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Now the Leafs really will be—the rest of this season—what they are right now: is that good enough?

With the deadline gone, the Leafs are—and will be—exactly what we see now, as they continue their run (and yes, we can call it that) toward a playoff spot.

Wisely or not, Burke made his moves early, which is fine.  It doesn’t make him smarter than other GM’s.  He was far from alone in making “early” deals this year.  (This big deals “before-the-deadline” syndrome has been happening for years, especially since the lockout, though Burke has certainly made a splash with Phaneuf  a year ago and his moves this season.)

With regard to what the Leafs had already done, the truth is that we won’t know the impact of the Kaberle deal for years.  (The Leaf brass clearly believes he is replaceable and that they will be able to get a puck-mover this summer to make fans forget him.)  The return for Tomas?  Colborne has already shown a nice touch at the AHL level, though many players do.  The number one pick they got as well may be moved before draft day for an asset that can play next season.  Regardless, it may turn out to be a very good move for the Leafs, whether or not Kaberle has success in Boston or elsewhere.  It's now about what the Leafs have, not what they don't.  But again,  we won’t know for some time.

I’ve read many public defenses of the Versteeg trade.  Fair enough.  Most of the analysis seems to center on the idea that he has some skill skill, but has not proven capable of being on a “top” line guy either in Chicago or here.  Also, the claim seems to be that chemistry-wise he wasn’t the right “fit” in Toronto, so Burke recognized that and moved him. 

But if the Leafs are still in a state of roster flux, and surely they are on the forward lines, then how do we know Versteeg would not have been a great fit in the years to come, with different guys around him?

I’m not in love with Versteeg.  I simply wonder what the value is in trading a talented 24 year-old, unless there are issues that the public is not aware of.  (He has been traded now three times in his young career, which may be a bit of a red flag.)  So again, I’m not prepared to drink the kool-aid that this is all part of the brilliant Burke plan going forward, just because it’s Burke.

(What Burke really hasn’t acknowledged fully is that he is indeed in the midst of a five-year rebuild, after saying many times he had no patience for exactly that.  He’s already two and a half years in, and finishing his third season with the Leafs.  Yes, he has said that it has taken longer than he hoped, but hasn’t admitted it’s a different re-build than he planned.  He keeps insisting he is doing exactly what he planned.  But that’s easy to say that when you don’t disclose the actual details of the plan until years down the road.)

I wonder if the best move was actually the Beauchemin deal to Anaheim.  It struck me at the time that Anaheim gave up a lot (former first-rounder Gardiner and Lupul).  Lupul is a cap-costly guy, but if he plays as he has in the past and remains healthy, he is a valuable forward, for sure.

So the question is, how do we like the Leafs going forward? 

There are two aspects to this.  How do we like them for the rest of this season, and then, how do we like them going forward—knowing there will be more trades and likely some free-agent activity this coming summer?

Assessing the rest of the season

I really believe a playoff spot is within their grasp.  They are playing what I would call hard hockey right now.  It’s not exactly mistake-free hockey some nights, but they seem to have bottled some good chemistry and look like a team that can scrap their way into being competitive almost every night.

The short-term concern may be in goal.  We are all waiting to hear how Reimer is doing.  (We are told it’s not a head injury and not serious, but we’ll see.)  Everyone says Giguere looks as though he is playing hurt, but he made some big stops Sunday in Atlanta late in that game.  Gustavsson played well in his Marlies stint and I could see Wilson deciding to throw him right in this week if Reimer is not a hundred per cent.

The forward group is satisfactory for the rest of this season and good enough to get them into the playoffs.  Whether they get there is impossible to forecast.  Some teams may feel the pressure.  And if the Grabovski line continues to play at a consistent level,  who knows?  Lupul has given a bit of a boost to Kessel and Bozak.  The Leafs have enough to mix and match for their third and fourth lines to play hard and make it hard on the opposition down the stretch.

The back end will make mistakes- not a shock given Phaneuf is prone to errors and Gunnarsson, Schenn and Aulie are very young.  But the defense made mistakes when Beauchemin and Tomas were here, too.  Right now, this group is fine and capable of helping the Leafs get points down the stretch.

Going forward into next season

For me, the most encouraging aspect of the team is the young defense:  Schenn, Aulie (we may call it the "Aulie trade" some day), Gunnarsson and Phaneuf (in that order, for me) are an imperfect but a promising 25 and under corps.

Whether goaltending is a position of strength is something we won’t know until next season.  I say this because, as well as Reimer has played, and he certainly has been very steady from the get-go, many young goalies come in and begin their career well.  The key is what can they do for an encore?  Especially if they battle injuries, or start to love confidence.  How do they respond?  Can Reimer sustain this level of play over time?

