Why no Third Option for Leafs?

A recent blog post from Howard Berger suggests that because of that lack of moves by Brian Burke at the trade deadline we should take it is as an indication that Brian Burke is in no rush to make over the Toronto lineup, despite what everyone thought when Burke took over the team just over 3 months ago now. Well, everyone except me. Back when Burke was hired I wrote the following:

Other than Antropov, I really don’t think anyone is a sure bet to be traded. I don’t think Burke will come in and say ‘I have to trade players X, Y and Z for whatever draft picks I can get for them’ as many believe he should.

Except for Dominic Moore being traded, I was right. But enough about that, where does Howard see this team going heading into next season:

That’s because the Leafs are contractually bound to 16 players from the current team – or 69.6% of the 23-man roster. These players include forwards Jason Blake, Niklas Hagman, Alexei Ponikarovsky, Lee Stempniak, Matt Stajan, Nikolai Kulemin, Jamal Mayers and John Mitchell; defensemen Pavel Kubina, Tomas Kaberle, Jeff Finger, Mike Van Ryn, Luke Schenn, Jonas Frogren and Ian White; and goalie Vesa Toskala. Does that club look familiar?

Not all of the aforementioned are in the upper echelon in salary, so Burke will have a sizeable amount of cap room to work with. But, teams can still only dress 20 players each night. As such, Burke has a key philosophical decision to make: Does he want the Leafs to stay the same, or to tail off for at least a year? Right now, there is no answer to the question. And it’s the most common thread among several-hundred e-mail submissions I received over the weekend for a Q & A blog I’ll get to in a couple of days… almost all of you wondering – as do I – what course Burke will follow in the off-season, and how that course will impact 2009-10.

The early evidence suggests that Burke isn’t overly anxious to detonate the roster. This is partly because of the monumental effort required to do so [look, again, at the above list of signed players], but it also involves the intrinsic quality of a GM that has worked his way into one of the NHL’s hottest markets. Burke simply doesn’t like to lose hockey games. Missing the playoffs this season will be a radical departure for the GM that raised the Stanley Cup only two short years ago. Though he must understand the Leafs will endure more pain before they harvest any meaningful gain, such actions are easier spoken of than followed.

There are couple of interesting things Howard wrote in the above portion of his blog post. The first is, why does Burke only have the options “to stay the same” or “to tail off for at least a year?” Why isn’t there a third option of, “improve the club for 2009-10?” The second interesting point Howard made was “The early evidence suggests that Burke isn’t overly anxious to detonate the roster.” My response to that is, why must Burke detonate the roster?

I think I know why Howard wrote these two things. I think he wrote them because he, like so many of his fellow Toronto sports media friends, believe the only way to improve a team is to tear it down to next to nothing, be really bad for several seasons to get high draft picks, and then rebuild again. But why must this be the case? Is this how Boston turned their team around? Is this how Philadelphia turned their team around? Is this how Burke’s Anaheim Ducks were built? The answer to all three questions are No. Philadelphia and Boston were 13th and 15th in the eastern conference just two seasons ago. The only teams that do a complete tear down and rebuild are the small market franchises that partly do it to save money like the Penguins of the past and in recent years the Coyotes, Blues, Islanders and Kings. When was the last time San Jose, Detroit, Boston, Philadelphia, New Jersey, Vancouver or Montreal did something like this?

The fact is, the Leafs have already made significant changes to their roster . Since Cliff Fletcher took over for John Ferguson Jr. Mats Sundin, Darcy Tucker, Bryan McCabe, Andrew Raycroft, Nik Antropov, Dominic Moore, Alexander Steen, Carlo Colaiacovo, Kyle Wellwood, Hal Gill, Chad Kilger, Wade Belak, Johnny Pohl, Andy Wozniewski, and Staffan Kronwall have left the club while Hagman, Grabovski, Kulemin, Stempniak, Mitchell, Finger, Van Ryn, Mayers, Frogren, Schenn, May and others have been brought in. That is quite a turn over already. A lot of young players have been given the opportunity to show their stuff this season and this will continue as physical defenseman Phil Oreskovic will get an opportunity to play tonight against the Senators.

There will be more changes to the Leafs to be sure, but if everyone would just listen to Brian Burke every now and again and make some not so difficult observations you can easily get an idea of what Burke is going to do. Burke believes, and has publicly said, that the current Leaf team has several building blocks for the future, and he doesn’t just mean youngsters like Schenn and Mitchell. He certainly believes that someone like Kaberle can be a key component of this team going forward and that is why he isn’t going to give him away without getting a key component or two in return. He has said that he believes that White, Grabovski, Blake and Stempniak could be components of a future Leaf playoff team as well and he probably believes this about several other current Leafs too (Hagman, Van Ryn likely fit in this category as well). Some might question whether someone like Blake or Stempniak really ought to fit into the Leafs future, but what Burke has said is that if these players can be important components of a rebuilt Leafs team, they just can’t be the main components and in the right situation they will thrive.

The reality is the Leafs have a number of second/third line players. Stajan, Grabovski, Hagman, Ponikarovsky, Stempniak, Blake, etc. What I see happening this summer is Burke will attempt to add some top end talent and to add some quality role players (more toughness in particular) to the group of forwards he already has. If he can do that, the existing players won’t be asked to be more than what they realistically are. Jason Blake is fine as your third or fourth best forward, just not as your best forward. Burke’s job is to find a pair of top end players and it makes no sense to trade away any assets unless it helps you in that endeavour and trading away Ponikarovsky for a third or fourth round pick won’t accomplish that. This is why he wasn’t traded. Ponikarovsky is a 20+ goal scorer with some speed and won’t hurt your defensively and could play a role on the second or third line of a future Leaf team. That doesn’t mean Burke won’t ever trade him, he just won’t trade him unless it helps him address a more pressing need. The same goes for Hagman, Blake, Stajan, etc. so in that sense Howard Berger was correct, Leaf fans shouldn’t expect an immediate and massive overhaul of the Leafs. Where Howard is wrong is the implication that such an overhaul is needed or that the Leafs can’t only stay the same or get worse. The Leafs have about $12-15 million in cap space for next season and Burke will do whatever he can to make the team better and Leaf fans should expect the Leafs to be better next year, not the same and certainly not worse.

This article has 7 Comments

  1. Upon further reflection on your article, I see a single flaw… you listened to anything that Howard Berger has to say and thought it was something worthwhile.

  2. Good time to have cap space. With revenues declining and several teams (Detroit, NYR, Philidelphia) either needing to move some big contracts or unable to resign all their talent, Burke may have a shot at getting Daniel Briere, Johan Franzen & Michael Samuelsson, or Chris Drury/Scott Gomez.

  3. Good work.
    Its obvious the Leafs will win the cup next year. Gotta love the self promotion and blind loyalty.

  4. It wouldn’t be that hard to get worse. They’re currently 23rd in the NHL, and that’s mainly due to horrible goaltending and inexperience.

    All you’d have to do is remove all their goal scoring ability and they’d be a lot worse. Take out Ponikarovsky, Kaberle, Blake, Grabovski, Hagman, and Stajan and I bet they’d resemble the Islanders a bit more.

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