In a season-ending interview with the Toronto Star, Leafs GM Brian Burke wrapped up his Buds’ campaign with his usual dose of frankness and bluster.
“This season is a failure,” states Burke emphatically.
And he’s right. As I pointed out in my off-season outlook, for all the positives emerging from Leafs Nation this season, they remain – for the sixth consecutive year – among the bottom 14 clubs packing their bags rather than preparing for the postseason.
But even Burke seems to be encouraged by a late season run in which the Leafs came together as a team and made a charge that suggested they are closer to playoff success than they seemed during the first half of the season. The clearest indication on how ready the man in charge views the team he’s constructed comes in his stated off-season objectives – a frontline centre and some defensive help. While that shopping list may not be easy to cover off, and while more changes on top of those could always be coming, it’s a simple list that highlights how much trust Burke places in the talent he has.
The top six seems to just have the one hole. While Tyler Bozak may not be the answer (and if not, it’s hard to see where he fits in Toronto), Phil Kessel and Joffrey Lupul found a measure of late season chemistry and could remain paired together with a new pivot heading into next year. Meanwhile, assuming Mikhail Grabovski, Clarke MacArthur and Nik Kulemin are back in blue and white, it’s hard to see them being split up after each having career years.
The bottom six may be viewed as fairly interchangeable, with only Colby Armstrong, Mike Brown and Colton Orr tabbed as safe bets to hang around. All of Tim Brent, Joey Crabb and Darryl Boyce merit a chance to come back after hard-working campaigns in which they overachieved, but Burke may see them as being ultimately replaceable. The latter two lines could also serve as a launching pad for young players like Nazem Kadri, Joe Colborne or Marcel Mueller to work their way up towards full-time duty.
On the blue line, Burke will try to undo two of his free agent mistakes (Mike Komisarek and Brett Lebda) through trades in order to free up cap space. The GM can trust Dion Phaneuf, Luke Schenn and Carl Gunnarsson (assuming he isn’t dangled as trade bait) to log top four minutes, but may need help to fill out the rest of the defensive unit. Keith Aulie impressed enough to warrant a regular role in Toronto, with the remaining spots likely to be filled by prospects (Juraj Mikus, Korbinian Holzer or Danny Richmond, to name a few), free agents or trade targets.
The goaltending situation is murky at best, but may not require any outside help. Newly minted Team Canada goalie James Reimer has done more than enough to earn first dibs at the starting job next year, while everyone in the organization is rooting for a bounce back from Jonas Gustavsson, who would bring stability between the pipes if he were to return to 2009-10 levels of production. Marlie goaltenders Jussi Rynnas and Ben Scrivens could get some training camp opportunities, but both men will have to wait a little longer to make the commute along the 509 or 510 streetcar from Ricoh Coliseum to the Air Canada Centre.
As for the future of head coach Ron Wilson, we now know that Burke is committed to keeping him through at least next season, when his current contract expires. But even maintaining the status quo with Wilson begs some questions: a) should he be completely off the hook for the disastrous start of the season (or, for that matter, the previous two years of his coaching tenure?; and b) doesn’t his contract status present a distraction as a lame duck who will be coaching without any job security in place? Wilson can point to the improvements in guys like MacArthur, Lupul, Brent, Kulemin, Grabovski and Gunnarsson on his watch, but count me among those who remain sceptical that Wilson is the man to bring the Leafs back to respectability.
This season ended on a disappointing note, but it left a distinct hope for what is to come. While this may seem like another round of MLSE suckering its wide-eyed fan base into beLeafing once more, only to be crushed yet again next spring, this time it somehow feels different.
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Written by Ben Fisher