The news that shocked the hockey world yesterday had nothing to do with the CBA or Bettman or Fehr but rather that the Maple Leafs ownership group decided to make a strangely timed move to remove Brian Burke from his President and General Manager position of the Maple Leafs. I think it is only fair to take a look back at the Burke years and evaluate where the Leafs are after his 4 years at the helm. Let’s look at the Leafs position by position starting with the good and heading downhill from there.
Burke made some mistakes on defense (Komisarek, maybe Liles contract and to a lesser extent Beauchemin) but generally speaking defense is the Leafs strong point. Phaneuf and Gunnarsson really developed into a quality top pairing last year capable of playing big minutes in any situation. Jake Gardiner still has lots to learn but has shown flashes of brilliance, particularly as a puck moving offensive defenseman. Cody Franson hasn’t been given much of an opportunity in Toronto but there is certainly a decent amount of potential there and at the very least trade value. Morgan Rielly is the Leafs best prospect and has a chance to be a quality NHL defenseman in the not to distant future. Beyond those guys there are some decent depth prospects close to ready like Korbinian Holzer and Jesse Blacker and second tier prospects a year or two away like Stuart Percey and Matt Finn. Even more veteran players like Mike Kostka and reclamation project Paul Ranger provide some nice depth. There is certainly a need for the organization to add another quality shut down defenseman but overall there are a number of quality defensemen on the active roster with good depth in the organization and a number of quality prospects on the way.
At the NHL level Burke has left a nice stable of quality wingers with guys Kessel, Lupul, van Riemsdyk, MacArthur, Kulemin and an emerging player like Matt Frattin. Generally speaking that is a pretty good set of wingers for your top 3 lines and there is also a decent group of role players to fill out the fourth line and depth winger positions. Unlike the defense position, there are not an abundance of quality winger prospects that project to top 2 line duty. There are some prospects like Tyler Biggs, Brad Ross, Greg McKegg, Jerry D’Amigo, Carter Ashton, etc. but they all have significant question marks and in the cases of D’Amigo, Ashton and McKegg poor seasons with the Marlies this year have dropped their status from maybe prospects to not players we can seriously count on. Luckily Burke has done a decent job at putting together some quality wingers who are mostly young or in their NHL primes because there isn’t a lot of top talent in the pipe line.
Now we get to Burke’s failures. Although not someone Burke brought in, Grabovski has really grown during Burke’s tenure and has proven himself to be at least a very good second line center if not a second tier first line guy. But beyond Grabovski the center position is somewhat of a disaster. There are some decent bottom of the line up guys like Steckel and McClement but Burke has failed miserably in finding a center to complement Grabovski on the top 2 lines. Bozak has some skills but is not the guy for the job, maybe in part because he was never properly developed for the job but rather was just thrown to the wolves. Tim Connolly was expected to be a short term fix but so far that has failed miserably. Long term there was hope for Nazem Kadri and while there is still reason for some hope (he is having a decent year with the Marlies) management seemed to have more interest in publicly criticizing Kadri (from everything from his fitness level, to his attitude, to his defensive ability) than properly developing him. The other great hope at center was Joe Colborne who was picked up from Boston in the Kaberle trade. At the time I didn’t know much about Colborne but when I looked at his numbers I was underwhelmed but lots of people thought he had a ton of potential so I kept an optimistic view of him. But two years later and he is struggling big time with the Marlies and his status as a prospect center for the top 2 lines is all but gone. The only hope for Colborne now is he can learn to play defense and become a big, strong, defensive third line center not unlike what Manny Malhotra has done with his career but that is probably being too optimistic. And beyond Kadri and Colborne there is very little in terms of center prospects. This is an area that desperately needs attention at both the NHL and at the prospect level.
So the score card so far is the defense situation is good all round, the winger situation is good at the NHL level, a little weak at the prospect level and the center situation needs a fair bit of work at both the NHL level and especially at the prospect level. That leaves the goaltending situation which is a complete and utter mess. The current Leaf goaltending situation has the Leafs with James Reimer as their starter who is really only on anyone’s radar because he had a stellar second half of a season with the Leafs in 2010-11. If it weren’t for that stretch nobody would have any hope for him because for the several years prior to that he wasn’t even a full time starting goalie at either the AHL or ECHL (hadn’t played more than 30 games in a year since 2006-07 in WHL). After Reimer there are second (or third) tier prospects like Ben Scrivens, Jussi Rynnas, Mark Owuya and Garret Sparks. Scrivens is having another solid year (not quite as good as last year though) with the Marlies and might be close to at least being a back up at the NHL level but predicting goalies development at the NHL level is extremely difficult. In the end the Maple Leaf goalie situation can best be described as one big question mark with a grand total of 81 NHL games started experience in the entire organization. The goaltending situation was a disaster before Burke got here, was a disaster when he was here, and is still a disaster. Easily the absolute worst and uncertain goalie situation of any NHL franchise.