Feb 282012
 

I was somewhat disappointed in the lack of Maple Leaf moves made during yesterday’s trade deadline.  Not because Burke didn’t trade for anyone who can help us make the playoffs this year (though I though a trade for Ben Bishop would have been a useful gamble both short and long term) but because he didn’t do more to set up this team for the long term.  From my perspective this team is unlikely to make the playoffs this season and even if they do there is little chance they will win a round.  Their defense and goaltending is bad at best and physical defense oriented teams have the ability to shut down the Leafs offense.  The Leafs overall have a dreadful record against playoff teams.  So, Burke had an opportunity to take a team that had very little to be optimistic about this season and set it up for a better future.

Forwards

The way the team is currently set up we have the following group of forwards:

Kessel-Bozak-Lupul
MacArthur-Grabovski-Kulemin
Lombardi-Connolly-Frattin
Brown-Steckel-Armstrong

The six players I have listed in bold are the only six players that I believe have a chance to be on this team playing the same roles they are currently in 2-3 seasons when the Leafs really should plan on having a competitive team.  And even with those six players Brown and Steckel are not core players and may or may not be kept around and Frattin still has to prove himself.  Let me address some of the guys I haven’t listed in bold.

Bozak – I kind of like Bozak, but lets be honest, he is not a first line center and he especially isn’t a first line center between Kessel and Lupul.  Neither Kessel nor Lupul are quality defensive players nor exceptionally big and putting a small and weak defensive center between them that doesn’t have elite level offensive skills is just not a recipe for success.  It’s possible that Bozak could be a second line center with the right wingers but if we are giving the second line role to Grabovski he doesn’t fit there.  He isn’t good enough defensively to be a third line center so I have a hard time to see where he fits in long term.

MacArthur – MacArthur is the left wing version of Bozak.  He has some nice offensive skills but really isn’t much more than a 50 point one-dimensional player.  He isn’t big, doesn’t play big, isn’t anything to write home about defensively.  He is a nice place holder until we get something better but nothing more.  I don’t see MacArthur playing a significant role on a Stanley Cup contender.  He just doesn’t bring enough of a complete package to play a significant role on a contending team.

Kulemin – Being realistic and setting last seasons career year aside, Kulemin is probably a defensively responsible 15 goal, 35 point player.  While he is no doubt a useful 2-way player he is probably more suited for a 2-way third line role.

Connolly – I like Connolly and I think on the right team with some big wingers he can be a quality second line center but he is really just a place holder on this team and probably doesn’t have a long term role in Toronto.

Lombardi – Lombardi was just acquired as a way to get Cody Franson and has no long term role in Toronto.

Armstrong – If Armstrong could stay healthy I think he can be a useful player.  Unfortunately he cannot stay healthy.

So, looking forward I think this could be the lineup when we are ready to compete including the holes we are looking to fill.

Kessel-????-Lupul
????-Grabovski-????
Frattin-????-Kulemin
Brown-Steckel-????

Needed are a first line center, preferably one with size and a defensive presence.  Two second line wingers, preferably at least one with good size to offset Grabovski’s smallish stature.  A 2-way third line center who can kill penalties.  At least one fourth line role player.

The plan, I presume now, is that at some point Colborne can be plugged into the first line role and Kadri and newly acquired Carter Ashton can be plugged into the second line winger roles.

The question I have is, why couldn’t we have started this process right now?  Speculation is that first round draft picks were offered for both MacArthur and Kulemin.  Would it really have hurt this team that much to have flipped MacArthur for a first round pick and seen what Kadri could do on the second line for the remainder of the season?  Kadri hopefully has a long term role with the Leafs, I am not certain MacArthur does.  With the Leafs ever get another chance to flip MacArthur for a first round pick?  I am not so sure.  The price for players was extremely high yesterday (see Gaustad, Paul) and I don’t think you get a first round pick for MacArthur in the summer.  Same goes for Kulemin, though I do think Kulemin could have a long term role with the Leafs, just not necessarily as a regular top six forward.  Wouldn’t it be nice going into this summers draft with two or more first round picks and the opportunities that provides either in drafting quality prospects for the future or packaging them in a trade?  Wouldn’t it be nice going into this summer with some kind of indication as to whether Kadri is ready for a regular role the NHL?  I can argue the same for Bozak.  If Bozak could have been flipped for a draft pick or a prospect, wouldn’t it have been nice to see if Colborne is ready for regular NHL duty?

I realize it is tough for Burke to admit to fans that this is more or less a lost season from this point on, but I don’t really think fans would be unhappy had he traded away Bozak and/or MacArthur and/or Kulemin and/or others for first round picks and prospects and said “we thought that we had a playoff team that could possibly even scare someone in the first round but it has become clear that the group was not coming together as expected so we decided to make some changes and give some of our quality prospects a chance to show they will be ready for the NHL next season.”  Some fans might be angry that they have on some level ‘given up’ on the season but I think the majority of them will see that as being far more realistic than what Burke actually said: “we still believe in this team.”

