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Poulin speaks- and how many Eastern teams are really better than the Leafs?

Dave  Poulin, one of Burke's able associates in the Maple Leaf front office, was the spokesperson on Thursday, as the Leafs practiced before a couple of off-days and the Christmas "break".

As reported by the Toronto Sun, Poulin spoke about management not being satisfied with where the team is, but he stressed that the team remains a work in progress and that management wants to make a fair and accurate assessment of what they have before making any "major moves".  (Are we to believe major moves are even possible?)

Interestingly, on the topic of trade possibilities, he seemed to suggest the Western Conference may be where the Leafs will find  a team willing to make a move, because the standings are so close in the West.

As quoted in the Sun, Poulin said, “The tightness of the (Western Conference) probably helps us right now.  There are teams that won’t wait until the trade deadline because they will want to make a push much earlier.”

Now, that's quite possibly true.  And that kind of comment will certainly provide a nugget of hope for Leaf fans.  But previous "talk" versus "action" by this regime suggests caution is in order.

What do I mean? 

Well, weren't we going to go after John Tavares in the draft?  "Move up" in this past June's draft? Those are just two examples of the kind of talk that keeps Leaf fans believing something good is right around the corner.

What about all the Burke quotes around trading Kaberle.  No, he never said he would trade Kaberle for certain, but goodness, there were all kinds of comments about the offers he supposedly would get- once the playoffs were over, then once the draft was over, then once all the big-name free-agent defensemen were signed, then when the window was closing on Kaberle's no-trade clause window of opportunity.

Well, Tomas is still here, and there is no top-six forward that came back in return to help what has been a low-scoring team.

(This doesn't even cover other Burke comments about the Leafs having the best defense corps in the league and Burke's refusal to accept the notion of a five year re-build, though it's clear, as I've often posted, that's precisely where we're headed.)

As I've mentioned in the past, this is not to suggest Burke has not delivered on a promise of change.  Kessel and Phaneuf speak to that, among many other moves.

But what's clear is this: Leaf executives aren't above saying things to try and keep their fans a little quieter, a little longer, while the brass scrambles to try and figure out what they might be able to do next to make the team better.

Leaf fans can’t help but wonder if–and hope that—the struggling and inconsistent blue and white can manage a run up the Eastern Conference standings.  Before the season started, hope was the watchword.  We were supposed to have a strong defense (Burke said so); much better goaltender than a year ago; a healthy Kessel and also newcomers like Versteeg and Armstrong to give the team some sandpaper.

It’s still relatively “early”, but so far, at least, things have not turned out that way.

Interestingly, MacArthur, one of their best performers to date, was an afterthought.  Whereas his performance should have been a “bonus”, it has actually been indispensible in keeping the team’s head above water.

Now thankfully, the Eastern Conference (as I’ve posted in the past) is a very weak Conference.  Two teams, the Islanders and Devils, have been truly awful, even by the standards of the East.

But recognizing the Leafs have serious limitations themselves, what I’m trying to determine is who are the teams that are simply flat out better than the Leafs—on paper.  And all I can figure are the following:  Philly, Boston, Pittsburgh and Washington.

Beyond that, I guess I have to grudgingly say Tampa Bay has more firepower with Stamkos, St. Louis and Lecavalier in the line up.  And yes, the Rangers have some good young talent.  But I just look at these rosters in the East (including Montreal, Atlanta, Carolina, Buffalo) and wonder, “Are all these teams really that much better than the Leafs?"

So this leads me to ponder:  most nights, we are told (and seem to see for ourselves) that the team is working hard.  So, it comes down to turnovers and missed scoring chances, right?  If they just cut down on giveaways, and bury some shots, things will be better.

Well, I guess every team could say the same thing… If we killed penalties better… if we turned the puck over less often…if we scored more…if our goalies came up with a few more timely stops…

Unfortunately, that’s a lot of “ifs”.

