Opinions range on what the Leafs have to do to get to that often-elusive “next level”. It looked as though they were on their way to one of those steps—a playoff berth—until they got caught in a twister they couldn’t extricate themselves from over the past couple of months. Losses to Boston and the Islanders (at home Tuesday night) have only served to heighten the disappointment of a season suddenly gone astray.
So now, without a playoff berth since 2004 to feel warm and fuzzy about (and going on four years into Burke’s build/re-build/quick build or whatever it is this month) we can step back and say, with some degree of confidence, that this team needs something to a) just get to the playoffs in the weak Eastern Conference b) become a serious contender in the Conference and ultimately c) win a Stanley Cup.
We’ve talked here in broad terms about things that are important, things like team toughness, grit, a better defensive approach, etc. The Leafs have youth, speed and some skill on the positive side of the ledger—and a boat load of (in my estimation) fourth-line guys on the roster, as I’ve said here many times in the past.
Some think they need a major upgrade in goal, and that may well be a fair assessment. Outstanding goaltending can certainly help net a team more points than it might otherwise deserve (6, 10, 12 points, maybe?) over the course of a full NHL season. Can Reimer be the answer some day, maybe even as early as next season? Maybe. Maybe not. Will he even be here come September? I hope he is.
Gustavsson, despite his apparent “improvement” at times this season, will likely be elsewhere in 2012-‘13. As most of us have agreed here lately, it is difficult to anticipate the brass going with the same duo that helped produce un-satisfying results this season. But if that is indeed the scenario that unfolds, who comes in here as a true “number-one” guy? Careful, we’ve tried this before (you know the long list of names) and no one since Eddie Belfour—and Curtis Joseph before him— has worked out. And even Belfour got here very late in his career, and was not the same stud goalie that helped bring the Dallas Stars a Stanley Cup well over a decade ago. (Hard to believe it’s already been that long, eh?)
So in addition to that goaltender, we need a top shutdown defenseman as well, you say? Hmmm. That’s not exactly easy to just pick up, either. Most defensemen take years to develop. (Even Chris Pronger and Scott Stevens, Hall-of-Fame defensemen both, got traded early in their careers…) Look at Tyler Myers. He was an amazing rookie defenseman in Buffalo three seasons ago and I’d love to have him here. He’s still very good, for sure, but the bloom has fallen off the rose a bit after that startlingly impressive first season with the Sabres, with his long reach of his- and those 48 points. He may be a star for years to come and I’m sure Buffalo fans hope that will be the case. But he's not an elite shutdown defenseman.
So to draft and develop be that premier, shutdown guy? Well, that rarely happens overnight. We’ve seen that with young Schenn here in Toronto. Only 22, four years already in the NHL, and some feel he should be traded this summer because he has not developed as quickly, or as well, as many had hoped. But I’ll say it again: think long and hard before you move a young defenseman. They are not easy to replace, as we all know.
And yes, adding to the list of “needs” we might as well throw in a true "number-one" center. (This sounds like a recording from the past several years, doesn’t it?) I’m pretty sure they don’t exactly grow on trees, either. Now, if we could add all of those things—an elite goalie, a first-pair defenseman and a big, point-producing centerman (or at least another high-end forward)—the Leafs would surely make the playoffs next spring, even if they did not change anything else on the roster. But would they go very far in the playoffs? Would they win a Cup?
I don't honestly know, but I don’t believe so, no- even with three, new, elite-level players. (I’m sure everyone has their own opinions and you may feel differently.)
But let’s step back for a moment. Just to obtain even one of those pieces—assuming we don’t wait for some yet un-drafted player to be chosen, developed and eventually become that elite goalie, shutdown “D” or top-line center—the Leafs will have to make major trades. The free-agent market just doesn’t seem to be there this coming summer, and that path has not exactly guaranteed us success in recent years in any event. And if it is determined that the Leafs need to make a splash—not just for the sake of it but in fact to obtain the near-final pieces of a much larger puzzle—well, to get those types of players, what, realistically, do the Leafs have to offer in return?