So, as far as I am concerned, yesterday was a lost opportunity to trade away some players that may not (or probably do not) have a long term future with the Leafs (MacArthur in particular) while the prices were as high as they may ever be for those players.  It is also a lost opportunity to give some NHL ready prospects such as Kadri and Colborne an opportunity to show their abilities at the NHL level.  Instead have to watch a bunch of guys who won’t be with the Leafs when they are ready to be serious contenders fail to make the playoffs and generally continue to disappoint with their underwhelming performance.  Mediocrity without optimism is not fun to watch and lets be clear, this team is mediocre and there aren’t many players on the team we can be optimistic will be better a year or two from now.  They are what they are and there isn’t much hope this group will get any better.

 

Jan 182012
 

Brian Burke joined the Leafs in November of 2008.  When he joined the Leafs he insisted he has no interest in a 5 year rebuild and expected he could make the team competitive much sooner.  Let’s evaluate how Burke has done in his tenure as GM of the Maple Leafs.

2007-08 2011-12
GAA 3.08 (27th) 3.03 (27th)
SV% 89.3 (29th) 90.1 (24th)
GFA 2.74 (11th) 2.98 (6th)
PP 17.8% (15th) 20.6% (4th)
PK 78.0% (30th) 74.4% (30th)
Points 83 (12th in east) 89 (projected, 9th)

Their overall offense is slightly better but their defense is the same sad defense we had prior to Burke.  They are in the playoff hunt this season, but they are a dismal 13-15-3 in their last 32 games and showing little signs that if they can somehow squeak into the playoffs they can threaten to win a round.  They have just 7 wins against teams currently in the playoffs and the only playoff team they have defeated since December 5th is the Detroit Red Wings.

Up until recently I have been a supporter of Brian Burke but to be perfectly honest he is growing weary on me.  Yes, the team is younger, but no, it is not very much better.  Yes, there is greater prospect depth, but I am doubtful any of them have the potential to become game changers in the NHL (i.e. dominant core players).  He seems to think he has one of the best coaches in the NHL and gave him a contract extension but he also has talked recently about how he thinks his team is a playoff team and is only a player or two away from seriously challenging to be a top team that can make a lengthy playoff run.  He loves to talk about how the Phaneuf trade changed the franchise around, but since the Phaneuf trade the Leafs are just 72-62-19 or the equivalent of an 87 point team.  In the 6 seasons post lockout 87 points would get you 11th, 12th, 11th, 11th, 10th, and 10th.  I don’t know about you, but I am not satisfied with a 10th-12th place team, or even a 9th place team.

Other Leaf fans like to talk about how young this team and the rebuilding process isn’t complete (despite Burke insisting he had no interest in a 5 year rebuild) but lets look at their ages and experience.  I have included the top 18 skaters in total ice time this season and top 2 goalies.

Player Age GP
Dion Phaneuf 26 515
Carl Gunnarsson 25 155
Phil Kessel 24 419
Joffrey Lupul 28 494
Jake Gardiner 21 38
John-Michael Liles 31 557
Luke Schenn 22 275
Nikolai Kulemin 25 278
Mikhail Grabovski 27 284
Tyler Bozak 25 155
Tim Connolly 30 660
Clarke MacArthur 26 328
David Steckel 29 351
Cody Franson 24 171
Matt Frattin 24 38
Joey Crabb 28 111
Mike Komisarek 29 492
Matthew Lombardi 29 473
James Reimer 23 55
Jonas Gustavsson 27 88

Only Gardiner, Schenn and Reimer are under age 24.  The majority of the team is aged 24-26 with a few players in their late 20′s and Liles topping out at 31.  There are 12 players with 250+ games experience and 7 with 400+ games experience and only 4 players (both goalies, Frattin and Gardiner) have fewer than 100 games experience.  This isn’t a team filled with rookies with little or no experience, it is a young team but with a fair bit of NHL experience with the majority of players in their prime years or just entering their prime years.  Am I really expected to buy into the fact that this mediocre team of 24-29 year olds will suddenly become a great team of 26-31 year olds 2 years from now?  I am not so certain.

Furthering that challenge is that Grabovski, Liles and Gustavsson are UFA’s after this season and after next season Connolly, Lupul, Lombardi, MacArthur, Armstrong, Bozak, and Steckel are UFA’s.  That is 7 of your top 13 skaters in terms of ice time becoming UFA’s over the next 2 summers plus a handful of others.  This doesn’t appear to be a core of players that can win now and a good chunk of the core could walk away as free agents should they choose to.

All this begs the question, where do the Leafs go from here?  Do they stick with this core, re-signing the UFA’s and hope for the best, or do they admit that this completely revamped (from 3 years ago) team is only marginally better, still can’t keep the puck out of their own net, and may in fact need another significant overhaul?  And if it is the latter, should we leave that up to Burke?  To be fair, it is probably too early to pull the plug on this current Leaf team but from my perspective if Burke insists the problem is not the coach and the mediocrity continues, I am not sure how much longer we Leaf fans should wait.