Most of us have been mightily impressed with a lot of Brian Burke’s wheelings and dealings over the past three-and-a-half years when it comes to trades (UFA stuff, not so much, eh?). He brought in Phaneuf and Aulie for a song, and the same with Lupul/Gardiner—though Beauchemin is a nice player and all. (The Kessel deal we can have fun debating for years to come...but it gave the team a much-needed offensive jolt at the time.)
So how did the Leafs do, this year, with regard to the last several weeks as it culminated in what is fast becoming the almost infamous "Trade Deadline" day? (Do you remember, before the cap, when “Deadline Day’” usually delivered on its promise of entertainment- and was a ton of fun?) Well, since the Leafs weren’t deeply involved in major deals over the past several weeks, and made only one move of some substance on Monday, there isn’t a whole lot to assess. But let’s try, for what it’s worth.
First, on the actual “activity” of the day...
Well, since it’s impossible (at least for me) to gauge how the young man they acquired from Tampa will turn out in two or three seasons, I can only speak to what we gave up, and that of course is Keith Aulie.
I have read (only sporadically, mind you) the views of others who follow the Marlies, who have opined that Aulie struggled mightily at times with the Marlies this season. If that was indeed the case, was that because he was simply scuffling, like many young defensemen do, as part of their ongoing progression? Or might it be that he was ticked that he was sent back to the farm, after playing key minutes with the Leafs at the end of last season? Is his potential over-rated?
I can only discuss what I myself have seen in the young man. I haven’t focused on when I’ve seen him in action with the Marlies, in part because I think it’s a mistake to make too much of how he has looked at that level, when in his heart he probably feels he should be playing in the NHL. But we could argue this point back and forth, I realize.
When it comes to how he has performed with the Leafs, I can say that there where were times, last season, that I honestly felt Aulie was playing well enough that—as I posted here on more than one occasion—I thought it was possible that someday, we would refer to the Calgary transaction as the “Aulie trade”, rather than the “Phaneuf trade”.
Now, this season, when he has been up with the Leafs, I thought I noticed a modest drop off in his performance, but I have to wonder this: did the Burke/Wilson decision to make an example of him (they seemingly felt he showed up last fall thinking he had a job won, and under-performed at camp as a result…) and ship him back to the Marlies impact his confidence, and therefore, his performance?
Oh yes, I know the whole meritocracy thing that the Leafs keep harping about, and by that supposed “standard”, perhaps Aulie dared to make an assumption about playing time that no young player of less than superstar status should make. I get it, I guess.
That said, it’s not like this organization has necessarily always been consistent in applying this principle across the board. Otherwise, Gustavsson, based on production and performance, for example, would have been playing much more than a struggling Reimer (who I love, no e-mails, please) earlier this season. And certain third and fourth-line forwards I shan’t name would be up in the press box (oops, I know it’s already over-loaded with millions of dollars of poorly spent money already on most game nights…) or down with the Marlies, and youngsters like Frattin or even Colborne and Kadri would have been here sooner (in Frattin’s case) or would be here now, methinks.
But that is all more debate for another day. So I’ll just say it flat out: I think Aulie will be a good, maybe even very good NHL defenseman. I hate giving up young defenseman, period. But I particularly dislike giving up a 22 year-old “D” man, who has size (which you can’t teach), a ton of upside and who was good enough, at 21, to play alongside Dion Phaneuf a year ago—and at times, help make Phaneuf’s game better.
Will Alie be an All-Star? I’m not suggesting that. He is hardly a gazelle on skates, but many tall, lanky defenseman take years to reach their full potential. But those with talent, and I believe Aulie has that, well, when they do reach their ceiling, they can be imposing players- and awfully important on a good team. Aulie won’t become Larry Robinson or Chris Pronger, but he will be pretty good, I sense.
So Burke’s rationale is, as I heard it….we have lots of defensemen in the system, so Aulie was expendable because we got back a big, young center. Yes, that’s Carter Ashton, a recent number-one draft pick. Now, to be honest, (and as Pat Burns once said about Bill Berg, after the Leafs acquired the annoying to play against but effective forward—and Burns coached in the league, so as a mere NHL observer I can surely get away with it, too…) “I wouldn’t know him (Berg/now Carter) if I ran over him”. Now, as hockey assessments go, that’s a pretty poor one on my part, I acknowledge. So, I will leave it to others who have actually seen Ashton play a lot convince me this was a good deal. (I can’t help but think of the guy we got from the Devils a few years ago, who was supposed to be somebody-Suglobov, was it, in 2006? Yeah, yeah, different-type player, I know…)
Now, I applaud the idea (and Burke has done this well during his time in Toronto, with Gardiner and Colborne as prime examples) of acquiring a prospect that scouts have actually seen play at the pro level. They have already got past the draft stage. They are older, more mature and more physically advanced. That, to me, is far better than getting a draft choice, and then guessing on an 18 year-old.
But this guy better be something, or I think we’ll be missing Aulie at some point. Remember this: All the hopeful talk of “all those good young guys down on the farm” is just that right now—talk. And often times it's not based on any degree of certainty. Until those Marlie guys show they can play in the NHL, I could care less. Plenty of guys have great junior careers. Almost as many look like good prospects in the minors.
