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With Day 1 of the draft behind them, the Leafs’ real work is just beginning…

I have to be honest, as someone who has followed a lot of NHL drafts (since it became the so-called “universal” draft in the late 1960s) through the years from a Maple Leaf “wish list” perspective, I couldn’t get too cranked up about their draft “opportunity” Friday night.  Not a lack of interest of my part, just the reality that the pick, and the draft overall,  is more of a long-term crap shoot.

I had mentioned him in my previous post that I anticipated Toronto would grab a defenseman at 5, and they did.  Predictably, Leaf fans were seemingly evenly divided, as best I could tell.  Many lauded the pick, because Rielly is considered to be a young guy who can move and make plays and should be a nice NHL player at some point.

At the same time, others were assuming that the Leafs, with plenty of young defensemen already and with their obvious need for big, strong, skilled forwards, would take one.  Some were available, though it soon became clear that this was (at least in the early going) a “defense-heavy” draft as far as NHL GM’s were concerned.

At the end of the day (literally and figuratively), my point is simply:  one way or another, we will be waiting for years for a draft pick to be a real impact player in a Leaf uniform.  Defensemen typically (not always, of course) mature a little more slowly than some forwards, but once they “get it”, they are sound and dependable for years. Regardless of whether we took a forward or defenseman, we would be waiting.  Maybe a little less time for Grigorenko or whomever, but waiting nonetheless.

Here’s the thing:  we’ve set the bar here in Leafland really, really low.  Brian Burke has been very fortunate that he walked into a situation that was perceived to be so desperate (and was, to a certain extent), that he has taken relatively little serious criticism despite presiding over a team that has missed the playoffs the past four springs that he has been in charge.

Even now, he continues to buy time with the public.  Many preach, perhaps with reason, that we need patience, patience.  And I often say that here as well.  But here’s the uncomfortable truth we perhaps don’t want to face up to:  other teams that were no better than the Leafs by any number of measures when Burke took over here are better now.

So worn down are Leaf fans that now, making a playoff spot in the watered down East (or as one prominent commentator said on TV yesterday, a close 9th place finish next spring) will be enough for many Maple Leaf  fans see the promise of Burke’s “plan” and for Burke to be rewarded with a new contract.

We’ve all heard and wanted to believe the words: that the Maple Leafs under Burke would indeed be bigger, tougher, more skilled, as evidenced by statements such as “my teams are hard to play against…”, “I build my teams from the back end…”, “I have no patience for a five-year re-build…”.

Burke has overhauled virtually his entire roster.  It’s not like he has been inactive, eh?  But some other much less ballyhooed GM’s have done more, in less time, and the future of their franchises (e.g. Ottawa, Florida) is not necessarily any less promising than what we want to believe it is here in Toronto.

Burke has acquired some nice players, for sure.  Phaneuf qualifies, though we shouldn’t confuse the occasional big hit or an early-season display as proof that he is an elite defenseman.  (At least not after watching the recent NHL playoffs and seeing how true elite defensemen play…)

Kessel is a ton of fun to watch—and wonderfully skilled.  He sure could use a big center, though in truth, we have no idea how he would mesh with a supremely skilled playmaker.  (Perhaps beautifully.  But many thought Brett Hull—including Hull himself—would be even better with Wayne Gretzky.  That experiment failed miserably.)

But let’s be honest:  In the end, Kesse, as exciting as he is to watch, cost the Leafs a huge amount in Seguin and Hamilton.  And we have no idea if the young winger can handle the demands of being the go-to offensive player when faced with physical, tough checking by the opposition at playoff time.

