Loose Ends: The Draft and the Silly Season

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    While he would never admit it, Ontario native Nazem Kadri must of felt a twinge of anger at how the biggest day in his life panned out. Treated like a high steak pawn at the 2009 draft where the dreams he worked so hard to achieve were to be realized, Kadri watched as a bitter Brian Burke failed to secure the vaunted trade northwards, then faced the ignominy of TSN analyst Darren Dreger questioning Burke about Brayden Schenn as he sat in silence, festooned in his Maple Leafs jersey. For sure it must have been disappointing and one can only hope he didn’t venture toward any Leafs related websites that night.

    Naturally the outburst of spontaneous disillusionment was no slight on Kadri. Unlikely to play in the big leagues next season, Kadri will undoubtedly be a superb second line anchor in years to come with 2009 OHL playoff figures equal to his more illustrious Knights teammate John Tavares. No, the disillusionment was spawned the very moment Brian Burke dared to raise expectations in the games most fervent market, the bombast that spoke of Number One, building from the draft and the ever continuous stirring of the rumor mill.

    Of course Brian did his best; the super secret hush-hush dealings on the draft day dance floor spun a web of ever reaching intrigue. Who’s he talking too…? Dean Lombardi and what, the Boston deal fell through? A misunderstanding you say?

    As it would plan out, the first night of the draft proved to be a night electric with miscommunication, misunderstandings and other such verbalizations resulting in a “miss” noise.

    In retrospect they say hindsight is a wonderful thing and for Leafs fans it’s perhaps time to start anticipating the end game rather than the hype. Wafting in like the franchises savior, Brian Burke allowed himself to get carried away with his own ego and, having spoken of the untouchable Tavares, Burke created an environment of excessive anticipation in a market that bays for success. With many falling victim to the vaunted ideal of ascending the board, the reality was Burke only ever had one over valued chip at the table, and Lombardi and Waddell knew keeping their picks would only drive prices higher after the fact.

    Subsequently the fallout was always going to be anti-climactic for Kadri and all involved, but more worrying was the aftertaste Burke left in his wake on Friday night. Never one to be a wallflower, Burke ruffled feathers more forcibly than ever before and while the tactic has historic precedence, it seems the greater administrative fraternity have begun to fight back in unison setting an altogether more hard-line precedence of their own.

    Now one is left wondering what kind of serviceable management Burke can offer with a team short on trade leverage in a market where he has been largely ostracized. Necessity dictates Burke will have to can his ego if he wants to provide unwavering guidance to a fan base yearning for improvement. One can afford arrogance when in charge of the best, but a certain degree of humility is required when working with building blocks, especially in the once-bitten-twice-shy revolving door environment that is contemporary franchise management.

    Meanwhile the disappointment that quickly followed on day two seemed to suggest Burke was adhering a little to closely to the model that proffered success in Anaheim. With an endless collection of more favorable draftees passing each and every time the Leafs were on the clock, Saturday proved Burke was at least true to his word, albeit perplexingly so to the greater Leafs Nation. In one of the deepest, most highly skilled draft classes in a decade (at least on paper) Burke and his right hand man Dave Nonis set about restocking the Leafs goon closet with a cavalcade of Leviathan sized North American’s proving a real divergence from the chincy European fare favored in previous years.

    Not implicitly unlikeable talents once the dust had settled, many were still left wondering why Burke opted for the big North American route in 2009, when the draft classes of 2010 and 2011 look flimsy by comparison. With Detroit reaching successive cup finals playing a skilled, almost passive game, the Ducks rough and ready run to the cup is already becoming a faded memory in the impending NHL nanny state and, with Burke promising more toughness on free agency day, picking up bruisers this time around appeared a missed opportunity.

    Still what’s written on paper can be erased by actions. Like a ragtag bunch of rapscallions, the less glitzy Saturday draftees offer an interesting and potentially entertaining mix of skills beyond simple size. Taken at a reach, Kenny Ryan is a hard working, hard backchecking winger with a gritty two way game likened to Jere Lehtinen while Jesse Blacker offers a rock solid and potentially physical defensive skill set that has second or third pairing quality written all over it.