I’ll take Aulie, who has shown that he can play in the best league in the world. He has a long way to go before he is an NHL regular, perhaps—and certainly many strides to take before he could ever be ready to be a “shutdown” defenseman. But, on a modest sample size, he’s a minus 3 in 57 NHL games, playing on average about 17-18 minutes a game over that span.
And I’ll say it again. He’s a defenseman. And he’s still growing. And he’s only 22. And (that’s a lot of “and’s”…) he has already played—well, at times—in the NHL.
Two injuries on the blueline (and boy, have the Leafs been fortunate with injuries again this season…) and we may not feel so smug about our blueline “depth”.
What I’m glad about:
- we didn’t trade Gunnarsson, thankfully. (That said, I’d like to see Gunner step his game up a bit. I just feel he’s been off for a while. Maybe it’s a team malaise thing, I don’t know. He can be better. I keep pumping his tires here, to paraphrase Luongo...)
What I would have liked to see:
- If Zack Kassian was on the table, and the Canucks were willing to give up Cody Hodgson, how did the Leafs not get in on the young (now former) Sabre winger?
Would Kadri have been enough to get Kassian? Would you have made that deal? I would have. The Leafs desperately need a talented enforcer. They have no one like Lucic in the system, though some have mentioned Devane to me, as a young guy with a physical dimension who can play.
Yes, Kassian will have a particular (and likely limited) role in Vancouver, we assume, and that includes protection of the Sedins, etc. But at only 21 (like Kadri) I believe Kassian, a former 12th overall pick, has a future. I’m not saying he’ll be Cam Neely or Lucic, but he sure would look good in blue and white, a guy with sandpaper in his game.
For me, the most disturbing quote of the day came from Burke after the deadline, when he said something along the lines of, “When we’re playing well, skating, moving the puck, etc..., we’ve been dominant….we were the best team in the East for a while…” (Please check against the actual quote. I realize it is not verbatim…)
Ah, I missed that period when the Leafs were the best team in any division this season, much less Conference. I’ve seen good moments, absolutely. I’ve seen the speed, the good puck movement, albeit generally against teams that were letting the Leafs free-wheel.
But as some teams have turned up the heat, after the All-Star break—and most clubs are now serious about putting things into that next gear and fighting for their playoff lives (and for first place in their respective divisions, etc.)—does anyone think the Leafs look like the best at anything?
And I’m not just referring to the recent slide. All teams struggle for a while, then they win a few games, right the ship and all that. That’s normal.
But it’s delusional thinking, if Burke really means it, to think this team, and this roster, has, at any point, been the best team in the East this season. C'mon.
Yes, this team is better than it was during the Ferguson years (though nowhere near what it was during the Quinn years, which also, we forget, came on the heels of some dreadful seasons and was quickly "re-built").
But to say they don’t need help, that they didn’t need to get better (as he was asked directly during the Q&A) in order to make the playoffs, well, that’s something to hear. I guess we have to follow the bouncing ball, but, If we’re back to accepting squeaking into the playoffs (or not) and then having our hat handed to us by a good team who will be playing grinding, tough, playoff hockey, then as I’ve said here many times, yes, we can absolutely make (in the crappy East) the playoffs. In fact, we should. There is absolutely no excuse not to, not given the parity that exists- and given that some teams, like Montreal, Buffalo and Washington have been much worse than most expected.
Three-and-a-half years into an “I’m not interested in a five-year” re-build, if you can’t make the playoffs in the very mediocre Eastern Conference, you’ve done something dreadfully wrong.
This isn’t just being “negative”. Not at all. We can all see that Burke has done some awfully good things. But once and for all, I’d like the GM to say what he means and mean what he says. (I know I’m in the minority here. Many love his abrasive attitude and his proclamations…) I just feel as though there is so much crap flying sometimes I don’t know when I should duck.
My questions for Burke, simply, are:
Is your goal the playoffs this season or not? (Of course the simple answer is yes...)
Well, if you’re saying this roster (and its goalies) are good enough to get you there—and to play well once in the playoffs and win at least a round once you’re there, great. But then, don’t bitch and complain (you or the coach, thanks) when the inexperienced goalies you depend on wet the bed, or the team struggles. The team is what you have made it. It is what it is. Young, improving—but filled with weaknesses, especially evident against good opposition. There is zero veteran leadership here.
I’m not suggesting Burke should have done more before the deadline, or that he had to. But please, no need for spin. The team is what it is. He likes the coach? Great. He likes the goalies (except when he and Wilson are complaining about them.). Perfect. I hear you. He likes the team. Good.
I like some of the team, too.
But while we all praise Burke for his wonderful long-term approach, and not “giving away the store” or sending away precious assets, the team will be life and death, it appears, in his almost fourth full season on the job, just to make the playoffs—again.
I recognize that some fans don’t care, and are focused on the long-term prize of winning the Cup someday. Which is the proper goal, yes. But as a fan (having watched the blue and white re-building movie many, many times before, sometimes with men just as capable as Burke at the helm), there are times when I want to say, “wake me up when we’re almost there”. Because, right now, when we play good teams, we sometimes show that, when it will finally actually matter, at playoff time, we’re not anywhere near good enough.
And after the “two month” trade deadline, as Burke referred to it, with Aulie gone, we now have one less NHL caliber player on the roster.
I know many will disagree. Go for it. I respect your views, so let’s chat.