That leaves us with Jake Gardiner as Burke’s prized acquisition.  But even there, because of that very reality (and Gardiner’s immense potential, too, I realize), Burke won’t move him to help acquire the much-needed offensive pieces that might launch the Leafs into more of a contending position.  (To be clear, I am not saying that Burke should trade Gardiner, simply that the Leaf GM is in a sense trapped, because that’s the one move he has been universally lauded for in his time in Toronto…)

Last night, I outlined what the 5 key “need” areas for the blue and white are that we have all bandied about here for months—some kind of goaltending help; a stud “D” man; an elite center; experience; and grit and overall team toughness.  The 2012 draft was not going to address any of those immediate needs, unless Burke traded his picks to obtain help for the here and now. 

But the really hard work starts (continues, in fairness) now.  The draft is nothing more than an annual asset purchase at the local mall.  If you’ve done your homework and the players you pick have great desire and a genuinely strong work ethic, you may be able to add one or two players who can help some day—some picks more than others, obviously. But you still need luck, eh?

But moves are needed here, and soon.  Infusing the line-up with “Marlie youth” may be an exciting idea, but I’m not sure it is the answer.  The Leafs need proven big-league talent, and can’t bet on a young roster that has no leadership and experience.

As we sit right now, (and this could change by the time you read this), the Leafs still need a goalie, a center, a true first-pairing defenseman, and a lot more skilled grit, if you know what I mean.  Burke says be believes in Reimer and Scrivens.  He should have faith in his guys.  He believes Bozak can be a number-one center.  The young man has skill, yes.  Are these just things Burke has to say?  Maybe.

But that doesn’t matter any more.  There is just a lot of work to be done.  Maybe Justin Schultz will be signed to add instant help on defense.  Maybe Kadri will be dealt for some other kind of need.  Maybe all those Marlie kids will indeed be ready to contribute come September.

But like all of you, I saw how good those last few teams in the NHL playoffs were.  (And it’s the same every spring…)  Did it look to you like the Leafs could compete with those teams—while performing under the kind of limelight and scrutiny the playoffs bring in a market like this?

I honestly thought we would be much further ahead by now than we are.  Even if Burke makes some significant roster moves in the days ahead, he’ll still be playing catch-up with teams in the East that already have a truly elite goalie, difference-makers on the blueline and tough, skilled forwards sprinkled throughout their roster.

Ten years ago the Leafs made the playoffs every spring, and were pretty darn good teams.  It was the pre-cap era and they could spend, yes, but is it really any different now?  Some teams still have limited budgets.  Some spend to the max.  But the Leafs back then were usually tough, entertaining and gave us some playoff thrills, if not a championship.

As much as Burke claims that’s what he is after—a championship—so has every other Leaf GM been since Fletcher.  We came pretty darn close to making it happen in 1993 and ’94, and again in ’99 and 2002.

No, we haven’t always been lousy here.  Burke didn’t invent plans, blueprints—or the roadmap for success.  And he still has a long way to go to get this right.

Patience, yes.  But time’s a ticking….


  1. I think those 5 needs you've listed are things that the Leafs need to become Cup contenders, but they don't need all those things to become playoff contenders. To me the goaltending is front and centre right now. Get reliable goaltending either externally or internally for 82 games and this is already a playoff team. But of course, building a Cup winner is a gradual process. I think once this team makes the playoffs and regains a little bit of respectability around the league, and all of our players finally earn a meaningful stage on which to showcase themselves, making deals becomes easier. Right now it's hard to trade for those big pieces because all our assets haven't actually shown anything yet. How valuable are they? How do they perform when the going gets tough? No one knows, not even Burke.

    I like that we're stockpiling young, high upside, cost-controlled D. This is an extremely rare asset to have and I think it's a good strategy to be parlayed into that drool-worthy forward we all want at some point. But for this summer, the two areas I think Burke can fix most easily are goaltending and grit. Accomplish those tasks, make the playoffs, strengthen your bargaining position, and see where you're at come the trade deadline. I agree with you though in thinking we'd be further ahead at this point. It's time to take a major step forward here.

  2. Sorry, I didn't like the pick.

    I am sure he's a great prospect, but he doesn't address our needs.

    Jordan Staal is gone...missed that boat.