Again, if I was an NHL General Manager, and Burke wanted my best player (or one of them), draft picks sure wouldn’t be enough. I would need to get a young guy on Toronto’s roster who I have seen play a lot at the NHL level, who I believe will be a star in the league for years to come. The truth is the Leafs don’t have a lot of guys who fit that mold. Kessel is an elite scorer, but the operative word at this point in his career is scorer. He is not a proven all-around player with a high compete level against tough checking. But he can sure score. Still, would Burke's centrepiece acquisition ever be moved? (A Toronto Star article a week ago apparently floated that idea and there appeared to be a minor rebellion in Leafland at the very idea. But is it really an absurd notion? I’ll leave that debate for another day…)
So who do you trade to get something really good back—a Rick Nash (not a center but certainly a first-line forward, who would automatically make any team better), a star goaltender, or a big-time defenseman?
For me, there is only one piece that other teams would covet and in fact, if I was those GM’s, I would insist on, and that is Jake Gardiner.
Now before you say, Michael…you just said be wary of trading a young defenseman with potential: Yes, I stand by that. And I am not suggesting Burke should trade Gardiner. What I am saying is that he does not have much to offer other teams that would bring back legitimate difference-making talent at the three slots I’ve cited above. Lombardi, Steckel, McArthur, Kadri, Kulemin, Liles, Franson, Armstrong, Bozak, etc. won’t do it. No way. Why would other GM’s want the players who already are a big part of making our team a non-playoff squad yet again ?
We can say, but…the Leafs have all these great assets in the minors. Well, they may assets, and they may be very good players someday, but who is going to give us a first-line goalie, defensemen or center and replace them with “potential”—or an even less certain “future” draft pick?
No, we’re back to my discussion of a few weeks ago when I wrote here: If I’m Bobby Murray, the GM in Anaheim, and Brian Burke calls and tells me he wants Bobby Ryan or Ryan Getzlaf, my response is easy: sure. In return, I’ll start with Jake Gardiner, and move on to Kadri, Colborne or Schenn and a first-rounder.
My guess is that’s the conversation that Columbus had with the Leafs before the most recent trading deadline. But when Columbus was insisting on Gardiner, it fell through. I don’t blame Columbus. And I don’t blame Burke. But do we feel the same as we did at the deadline, when Burke and others felt the team did not need any major tweaks? Maybe we do—but maybe not. And if Burke doesn’t—and we don’t—then what does that mean?
It means that to get better more quickly, and not simply wait for all the kids to improve faster than we should be expecting (or waiting even longer for draft picks to mature) the Leafs will need to give up something to get something.
The Leafs can keep doing what they’re doing, and hope that Reimer rebounds next season, that the young defense improves dramatically under Carlyle, and that Colborne, Ashton, Kadri and others emerge as NHL-ready contributors and maybe even impact performers—and that no one gets hurt—in 2012-’13.
But even if those things do happen, if every single one of those things goes right, we could still be life and death just to make the playoffs again next spring, even in the watered down Eastern Conference—if no major moves are made. Do we really believe every other NHL team is just waiting to get worse? No, they’re just as determined to get better as the Leafs are. (Look at the Islanders. They are not a good NHL team, but are they any worse off than the Leafs? Do we have a Tavares on our team?)
Is “waiting for the kids to develop” good enough for you? And if it is, fine, we should be patient and continue along this slow-moving but hopefully positive path. (And let’s not kid ourselves—it is slow moving—Florida and Ottawa have, for now, leapfrogged the Leafs, in less time, in their re-builds…)
But if not, the Leafs will need to move some of that young potential (and maybe lots of it) for big-time instant help—something they did not want to do just a few weeks ago at the deadline.
There is no urgency right now. There is a season to play out. There is plenty of time before the draft and summertime “trading season”, but, here's the question: would you trade Gardiner—and/or others—to acquire some of what the Leafs look like they need to make the jump to that next level, and maybe even skip one level (the just getting to the playoffs level) and improve right to the point where they are real contenders in the East?
Or does Burke hold course and keep building as he has, with what he has?
Let me now your thoughts….