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The most important decision facing the Leafs this summer?

There are always things to discuss—and debate—when it comes to the blue and white.  But as the playoffs wind to a conclusion and the Leafs were once again a “non-invite”, shall we say, it’s a good time to examine what Burke and colleagues need to address to this summer to ensure they will be in the mix in twelve months—maybe even fighting for that elusive spot in the so-called “final-four”.

Things have naturally been quiet in recent weeks, though the Leafs did sign Gunnarsson and of course Reimer and before that, a free-agent Swedish goalie (Owuya) which should make for added competition at training camp in September.  We know that Reimer is entrenched as the number-one guy, and Gustavsson is, for now at least as an already signed player, in the crease mix.  But competition is only and always a good thing, especially if, in this instance, Reimer can work on what he needs to do to prepare properly to play a lot while the fight goes on for back-up time and the top job with the Marlies.  Rynnas, Gustavsson and Owuya (and maybe Scrivens) should be candidates, you have to think.

Giguere? I’m guessing not, but who knows what Burke is really thinking?

Beyond the goalie competition, the Leafs have, if not holes, at least areas where they may be able to upgrade.  The defense will have a young and fairly capable “core four” of Phaneuf, Schenn (he will re-sign), Gunnarsson and Aulie.  Beyond that there are openings.  An infusion could come from someone like Holzer who played key minutes for Germany recently at the Worlds.  I could be proven wrong but I still like the idea of Komisarek coming back as a veteran leader, albeit one who would likely play 5/6th defenseman minutes.  (You have to think Blacker and Gardiner will benefit from time with the Marlies in 2011-’12—rather a quick jump to the big team.)

Up front, I wonder if Leaf-backers are a lot, a little, or not at all more comfortable with the “top-six” forward mix compared with a year ago?  (Click here for an earliest post before last season on this very subject…)

We all understand that free agency is at hand on July 1, but available players are relatively few who fit this “top-six” bill- and would be prepared to come to Toronto.  (I've already discussed the Brad Richards scenario in recent columns.)

Right now Kessel, Grabovski, Lupul and Kulemin can be granted legitimate status as at least front-line, if not in all cases elite-level NHL forwards.  Beyond that, who do we have?  Possibly Kadri?  An improved, stronger and more experienced Bozak? A Marlie forward like Frattin, Colborne or D’Amigo? 

I think we’re stretching things a lot if we believe any of those five are ready, right now, to take on the responsibility of true first or second-line NHL forwards.  But again, I guess that’s what training camp is for.

(Interestingly, I recently asked in a post how many current Leaf players that you thought could handle the intensity we have seen in this year's playoffs.  Those who responded all submitted very short lists, so that tells us something about the mood of the fan base here.  While people are generally optimistic about Burke's moves and the team's progress, I sense there is a sober reality hanging over most of us.  We know there is still a lot of work to do for this team to be truly good enough to compete against the very best at playoff time...)

Bottom-six guys we have plenty of, depending on who re-signs here:  Brent, Armstrong, Boyce, MacArthur, Orr, Rosehill, Sjostrom—and a number of Marlies, too.  Now, some of the above may not be back, of course, and while we Leaf fans tend to love and often over-estimate our own, those who have watched the playoffs closely know there are third-liners and then there are high-end third-liners.  It’s clear the Leafs could use an upgrade in their bottom-six, too, with no disrespect to the guys who played their hearts out this past season. (I don't know if this is a "loss" of any major significance, but 2006 pick Leo Komarov has evidently signed in the KHL.  If I'm not mistaken, he was part of the Finnish side that recently won the World Championships and was projected as an annoying-type bottom-six guy.  But no longer in the Leaf mix, it seems...)

So as much as just about everyone wants to say the Leafs are poised to not only make the playoffs but make some noise in the playoffs a year from now, they still have a ways to go to be where, say, this year's quarter-final teams in the East are right now, at least in my view, heading into the draft and free agency.

Good goaltending will sure help, and if Reimer plays as he did in his early Leaf days, he will provide that.

But the Leafs were remarkably free of injuries this past year compared with many NHL teams, and there is no guarantee they will be that lucky again.

They need skill, they need more grit, and they need depth on the blueline.

So what does Burke do first, in your view?  Are we talking trades?  If so, who do the Leafs have to offer?  Roster players, Marlies, draft choices?

And what about free-agency?  Restricted free-agents?  Who really wants to come here as a UFA?  And even if, on the RFA side, the Leafs went the offer-sheet route, you have to believe clubs would simply match.

Also, what about Ron Wilson?  I had forecast weeks ago  that he would have an extension by now.  That hasn’t been announced to my knowledge, at least not officially, yet.  The playoffs are showing yet again that, along with goaltending, coaching does play in role in a team’s success.

Is Wilson the guy to bring it home in Toronto?  If not, why is he still here?  If he is (and Burke should know one way or another by now—Wilson has coached for like 15 years at this level and three years already in Toronto), then he deserves an extension.

And who do they draft?  We have no idea who will be on the board by the time the Leafs pick, but presumably they are looking for additional strength up the middle or on the wings, rather than focusing on defense or goaltending. But again, I can’t guess what the brass is thinking.  You usually draft the "best" player available, with an eye toward three or four years from now- not what you need today.

The Leafs have made strides, but having watched the playoffs, to me, they still have a long ways to go to get to the level where they can win against the kind of intense competition they would be facing every night at this time of year.

Decisions, decisions.

1 comment:

  1. When you're not already good and stocked to get better, constantly dealing picks and prospects gets you nowhere. Again.