Saturday, February 19, 2011

Is Brian Burke finally rebuilding through the draft? Umm not necessarily

In his first 2 years as Maple Leaf GM, Brian Burke has undertaken an experiment to see if you can accelerate a rebuild by acquiring young players instead of draft picks. The thinking is that by picking up young players who either could play in the NHL right away or within one year, Burke could avoid 4 or 5 years in the basement and outside the playoffs. I call it an experiment because no one has attempted to rebuild in this manner in the post-lockout era. Only someone like Brian Burke would have enough nerve and trust from ownership to try something like this.

The response from many fans has been very negative. But they are just fans who for the most part are impatient and expected instantaneous results when Burke began his accelerated rebuild. Even two years is too early to judge this rebuild. Here are his moves prior to this year's trading deadline moves.

Young Free Agents
No one has been more active in signing European and U.S. college free agents than the Leafs. These move fit into his plans because the players are in the age range of 22-25 and therefore would require less seasoning before jumping into the NHL. They also wouldn't require giving up any existing talent which was in very short supply. To date this group is made up of: Clarke MacArthur (25), Jonas Gutavsson (26), Tyler Bozak (24), Christian Hanson (24), Brayden Irwin (23), Jussi Rynnas (23), Ben Scrivens (24), Korbinian Holzer (23) and Marcel Mueller (22).
Trades for Young Talent Burke has openly stated his preference for young players and prospects over draft picks. He has not been hesitant to trade picks for players. This is the most contentious aspect of his plan and naturally attracts the most criticism. The signature move to date has been Phil Kessel (23) for two 1st round draft picks and a 2nd round pick. He has also picked up Luca Caputi (22) for Alexei Ponikarovsky, Dion Phaneuf (25) and Keith Aulie (21) for assortment of spare parts. Mike Brown was picked up for a 5th round draft pick. Finally Mikhail Grabovski (27) also came via a trade but by Cliff Fletcher in exchange for a 2nd round pick and a prospect. All but Caputi are regulars with the Leafs now and except for Brown are either a top 4 defenseman or top 6 forward. At the end of the day the price is irrelevant.

The Draft
The Leafs have not completely ignored the draft. The current roster has a number of former Leaf draft picks including Luke Schenn (21), Carl Gunnarsson (24), Nikolai Kulemin (24) and James Reimer (22). Nazem Kadri (20) has already seen some time with the big club and seems close to being NHL ready.

Solidify Defense and Goaltending
Veterans were brought in to stabilize the backend of the team including Mike Komisarek, Francois Beauchemin, Brett Lebda and Jean-Sebastien Giguere. As it turns out these move which appeared to have been less risky, have been the most disappointing. None of these players have been able to make a significant impact and of course Beauchemin has not moved on.

The latest moves which has seen Burke acquire Joe Colborne (former 1st round pick), Jake Gardiner (former 1st round pick), two 1st round picks, a conditional 2nd round pick and a 3rd round pick appear to a change in direction. At first glance it appears that Burke with 14 picks in this June's draft is finally conceding that rebuilding through the draft is the only way to go. But that's not how he is thinking at all. He considers the two former 1st round picks to be close to being NHL ready. Burke believes that this year's draft is pretty deep which means that although the two 1st round picks he own may not be able to jump up to the NHL next season, they may not be far off. But I wouldn't be surprised to see him package them in a trade to move up in the draft which might be the fate of some of the other draft picks. Keep in mind, the trade deadline is only 9 days away. Mr. Burke may not be done.

So the experiment continues. Can't wait to see the results.

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