Brian Burke has always argued the fact that July 1st is his draft, the time where he does his best work in bringing in key pieces that will push his team to that next level. Â While he isn’t inept on the draft floor, it isn’t his strength. Â To his credit, it’s something he doesn’t necessarily hide either.
And while this summer’s free agent frenzy is more calm than in the previous years, there is no doubt that through free agency, and the days leading up to it, that Burke took steps towards continuing to shape this team in his vision. Â The moves have been made, and barring any sort of changes, this may well be the team we see enter training camp in under a month. Â With that in mind, it’s time for Leafs Nation to ask, exactly how will the new faces fit into place in Toronto?
On June 26th the Leafs GM made a small move that didn’t resonate much in the papers or online forums, but one that could have more of an impact on how the season plays out than people realized at the time.
Burke made a deal with his former team, the Anaheim Ducks, to acquire gritty veteran forward Mike Brown, in exchange for a late round draft choice. Â The acquisition of Brown could turn out to be bigger for the Leafs than many gave credit for on the day it was made. Â A hard working forward who leads by example, Brown could have an impact on the bottom six that Wayne Primeau had one year ago, and should aid the penalty kill as well.
Burke’s first big move in that direction was on June 30th, when he got a jump on the “frenzy” by acquiring skilled forward Kris Versteeg from the Chicago Blackhawks in exchange for three prospects. Â The Hawks were in the midst of making moves to clear cap space following a Stanley Cup winning season, and Versteeg was among the many casualties.
A fast skating forward with a great wrist shot and imagination, Versteeg will bring an added dimension to the offense which should take some pressure off of Phil Kessel. Â While the deal was maligned by some in Leafs Nation who were hesitant to give up prospects, especially considering Toronto’s track record of doing such, it is hard to argue the fact that the Maple Leafs got a top six forward, without having to give up their biggest asset at the time (Tomas Kaberle.)
There are detractors out there who point to his production being tied to playing with more talented players in Chicago, but the argument can also be made that he tallied during the regular and post season, all the while playing third line minutes. Â His role in Toronto will no doubt be greater, and if Bozak and Kessel can find the chemistry they in the last half of the season, adding Versteeg to that line may make up a dangerous trio.
On July 1st, Burke went out and put a much rumoured union into play when he announced that the club had signed winger Colby Armstrong to a three year contract.
Armstrong is a gritty, physical forward who, thus far in his career, has been a perennial 10-15 goal scorer, although he does have a season where he netted 22 under his belt. Â It is yet unclear as to what role “Army” will play with the Leafs. Â While many see him more as a player who can play third line minutes, taking the body while scoring timely goals, it may be possible for him to crack the top six with the Leafs lack of depth up front.
Armstrong seems lined up perfectly to be the Leafs next version of Darcy Tucker, and although fans of other teams wouldn’t look at that as a compliment, truth is, it may be setting the bar pretty high for Armstrong, at least in the hearts of Leafs fans.
Tucker of course became a fan favourite with the Leafs when his reckless abandoned style of play, paired with his ability to score powerplay goals. Â He was one of the true Leafs players in the last decade that bled blue and white, and his heart and soul personality endeared him to Leafs fans.
Brett Lebda is another player signed in the offseason by Leafs GM Brian Burke, and while it seems, at a glance, as a head scratcher, the signing could well go down as one of those frugal signings that allows the team to reap the benefits during the course of the season.
Lebda, though small in stature, is a steady defenseman who has good speed and a great first pass, and as someone put it to me on the night the deal was announced, if Mike Babcock and Ken Holland trusted him for the last couple of years, he has to be a pretty good defender.
Defenseman are like good arms in baseball in the way that a team can never have too many. Â Depth defenders can turn out to be just as important in the long run as the big name signings, as the Chicago Blackhawks and Nick Boynton can attest.
Meanwhile players like Nazem Kadri, Marcel Mueller, and Jerry D’Amigo also come into Leafs training camp with a chip on their shoulders. Â Players who feel their time is now to crack this roster and make an impact in the National Hockey League.
Free agent periods are not as easy as NHL11 on your X-BOX or 360 make it to be. Â It takes a careful eye to find the right players who will fit the right situations, and with the Toronto Maple Leafs, one could argue that Brian Burke has done just that.
He has found more scoring for the top lines, a move that will take pressure off of Phil Kessel, who had a great season last year, despite being routinely keyed on and double teamed.
He found grit and heart that the team has been laking for the past few years. Â And he found youth who are ready to make the big jump and prove they can be the real deal.
Gone are the days of summer periods where the teams biggest acquisitions were players who, though talented, were nearing the end of their career, or just not long term answers.
Try as they might, the Toronto Maple Leafs may finally be starting to get it right.
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