    The nameplateless Jamie Devane was taken at a spectacular reach well off the board, but is likely to be groomed as a fan favorite enforcer in the mold of Georges Parros if he can improve his all round play and at 158th Burke et-al managed to snatch Jerry D’Amigo, a player anticipated to go in the third and who was the Team USA standout at the WJC-U18. Small and skilled, D’Amigo is a speedy and quick thinking two way forward whose selection demonstrated Burke’s willing to bend from an otherwise one dimensional draft.

    Just reading through the Maple Leaf’s draft day threads on the HF boards showed the consensus disapproval at the new and predictable direction Burke was following. For sure it was quirky and certainly outlined a philosophy at odds with building from the draft, but Burke got his men regardless of rankings and made a statement of intent in doing so. Furthermore, his cut and dry attitude to trades at least secured the talent at hand (Luke Schenn).

    Apparently, in the cold light of a new day, heads about Toronto and the world had cooled from the draft debacle and, sifting through scouting reports, people began finding things to like about each new Leaf. While not a recipe for success, anyone (except D’Amigo) of the second day draftees could provide an imposing backbone to a team fronted by the pre-incumbent and diminutive Canadian-Lebanese hero Nazem Kadri.

    Analytically his choice of draft talent also shows Burke is a man short of patience. The Leafs are clearly not about to follow the draft path first cut by the incremental Kings, if anything Burke appears to be shaping a drafting-free agency hybrid more akin to the contemporary Bruins. As an industry standard in rebuilds, a hybrid renovation is none too surprising in an organization anticipating immediate success and, if treated with a feather touch, can yield a faster resurrection while not compromising the end goal. Inevitably the hybrid rebuild has its own pitfalls and the looming UFA deadline will go a long way in highlighting which side of the fence the Burkian Leafs fall.

    On one hand, bringing in depth farm hands in free agency with the long term goal of adding talent through drafts is a solid but time expending route while using the Leafs cap space to jam in square pegged superstars into a round holed future could be disastrous. More pertinent to 2009, the UFA market is peppered with ill fitting medium level scoring talents such as Marian Gaborik, the Sedins and Mike Cammalleri who are either, injury prone, overpriced or unproven. Meanwhile said UFA market is promising to be stocked with an excellent array of character players with individualized talents.

    In the aftermath of Burke’s disappointing draft day and with his seeming irritation with the pieces he has been dealt, one wonders if Burke could yet be another Leafs GM who will bank the future for inevitably short-term mediocrity. It certainly wouldn’t pall to his current line of rhetoric, his infuriation at missing the playoff cut and his determination that the 2009-‘10 Leafs will be an altogether more competitive product.

    Still one has hope that common sense will prevail and that Burke will accept that the Leaf team he inherited needs time to mend and yield at future drafts; after all he’s been here and seen it all before. Sure it would be tempting to pick up a Cammalleri or a Gaborik in the present tense but it would almost certainly be counter-intuitive with a bona-fide superstar such as Rick Nash quickly approaching UFA status next season.

    The one final unaddressed puzzle remaining in Burke’s building from the back ethos is goaltending. With a fully fit Vesa Toskala expected to be paired alongside Jonas Gustavsson next year, it was anticipated that Burke would draft a goaltender in a class brimming with potential net minding talents. This would free up Burke to castaway RFA Justin Pogge whose failure to impress has underlined years of expectation. But while many are now regarding the decision to avoid prospective goalies as further proof the giant Swede is winging his way via Air Canada, the none event has left the Leafs with a fundamental lack of depth in net that can only suggest Pogge will remain in the system next year. That would show some unprecedented faith in a franchise previously too willing to throwaway slow developers.

    With tomorrow marking the real start of the silly season, Burke will have to weigh the frustration of the draft and the knock on his reputation against the future of the organization. While many were calling for his head after Saturday the draft remains a crapshoot that cannot be truly reviewed for a couple of years. No, tomorrow will dictate how seriously Burke intends to manage the cap and take the team forward, not as playoff candidates, but as potential champions. It will be the culmination of the first week Brian Burke properly put his stamp on the Toronto Maple Leafs and the first real point unto which his reign can be defined.

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