    I can't believe they would pick a defenceman if Justin Schultz was I don't think he is coming.

    There will be some impact draft choices...there always are. This past year we had Landeskog, Nugent-Hopkins and Couturier go directly into the NHL and make an impact.

    We needed that kind of forward, and we didn't get it. Yakapov, Murray and Galchenyuk might all be first-year impact draft choices.

    Buffalo got not one, but two big skilled centers in the first round Mikhail Grigorenko 6'3" and 6'2" Zemgus Girgensons.

    Check out the pictures of this kid at the combines:

    “I haven’t seen anyone with the kind of work ethic that (Girgensons) shows in practice and in the weight room since I was around Rod Brind’Amour (playing in the NHL),” Montgomery said.

    From The Hockey News:

    "If everything shakes out the right way, the Sabres just nabbed their top two centers for the next decade in Mikhail Grigorenko and Zemgus Girgensons."

    If Burke had done some deals to get those two guys, I would have been hopeful.

    The rebuild seems on a glacial many holes still in the line up.

    Now I wonder if the Leafs will make the playoffs again before the Phaneuf gets old and start showing age.

    They could go three more years without making the playoffs.

  3. i personally had my heart set on a play-making center... the message-boards lauded galchenyuk and grigorenko for months now... i didn't hear much about the defensemen, although there were articles suggesting the draft would run-deep on the blue-line. so i was instantly disappointed when the leafs selected rielly (instantly stopped paying attention)... HOWEVER i was surprised to find out this morning that forsberg and grigorenko were both selected further down the line... their stock had certainly fallen! mayyyyybe the GM's/scouts can be given some credit for knowing the players a little bit better than me reading messageboards. (still i'm grouchy that the team who landed grigorenko was the sabres... my 'home-town' but not favourite team). cheers michael!

  4. Thanks Mills, well said. People who visit here know I'm also a fan of having a deep blueline corps, for all the reasons you mentioned.

    But it is a nagging concern that, as you noted, these young players need a platform to show their talents in playoff competition and they haven't created that opportunity yet.

    At some point, I have to believe they will have to give up something good to get something good. The Leafs need more up front. Maybe that will come internally, but it more and more looks like they need help via trade.

  5. I guess we will see over time if this was a home run or a swing and a miss by the Leafs, DP. I, too, was intrigued by Buffalo's selections. It's hard not to be impressed when you read about Girgensons' work ethic.

    Sobering thoughts from you today, DP, but fair. Thanks.

  6. The Sabres did make a bit of a splash, eh, Alex? That may be annoying for you if you listen to local talk radio in the days ahead!

    Many Leaf fans were probably pulling hard for a centre, as you said. That was a natural desire. Staal is gone but maybe there is another way to address this need?

    I have to believe Burke will have some surprises of his own for us before long...

  7. Now that the draft is over, the real off-season begins for the Leafs. It's easy to get excited about a high draft pick, but we have to remind ourselves that most picks, including blue-chippers, take a couple years before they make the big club and/or make a real impact.
    Whether you want to include Rielly among the stockpile of defensemen the Leafs now have or not, they have a huge surplus of NHL-caliber blueliners. That may even expand if they land Schultz next week. So for anyone who is getting seriously impatient with the re-build (I am among those), it's time to make some moves.
    I think we all know that Burke is not going to use up all his cap space on a big free agent like Parise. Likewise he's not going to sell the farm for Rick Nash, as that's what it seems Columbus is demanding still. I do think that if Burke is to finally show his worth as a GM and make a significant improvement all at once, he needs to sell off some defensemen in favour of two or three first and second line players. No matter what public faith he shows in Bozak, he is not a number one center, he's only there by default.
    Michael, your comment about watching the playoffs really hit home for me. It really started before then, watching the Leafs late-season slide, being physically dominated by opposition forwards who would not give an inch in their own zone. The Leafs are no where near teams such as Boston in that regard, and until they obtain forwards who can play a complete two-way game, their re-build will not move forward.

