
Perhaps the biggest difference since Burke’s arrival has been the emergence of a quiet confidence from the players and organization that they can compete on an nightly basis and that, given time, the organization looks to be on the right track—both now and for the furture.
Talent, confidence, a change in culture and a strong compete level from all four lines gives the Maple Leafs a legitimate shot at a playoff spot in 2011-12—something the Blue and White have not accomplished in what feels like a decade.
For the Buds to crack the Eastern Conference top 8 a lot of things will have to go right.
Special teams (both the power play and penalty kill) need to be measurably improved, the defense needs to contribute more offensively, starting goaltender James Reimer needs to be consistent and the projected top line of Phil Kessel, Joffrey Lupul and Tim Connolly needs to find a way to contribute night-in, night-out.
To the naked eye that’s a long list of things that needs to go right, but when you look around the NHL, most teams have a similar list, most teams have similar concerns.
The addition of speedy forward Matthew Lombardi (who was just recently cleared for contact after a full season off with a head injury) to the lineup would be a huge shot in the arm for the Buds, but like Lupul and Connolly, the potential for injury is very real.
In the event the first line succumbs to injnury woes, goaltending, defense and the second unit of Mikhail Grabovski, Nikolai Kulemin and Clarke MacArthur (a unit that cobined for the 11th most goals last season), look to be the three biggest factors for a successful 2011-12 season, all of which look to be more than capable of meeting their high expectations.
So, will the Maple Leafs make the playoffs?
Without the benefit of a true first line centre and without 20-30 games in the books to gage where the team is at in terms of all the new players “gelling” it’s just too early to tell.
What we can say is that for the first time in a long time Maple Leaf fans from coast-to-coast are expecting big things from the Blue and White and from my seat this team has as good a shot at a playoff spot as any of the bottom ten teams in the Eastern Conference.
Until next time,