That said, the Leafs should be far from the panic stage.  They’ve got the whole “don’t quit” thing down—they fall behind often and make it a game many nights with a late comeback.  That’s good.  The Grabovski line has been pretty good—and pretty consistent.  Kessel is overdue.  Mitchell has had moments lately.  Armstrong can be an antagonist.  Schenn has flaws but has also made some progress.  Phaneuf may settle into his captaincy.  Gunnarsson could have a better second half and start looking like the player he was last season.

But I’ll go back to a point I’ve raised in the last while:  they will need out-of-this-world goaltending.  They really do.  I’m not a huge stats guy, but whoever is in goal has to have a save percentage of like .940 for a three-week period.  Get things back on track.  Then the scorers might relax.  Everyone might feel like they’re not carrying a piano on their back most nights.

I don’t really know how most other Leaf fans “feel”.  I heard a well-regarded mainstream Leaf print ‘beat’ reporter on the radio the other day saying Burke needs to re-build the roster.  The thing is, Burke has already done that.  This is his team.  Look at the roster when he took over.  Look at it now.  This is, again, his team.  I’m sure he’d like to make other moves, but so would every other GM in the league.  He’s not alone.  He is no more hamstrung than any other GM in the NHL.

He has built this team.  These are his trades—Vertseeg, Kessel, Phaneuf, Giguerre, Sjostom, Aulie—his free agent signings—MacArthur, Beachemin, Komisarek, Lebda—his undrafted free agent decisions—Hanson, Bozak, Gustavsson—his draft choices—with Kadri at the top of the list.  It was his decision to trade two number one’s because he didn’t want a “five year re-build”, as he put it.

So we should make no mistake.  To “overhaul” the roster would be premature (it’s still possible this group may come together)  and, more significantly, Burke would have to admit he made huge errors.

I don’t see that happening.

So they will have to get better from within, as coaches and GM’s like to say when they realize the cavalry is not coming.

Can they do that?

We’ll see.


  1. Well if nothing else, Poulin did give us crazy leaf fans a chance to concoct the "next big Leaf trade that will take us to the cup". lol

    To be honest, I feel really sorry for Burke. He felt so confident about his moves, and in my opinion rightfully so (you might be give a better judgment), then to see the Leafs land in 29th, ouch. But as I have stated before, I do not disagree with Burke's moves.

    Burke has dismantled our defense and over the last 3 seasons we have seen our shots against decrease, which is a good indication of our defense, not to mention the average age is somewhere around 26. This group needs some time to gel like the Chicago group did, the NJ group, and let us not forget the still dominant Detroit defense. One thing Burke may not have realized is all of his other teams had guys that worked together for a couple of years, while here, our oldest pairing would be Schenn/Kabs. One thing I would like to say is I really hope Burke sees how important Kabs is. I am a sucker for a player who is dedicated to a team and a city, and watching how calmly Kabs can come out our end, brings me some peace of mind.

    The other trade I am surprisingly going to give Burke a break on is the Kessel trade. Leafs must understand that Kessel is a Lottery pick, a lottery pick that had three years of NHL experience when we grabbed him. So to speed this process, Burke saw Schenn, Kadri already in the system gaining experience, and now Kessel who was drafted in 2006. In maybe a year we will have three drafted top 7 picks who are ready instead of two ready and two (the ones we lost) developing. This in my mind is not a bad move by Burke, knowing he has unlimited financial backing and a marketing chip to players that they can be on the first Toronto Maple leaf team since 1967 to win the Stanley Cup. How could any player that used to be a Leaf fan growing up (STAMKOS) say no?

  2. Thanks for your comments Bester30...There is no doubt Burke has made moves- some major- in an effort to move this team into a better situation. I guess my thought is that, as fans, we should exercise caution when we hear management speak. Part of their marketing "job" it so put as positive a message out into the marketplace, through the media, as possible. Understandable, but words don't mean much (truculence, entitlement, "every day is a try out", etc...)compared with actual results. Thanks again for writing.