  8. I was nodding along throughout your comment, Anon. Thanks.

  9. Buffalo fans are really happy...this could be unbearable. One blogger writes:

    "I've had a night to sleep on the Sabres selections from Day 1 at the NHL Draft. I woke this morning with a smile on my face and a very good feeling about selections of Grigorenko and Girgensons."

    70% of Sabres fans gave Darcy Regier an A+ for his first round choices

    The Leafs selected another defenseman Matthew Finn of the Guelph Storm with the 35th pick overall.

    when does it end? How many defensive prospects does one need?

    Kessel on has two more years before he is UFA. He might never be in a Leaf playoff game before he leaves.

    Burke has 2 more years on his contract, but is probably gone at the end of this season if they miss the playoffs again.

    Why is Burke stockpiling defencemen to develop and trade? He doesn't have the time to do that.

  10. Good question, I can only suggest this is part of building assets that can be flipped later.

    The short-term reality, DP, also, is that many of the teams they will compete with for a playoff berth next spring have gotten better in the last two days: Islanders via trade, Carolina via trade, Buffalo via draft, Montreal via draft, Tampa Bay better in goal, etc.

  11. The Leafs just traded the negotiating rights to Gustavsson to the Winnipeg Jets. If the Jets sign him, the Leafs will get Winnipeg's seventh pick in the 2013 draft.

  12. The Leafs are a have-not franchise. We don't have the assets do anything to address your concerns and pretending otherwise might be harmful.

    We have zero (one - Kadri?) blue chip prospects. How many of our young roster players do other teams consider valuable? Schenn, Gardiner... ? Those are the only two names I hear consistently.

    Prices on marquee talent are very high. VAN apparently rejected Schenn for Luongo - a man on a ridiculous contract!

    If you think BB is imcompetent then fire him and hire another GM. But it won't mean the Leafs will suddenly be capable of swinging big deals. Lets be patient, work free agency and use our financial advantage as best we can while preserving our draft picks.

    Don't Panic!

  13. I think the last comment is exactly right. I think we may be getting a tad oversold on the potential of the youngsters.

    Not withstanding the fact that Jordan Staal likely wanted to play with his brother, we couldn't even better Carolina's offer by enough to make Pittsburg have to take it. Beyond Gardiner, who exactly would the rest of the league be knocking down Burkes door to get? Michael has said it many times, we seem to have some nice pieces on the farm, but likely every team can say that.

    If Vancouver turned down Luongo for Schenn, then that deal is dead. To even offer Schenn for Luongo is criminal. Anyone taking that contract in the context of the situation is doing Vancouver a huge favour. To offer anything of signifigance is just silly. A middling prospect (such as Brad Ross) and a bad contract such as Komisarek is about all I would offer.

    I still don't understand the fasination with Nash. Ryan is younger, puts up just as many points and comes cheaper. Why on earth would you go after Nash? This is the one that scares me. Burke giving up signifigant pieces just to get a percieved big name, who in fact may already be in decline. Burke has got his work cut out for him and he just missed one big window. After free agency the NHL has very few trades until the dealine and the Leafs right now are no better than they were last year and with Carolina getting Stall, the Islanders getting Vishnosky, Washington getting Ribero and Tampa getting Lindback are likely worse than that. Not shaping up to be a good summer so far.

  14. While there is plenty of time to make moves, of course, (and as I pen this, the trade for van Riemsdyk has been finalized...), the concern is indeed that other teams in the East are getting better...

    We'll no doubt talk further given the Philly news....Thanks Willbur.

  15. Gonna miss Schenn. I think ina couple of years we are going to look back and wish wehadn't got rid of Schenn quite so quickly. Don't know much about JVR other than he is a big body with a lot of potential. The knock being he doesn't always play like a big body. Hopefully, both guys will realize thier potetial with a change of scenery. At least Schenn was traded for young talent.