When the Boston Bruins secured the second selection in the 2010 NHL Draft last night, it added another layer of pain to what was a tough 2009-10 season for the Toronto Maple Leafs. Jonas Gustavsson’s heart troubles and Phil Kessel’s shoulder surgery, an eight-game winless streak to start the year, the Tomas Kaberle mess and, of course, the Brendan Burke tragedy all made their mark on what was a trying season for Leaf Nation.
At the end of the day, the numbers will show that the Leafs finished with just 30 wins and 74 points, good for second-worst amongst all 30 NHL teams. They also missed the play-offs for the fifth consecutive year, remaining one of two teams (along with the Panthers) to have been left out of the postseason in each year since the lockout.
But numbers don’t always tell the whole story when it comes to a team that is developing gradually as a unit. What didn’t show up in the box scores or the standings was that the Leafs spent the year establishing an identity and a solid core, and appear to be headed in the right direction.
Toughness by Burke
Well, you’ve got to hand it to Leafs GM Brian Burke – he knows what he wants and he goes out and gets it. A Burke team is, by and large, geared around an aggressive, ornery group who may take the occasional dumb penalty, but won’t allow opponents to have an easy go of it.
Sometimes the penalties came back to burn the team, as evidenced by a league-worst penalty kill efficiency, but the toughness on this team was unmistakeable. Free agent signee Colton Orr quickly became a fan favourite as the team’s first dominant enforcer since Tie Domi and a guy who knew how to land a body check. Meanwhile, a hard-hitting defensive unit struggled early to adapt to one another, but blue liners like Mike Komisarek and Francois Beauchemin had their moments, and will only improve as they continue to grow accustomed to each other.
Burke also made moves to ensure the team’s future has that same edge as the present squad. Christian Hanson didn’t score much (although he had two goals in the season finale), but cemented a spot on the grind line, while Luca Caputi and Brayden Irwin were late arrivals who are also known to have a nasty streak about them.
It’s not all about trades and free agency
Knowing that he had few assets to offer up and didn’t want to get tied down by non-cap-friendly contracts (see Finger, Jeff), Burke secured talent via the less-traveled international and NCAA routes last summer. Those signings brought over the team’s starting goaltender and possible goalie of the future (Gustavsson), Toronto’s sixth-leading scorer (Tyler Bozak) and a pair of promising forwards (Hanson and Irwin). The team also brought Leafs draftees Viktor Stalberg and Carl Gunnarsson to Toronto.
Many of these guys still have plenty to prove to the big club, but Gustavsson and Bozak have already cemented themselves as key young pieces moving forward. The Swedish goaltender known as “the Monster” had a head-spinning year that saw him move to a new country, undergo heart surgery, suffer the loss of his mother, play for Sweden in the Olympics, match a club record for most consecutive wins (seven) for a rookie goalie, experience a transition in mentors when Vesa Toskala was traded and JS Giguere was brought in and, most recently, receive a nomination for the 2010 Bill Masterton Trophy.
Bozak certainly didn’t have that chaotic a year, but he did jump from the NCAA to playing centre on Toronto’s top line alongside Kessel.
Was Kessel worth it?
Speaking of Kessel, he returned from surgery in November to pot 30 goals in just 70 games and has since vowed to be in even better shape heading into next season. These are all reasons to love Burke’s acquisition if you are a Leafs fan, but such excitement is tempered by what Toronto has sacrificed: the No. 2 over-all selection in this year’s draft, as well as a second rounder this year and another first in 2011.
It’s much too early to tell how this will turn out for the Leafs, but in spite of the fact that either Tyler Seguin or Taylor Hall will likely sport a ‘B’ on their chest next season, Toronto has to be happy to have a key piece of their future locked up. Kessel, after all, is just 23 years of age, is signed for another four years and has already proven himself at the NHL level. Still, it is a franchise-altering trade that bears watching in the coming years.
The mid-season shake-up
I remember tuning into TSN just days before the trade deadline to hear reports that Toronto was on the verge of a major move, but the personnel involved were yet to be determined. Expecting salary dumps in the midst of what had been a disappointing campaign, I was floored when Dion Phaneuf was the key piece heading to T.O. from Calgary.
When have you heard of an otherwise-floundering team making so bold a move as to acquire an elite defenceman, but that’s precisely what Burke did at a fairly negligible cost (of the four-player package, only Ian White had a potential future with the club).
Now, Calgary may have not made the savviest of deals (Damien Cox said it had the potential to be a wildly lop-sided swap in favour of the Leafs), but they wouldn’t give away a premier, young blue liner if there weren’t some serious questions about him. For Phaneuf, that meant questions pertaining to attitude problems he had as a Flame and a mysterious regression in his play. However, he averaged 25 minutes of ice time in 26 games after the trade and now appears primed to become the next Leafs captain.
Most importantly, the trade added another key element of the team’s rebuilding effort. Going forward, Leaf Nation can look ahead to a strong core that includes Kessel, Phaneuf, an improved Nik Kulemin, members of the NCAA “frat pack”, John Mitchell, Luke Schenn and “the Monster”.
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Written by Ben Fisher