Let’s be clear: we, as ever hopeful Leaf fans, can try to boast that Brian Burke has done a “great job” of re-building the Maple Leafs since he took over almost three years ago. He certainly has given the team a roster overhaul. Who’s left from the “BB” era—before Burke? Well, I’m likely missing names but the only ones that come to mind are Reimer, Kulemin, Schenn, Gunnarsson and Grabovski..
So yes, it’s a “new” roster and yes, on paper it looks much more promising than any version in the past seven or so seasons. (Burke went to some lengths on Wednesday of this week to outline improvement, while explaining why he would not pay more up front for Brad Richards, or make offer sheets to Stamkos or Doughty.)
But here’s the thing: they haven’t won anything yet. I mean, they haven’t even made the playoffs in
’s three years behind the bench. (Name another coach that still has a job in the league after that kind of “production”…) So our analysis as observers and fans, at least from my perspective of having watched this team build and re-build with many different GM’s over the past 50+ years, should be considered in that context. They appear better, but haven’t accomplished a thing, yet. They are simply in the often lengthy process of trying to build a reasonably competitive team. Wilson
This team hasn’t won a playoff game since 2004. It will be eight years come next spring. Eight years. That’s not on Burke, but my point is, there is still a long ways to go.
Now, the area where he (for me, at least) has most usefully re-tooled the team is on defense. (His efforts to improve the goaltending situation are still in progress. Rynnas, Gustavsson, etc. are talented but unproven. For his part, Reimer did not become "number-one" because of Burke’s insight. It was largely happenstance—and John Ferguson’s scouting staff who identified him years ago. Reimer’s emergence last season was unexpected and almost shocking.)
Burke’s earliest moves specifically regarding the blueline were misguided—free agent deals for Komisarek and Beauchemin were, at best, unsuccessful. Ledba did not pan out. But the move to acquire Phaneuf and Aulie was huge. The recent additions of Liles and Franson (two useful if flawed defensemen) seemingly improves the “top-six” on defense and adds invaluable depth to the organization. And this is where I am most prepared (again, a bit premature until we see this group play a full season together when it matters) to say Burke has done a good job. I believe the defense is potentially a pretty sound one, though again, I want to see them play this fall before I make a more thorough assessment.
Burke has often said he builds from the back. On that front, I’m a fan of Aulie, though I don’t want to go overboard just yet. I still think Phaneuf could be more flawed than outstanding, but we’ll see. And this is a big year upcoming for Gunnarsson and Schenn. Gunner needs a big year to prove he is true “top-four”, playoff-quality performer. And Schenn must prove he is a shutdown “d” man under the pressure of a playoff chase and ultimately, the playoffs.
Liles and Franson come with promise but we should really modify our expectations. Franson may be a sleeper, but those who have seen him play seem to have a more realistic view than Leaf fans who may already optimistically project him as a potential high-end player. Liles at 31 is what he is—an offensive defensemen who may be no better than Kaberle (if that) in his own zone.
But along the way, Burke has shed the clumsy salaries he had been handed—and that in itself is something. All the while he has sculpted his blueline and continues to add pieces up front.
That said, I have to acknowledge that I remain under-whelmed with the team’s forward mix as it stands right now. We may be shaking our heads over Connolly in the months ahead but on the other hand, could it be that he will be rejuvenated and shine again in a new environment?
But beyond that, I just don’t see many guys who will be the kind of forwards you need to be successful at playoff time. I’ll be happy to be proven wrong.
Still, I do think we are closer than we have been in years to having a defense corps that just may be able to play in the spring. And that is a credit to Burke and his brain trust.