Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Happy Anniversary Brian Burke!

It’s been two years since Brian Burke has taken charge of the Toronto Maple Leaf organization. At the time there was much optimism but that has since been replaced with the usual pessimism. Many scribers have already written off his tenure which is absurd. You can’t evaluate a rebuild while it’s in progress. In fact, this one is even more difficult to assess since we don’t even know what the plan is.

Here is how I see it. When Burke arrived it was with much fanfare and platitudes on his part. He stated that the team was too soft, too small, and with a culture of losing. He stated he hated losing and could not wait 5 year (out of the playoffs) to be competitive. His goal was to make the playoffs every season.

These are very lofty goals. Although he gave no timeframe, he was suggesting that the Leafs would be competitive again in a short period of time – perhaps 2 or 3 years? Thus he set himself up for failure by trying to shorten the typical rebuild timeline. It will likely still take 5 years to rebuild this team.

However, he tried nonetheless. To speed up the process, he decided to bypass the Entry Draft and use trades and free agent signings to stock the depleted lineup with quality players. As everyone knows he gave up valuable commodities in high draft picks for a NHL-ready scorer, Phil Kessel. He signed a number of U.S. college free agents (Christian Hanson, Tyler Bozak and Braydon Irwin). Highly sought after European free agent goalies Jonas Gustavsson and Jussi Rynnas were also signed. Toughness was enhanced by bringing in Colton Orr, Mike Komisarek, Mike Brown and Colby Armstrong. Two trades unloaded a lot of deadwood for talented (though expensive) players, Dion Phanuef and J-S Giguere.

So where do we really stand right now? Well the Kessel trade isn’t the disaster it has been portrayed to be. It certainly is not comparable to the Kovalchuck deal as suggested by Mike Milbury last Saturday. The Leafs picked up a proven goal scorer who was only 21 years old. They gave up what turns out to be Tyler Seguin who is also talented but we do not know how good we will be yet. You can’t assess the other two picks but we know that the 2011 Entry Draft will be weaker which means the Bruins will not likely get a player of Seguin’s calibre.

The college free agents have been pretty much a bust so far. Only Bozak is with the Leafs but he is struggling under the pressure placed on him. To suggest that these players are equal to first round draft picks would quite a stretch. None of the other free agent signings have been significant and can be described as only role players. The days of making a "splash" in the free agent are over. GMs are reluctant to trade away high draft picks and tend to lock these players in for long term contracts at very young ages. When Burke suggests that July 1 is his team's draft is just a lot of hot air.

Goaltending and defense have been stabilized by a good blend of veterans and youth. The young core of Gustavsson and Rynnas in net and Scheen Gunnarsson, Phaneuf and Aulie on the blueline is something to build around. I can see some of the veterans being moved out

The offense is currently next to invisible. Aside from the 4th line, the forwards are quick but pretty small and having difficulty working the puck in the corners and in front of the net. I sense more changes are coming to balance speed and size. The average age of the Leaf forwards are the youngest in the NHL so they will get better. I'm not sure they will get good enough to compete. The Leafs lack quality centres and big wingers.

So this rebuild will continue for several years before the Leafs can compete despite Burke's efforts to accelerate the process. In fact, it could be argued that he may have slowed down that process by giving up draft picks. It is becoming obvious that quality players are rarely available through trades or free agency. The draft remains the best source of inexpensive quality players which are the most valued commodity in hockey today.

What Burke has never clearly articulated is his plan for rebuilding the Leafs. His moves do not suggest a clear strategy. Nor is his timeline clear. He states he values big bodies but brings in small players like Kessel, MacArthur, Kadri, Versteeg and Bozak. A priority was changing the culture but the new players tend to have bad starts to games much as the previous group.

Anyway, happy anniversary Brian! Keep smiling!

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