Reimer hasn’t hit that bump in the road yet and we won’t know if he is a true number-one guy until he faces some adversity.  But fans sure like what we're seeing.

I remain most concerned about the forward configuration going forward.  I still don’t think the Leafs have anywhere near a strong enough “top-six” contingent.  As I mentioned above, I appreciate the talents of the guys now on the first two lines, but neither line, to me, is a true “first” line and you simply need that to contend for a Cup.  Whether the development of Bozak, Kadri, Colborne, D’Amigo, Mueller or others will help address that, I don’t really know just yet.  I’m not sure Leaf management does, either.

Grabovski has had a wonderful season to date.  But you have to hope there is more where this came from in his case.  Kulemin looks like a player who will steadily progress.  (Click on his name to see a piece I wrote about fourteen months ago on Kulemin.)  Lupul is a question mark but may prove very helpful.  MacArthur is an interesting case.  He has never had this kind of season before.  Is he really a three million dollar a year player?  We’re thrilled with him now, but will we be when he costs a lot more against the cap with the same, or lesser, numbers?

Colby Armstrong is seemingly the kind of agitator/character guy who can help offensively on occasion and be very useful in a grinding playoff situation.  I like him being here going forward as a third-line guy.  Brent has played above and beyond what anyone expected and seems determined to stick.

Overall, this is a better team than it has been for years.  And we know there are more moves to come in the off-season.  We can always put on rose-colored glasses and say what a great job the Leaf management has done, how they are younger, tougher—and to an extent, that’s true.

But this far into Burke’s tenure, given his early proclamations, it’s fair to say some of us (me at least)expected even more by now.  Compared to expectations he set, het gets a B.  Disregarding expectations, maybe a B+ so far.

No situation is exactly the same as what Burke walked into, but I look at Atlanta and see what Dudley has done in less time to revamp the roster, with ownership issues and less money to spend.  They were awful not long ago, and had to deal away their best player (Kovalchuk).  They still have a long way to go.  Yet, they are exactly at the same place in the standings as Toronto and, like the Leafs, can point to a number of promising young players in their line up—Little, Kane, Enstrom, Byfuglien, Cormier, Ladd, Bogosian.

So Burke deserves much credit for what he has done, absolutely.  But the jury is still out, as it always is, on many of his moves.  Getting to this point was the least that fans should have expected.  The biggest challenge is turning what is now a decent team into a championship side.

That won’t be easy. 


  1. Well, the future may not be so bright I have to wear shades, but it's looking pretty good to me.
    Leaf fans are so used to the quick fix and the flown-in saviour that they're having trouble waiting for this squad to make the top 8. Understood, but Brian Burke preached patience, and I'll go along with him, frustrating as it may be from time to time.
    The cornerstone of Burke's plan, as I understood him, was to build from the goal out. So we were going to be looking at three years, minimum, before we could expect to contend.
    Goal is still a question mark for me. I like Reimer's calmness, and he does seem to stabilize the team, but he's young and, as you say, there's no way to tell how he'll handle being #1 - very different from being someone brought up with low expectations. Giguere made some great saves the other night, but doesn't look 100% to me, either. Gustavsson has looked like he buckled under the weight of too-high expectations. I think he'll need another year with the Marlies, then maybe...
    I might quibble with your order of defencemen, but what I notice is that ever since Phaneuf arrived, the D have been more punishing than they've been for many years. ALL of them... even more so now that Kaberle is gone. (Not that he was there for his punishingness). Schenn is developing really well, Aulie's stint with the Marlies seems to have helped, Komisarek is playing more like his old self, Gunnarsson is looking better and better... even Lebda has been solid these last few games. They're always going to make mistakes - like every other defenceman in the league - but it's here that I see the most significant improvement.
    I think we've improved up front, too, but we need some big bodies who can score. (Of course, who doesn't?) I like our speed, I like the way Lupul's presence has opened up space for Kessel, and I like the way MacArthur has continued to rack up points even though his line is now being keyed on by opponents. I think we got a huge boost from players like Armstrong and Brown, Crabb, Boyce, Brent - the kind of banging forecheckers we haven't had in a while. We're putting out good effort, and are rarely outhustles and outplayed - which wasn't true of pre-Burke teams.
    So... it's looking good to me. I suppose i could sum it up with the perennial Leaf's fan cry: wait till next year!

  2. Thanks for a great post, Gerund O...very thoughtful. Among the many good points you make, I agree that the Leafs are tougher on defense, for sure. I would make the argument that we are still just getting back to close to where we already were (though younger, yes) before the team went backwards starting in 2003-'04 with a new GM in place.