The 2009-’10 Maple Leaf season provided glimpses of hope - though we’ve seen this movie before and we all recognize hope is not enough to build a contending team.
We’ll see in this spring’s playoffs, yet again, the difference between a team like the young Leafs and a real contender. The latter generally have outstanding goaltending, four strong lines and are eight-deep on defense (in case of injury) going into the playoffs.
Burke has already made all kinds of moves, and there will be more to come this summer. He has demonstrated he is more than willing to make major moves - including some tinged with risk, such as the much-discussed Kessel trade.
Since just before he arrived last season, the club has moved players on a regular basis, including: Colaiacovo, Steen, Harrison, Tlusty, Toskala, Blake, Atropov, Frogren, Hagman, Joseph, Kubina, Mayers, Moore, Ponikarovsky, Stajan, Stralman, Stempniak, White.
That’s 18 guys - an entire NHL team worth of players - gone, in less than two full seasons.
And we haven’t even reached the summer, when more moves will undoubtedly be made. Cap considerations come into play, but that won’t stop Burke.
Since fans can’t do anything but speculate, here are some thoughts on what will/should happen over the next four months, as the Leafs get ready for the beginning of the 2010-’11 season
Goaltenders (both staying)
Gustavsson- One would think he will sign a new contract this summer. He was a signature Burke-signing last summer, so given the team’s investment in terms development/playing time this past season they will bring him back. Hopefully it will be at a reasonable price for a not-yet-fully proven NHL goalie.
Giguerre- He remains a solid NHL goalie. Giguerre does not appear to be what he was in his prime, but can still reach heights and could still be a difference maker in the playoffs- if the Leafs ever get there.
Phaneuf - He will be the next Captain. We saw some warts in his game during his time with the Leafs, and his personality may wear on some, but he brings a physical edge. He has helped on the penalty kill and should add some offense from the blueline next season
Schenn - While I’m still not completely sold that he will be the player Fletcher thought he would be when they traded up to select him in 2008 (he could still be part of a deal to get back a number one pick), I think he stays. Burke says he builds from the back end and good young defensemen are difficult to obtain, so giving them up makes a GM think more than twice. Schenn made strides as the season progressed, and isn’t afraid to play physically.
Gunnarsson - He has quietly given Leaf fans hope that he can be a top four defenseman as early as next season. Comparisons to Lidstrom are unfair, but he does have a calming presence on the ice. Sometimes a player looks good with no pressure on and it’s an illusion. I don’t think that’s the case here. He can play.
Beauchemin - He stays because I think Burke believes in him. They won a Cup together in Anaheim and Beauchemin should be a steady presence next season. He plays with an edge, he also brings leadership and should be an impact player next season.
Komisarek - It’s too soon to give up on Komisarek, who struggled early and lost the rest of the season because of injury. He’s a physical guy who will likely play more relaxed next year.
The beauty of Leaf defense corps is that, in theory, the above five guys will fight over minutes- the younger guys along with veterans like Beauchmenin and Komisarek. However that works out, they should be better back there, if they can avoid injuries.
Exelby - He worked hard, but I think the numbers work against him next season
Finger- Like Exelby, the numbers work against him. I think the team will make moves to bring in a number-6 defenseman of Burke’s choice and liking.
Van Ryn - He is a hard-working player and if he’s healthy he could earn the 6th slot, but if I had to bet, I’d say he’s in tough.
Kaberle - I wrote recently the Leafs have to either sign him to an extension and tell him he’s staying for good- and mean it - or deal him. Media speculation on the weekend was that Burke will only move him if he gets a number one or a top six forward. That's fine, but if Kaberle stays under that approach, he'll be here another season knowing he's not wanted. That simply won't work. I’m convinced they have already decided they want someone that brings more sandpaper- if less offensive skills.
Kessel - The Leafs have so much invested in salary and draft picks, he’s here for a long time. The question is: will he eventually outlast the coach or will they stay on the same page after the first-year honeymoon?
Kulemin - His play was not as impactful in the last few games, but his overall arc was so impressive as the season progressed, he should be a cornerstone player for years. I believe he can double his point output, or close to it, either next season or the year after.
Bozak - This Burke collegiate signing has done more than any Leaf follower could have anticipated given that he had no previous professional experience, started the season in the AHL and then was not healthy. He’s a keeper, even if he hits bumps in the road next season. He has Adam Oates like qualities, which is saying something.
Stalberg - Based on his overall play this season, he could be one of those on the bubble (see below) if the Leafs had real depth, but he showed enough in the final weeks to give management the sense that he can play at this level.
Sjostrom - He stays because he can skate, he came in the big Calgary deal and he can certainly help on the penalty kill.
Orr - He also stays because he does exactly what Burke wants him to do. He’s tough, and can chip in with a goal every once in a while.
Hanson - He stays more on potential than numbers, obviously. He has size - though he’ll have to use it a lot more next year. His last-game (a 2-goal, 1 assist effort) gives hope that he can put up some points and provide some offense at this level.
Kadri - While I think he would definitely benefit from time with the Marlies, the Leafs may be anxious to get him here as soon as possible. If he works hard in the summer and gets stronger by training camp, he may stick as a “top six” forward. (I would start him with the Marlies, regardless of his training camp performance. It’s a step most players should make, so that, once they come up, they’re up for good.)
On the Bubble
Mitchell - He’s solid young man with NHL talent, but he will have to become the current-day Peter Zezel of this team if he wants to be around 12 months from now: a face-off guy, committed penalty-killer, hard worker, gritty, more physical. He has the size and skills but consistency is an issue.
Caputi - While I liked his energy, I’m not sure he earned a full-time gig based on his performance in the final few weeks of the season. He may be a guy that will move between the Marlies and the big club until he shows management he is a full-time NHL’er
Grabovski - He obviously has offensive skills but to me, for the Leafs to be a contender, he can’t be a “top six” guy, and I don’t think he brings enough in other areas, consistently enough, to warrant a job on the third line. He could be moved for a pick before the draft.
Primeau - He is a veteran NHL’er who always makes a contribution. But the Leafs may go in a different direction.
Lundmark - Has spent time with a number of NHL clubs, but I don’t see a fit here next season.
Wallin - Again, he played some good hockey but the Leafs may be able to find others who fit their plan a bit better.
Some guys may be on the bubble in the first part of next season because Burke can’t, under the cap, make the moves he really would like to make in the off-season. He is probably 90% done on the back end (goal and defense) but it’s clear he would overturn half the forwards if he could.