For those who missed yesterday's article (late post), comparing the current Leaf squad with the last Leaf team that made the playoffs in 2003-'04, click here...)
For me, as Maple Leaf fan for more than 50 years, I’ve had the opportunity to see a lot of different “types” of team-building philosophies.
I witnessed the Punch Imlach era throughout the 1960s, followed by a decade with Jim Gregory. Imlach was always accused on going too long with old guys but the truth is, he also infused youth along the way (Nevin, Keon, Ellis, Walton, Pappin, Stemkowski, et al and many young defensemen in later years) and his approach was largely successful. It's hard to argue with four Stanley Cup championships.
Gregory’s tenure throughout the 1970s was marked by some solid draft choices that turned out well (some flops, as well) and mostly good trades. He re-built the team but was killed by the emergence of the World Hockey Association and he had to re-build again all-over again (including signing free-agent Borje Salming, a future Hall-of-Famer), and withstand the meddling of then owner Harold Ballard.
Then there was the often confusing ‘80s—many coaches and almost as many GM’s (Imlach returned, McNamara, Stellick…). Some good draft picks weren’t enough to salvage what became an almost comical propensity for failure.
Then came a bit of stability with Cliff Fletcher and Pat Burns in the early 1990s, but in retrospect, even those “glory days “ were quite short-lived.
The later Pat Quinn era was often vilified for supposedly selling the future for the present, but after all, isn’t that what we’re supposed to be doing? That is, trying to win now, while still maintaining a strong core for the future?
I would argue (I’m sure many will disagree) that Quinn did exactly that. He built imperfect teams but they were awfully competitive year after year. Twice in his tenure the Leafs made it to the “final four” and some other years were a good team but were edged out in the playoffs by outstanding New Jersey or Flyer squads.
Along the way, fans wanted it both ways: they wanted the guys at the deadline who would “put the team over the top” (we gushed over Lindros and many others) but then were upset that young players and/or draft choices were sent away.
I’ve heard many times how the Leafs should never have traded Brad Boyes, for example. But Boyes, while a nice player and all, has been dealt how many times in his career? The Leafs aren’t the only team who thought he was not a “must-keep” player.
There are other examples, but again, I would simply argue that while Quinn, like any GM, made “mistakes”, his efforts were directed at winning a Cup- not just making the playoffs.
(The Leafs, in my view, were far more damaged by the subsequent John Ferguson Jr. era, when promising young players like Tuuka Rask were sent away when the Leafs were nowhere near being a contender.)
And that all brings me to the present. Burke and company are receiving hockey-wide plaudits, and perhaps rightly so, for the way they have re-shaped the Leafs with youth, some speed and a bit of toughness. (One TSN analyst just said that they have a "world-class" defense. I’m not quite sure we should be speaking in those terms yet. I like what we have, sure. But just what has the group proven?)
But a tear down and early-days re-build is always easier than the stage where we are now. That is, were does Burke go from here? This is where decisions get more difficult.
The Leafs are young, and that’s great. They have some skill, but the talent level is hardly over-whelming. We are now talking about a team and an organization that has, as its central ambition this season, making the Eastern Conference playoffs. That's a pretty low bar.
As a modest objective in a non-hockey market, that would be nice. And it’s OK, I suppose, even in Toronto, given the team has not been in the playoffs for 8 seasons.
But Burke will soon be entering his 4th year on the job. His much un-desired—and often publicly stated—“five year re-build” (that is, he has said many times he did not have the patience to spend five years building the team) will now, in fact, be the very best he can hope to achieve.
So now comes the real challenge. Expectation here have been so crippled, so minimal, that making the playoffs with a young, hard-working team will satisfy us, it seems. But how long can that last?
If the team really does take that next step, and gets us achingly close to real “contender” status, will he then be able to avoid trading off draft choices, young assets, some young players with potential?
And would that really be the wrong thing?
In other words when he finally, here in Toronto, reaches the same stage that Quinn’s teams were already at for many years in succession, what kind of moves will we see, then?
Count me among those who will credit Burke with some tremendous moves. In addition to moving players no longer in the plans, and shedding awful contracts, the acquisition of Phaneuf, Aulie, MaCarthur and more recently Gardiner and Colborne were solid.
That said, things can change quickly.
For example, I’m not convinced Phaneuf will be the player he was in his first couple of NHL seasons. People want to believe it, and keep saying it, but I need to actually see it- consistently.
Aulie was wonderful as a surprise last season, but we’ll have to see how he progresses in his sophomore season and beyond.
Colborne? "Potential", yes, but before too long, he will need to take that next step, just like Kadri, and prove he belongs.
Too, Burke has not been able to acquire a true top-line forward, now three years into his mandate, to go along with Kessel.
So yes, Burke has done a fine job of re-making this team. It bears little resemblance to what we had here three plus years ago (Who is left that are not “Burke guys”? Reimer, Gunnarsson, Frattin, Grabovski, Kulemin, but not a lot else…)
But I’ll say again: the real proof will be in the pudding. This has all been the glamour stuff, the turnaround of an awful team bereft of real much potential or upside. He could not really have made it any worse.
He now has a competent team that works hard most nights and can compete. Kudos for that. But to get to that final level, where contenders live, he will have more tough choices to make.
Only down the road will we be able to truly assess how good a job he has done, because as of right now, we’re still in the middle of making the cake, and there is a lot left to do.