What can Burke do at the trade deadline?

What can Burke do at the trade deadline?

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Photo: TSN

Consensus among the insiders has it that we’ll see a fairly low key 2012 trade deadline come and go this February 27th. With the number of buyers heavily outnumbering the sellers as of early February, the most entertaining part of trade day may well come in watching TSN’s army of panelists struggle to produce eight hours of analysis on the Jaroslav Spacek and Hal Gill trades (and a lot of this).

As far as the Leafs are concerned, it doesn’t appear their primary need will be met this deadline given the current market on top six forwards with size (not that a true “market” for this asset ever exists). Additionally, Burke’s need to go on the offensive in trade negotiations has been greatly diminished by his team’s results since the New Year, a 10-5-1 stretch during which his club has shown improvement and good chemistry.

After last night’s game in Winnipeg, which dropped the Leafs’ record as the “tired” team down to 1-5-1, it is as good a time as any to talk about an area Burke could and should look to improve before the deadline passes. The Leafs’ reliance on speed and rush offense, a sometimes singular attack, seemingly lets them down in the second half of a back to back, when the Leafs’ speed advantage is reduced. It demonstrates a need for an added component; a forechecking/cycle dimension from a checking line that can make a positive difference, especially in a tired situation or when the speed game isn’t working.

Leafs record as the tired team, courtesy of Gus Katsaros.

The Leafs have been heavily outshot and have struggled to score when playing tired, indicative of their reliance on a speed game. You can see the same problem when the opponent does a particularly effective job of taking away the neutral zone. Successful retrieval off a chip and chase, followed by an effective cycle, is a rare sight among the current Leafs forward group. That’s not the the style of game the top six plays, and so far Wilson hasn’t found a consistently capable third line that can get in on the forecheck, crash and bang, and wear down the opposing D with a good hard cycle. If Burke waits until the post-season (if the Leafs indeed qualify) to find out, a grueling playoff series may teach a harsh lesson.

As the market for top six forwards with size is all but nonexistent at the moment, perhaps where Burke can add is the third line. A big bodied third line forward with some scoring touch, preferably one with ample playoff experience, could help turn the Leafs’ third line into a more effective supporting trio and add a different dimension to the attack. Such an addition would not disrupt the chemistry of the top six, either.

We’ve talked about the Leafs having more of a “top 9/bottom three” forward makeup earlier in the season, but I don’t think that’s necessarily proven to be the case. I’d argue the Leafs do have a definitive top six at this point, and a rather ineffectual bottom six. And with the way the top six plays, the Leaf attack requires a new component in the form of a checking line capable of cycling and testing the opponent physically; Wilson and his staff have not found one consistently.

The Tim Connolly, Colby Armstrong and Matthew Lombardi line has come off as a rather ragtag combination so far. Lombardi wants to rush north-south, Armstrong (or Crabb) wants to establish a forecheck, and Connolly wants to stop up at the blueline and work a passing game. It’s a line that lacks a clear identity; as Declan put it in a conversation last night, it’s “neither a production or a checking unit.”

It’s safe to say the Leafs did not envision employing Tim Connolly in a checking line center’s role when they signed him to a two-year, $9 million deal on July 2. That was a role the brass had Tyler Bozak penciled into back in the summer. But, as it turns out, Tyler Bozak’s improved speed and understated strength in one on one puck battles, in addition to the playmaking skill, has proven a better fit alongside Lupul and Kessel. Lupul and Kessel’s success alongside Bozak has made it a non-decision, and combined with the rejuvenation of the Mac in the USSR, Connolly has fallen by the wayside of late.

The Leafs have to try to keep Connolly involved offensively, as it would be a waste of resources not to. It’s just a tough situation at the moment. The addition of a big body with some measure of skill on the opposite wing of Armstrong could give the third line a better forechecking presence, while Connolly roams for loose pucks in the space the other two generate.

Just imagine a Leafs team that can bring speed and skill off the rush and in transition as good as anybody in the league via their top six, while also possessing a line that can crash and bang and wear down the opponent. That type of multi faceted attack is a scary thought and it would hypothetically position the Leafs better for playoff success.

Now, the addition of any one player may not ensure Wilson can carve out an effective checking line, but it seems worth the attempt, especially if it adds some playoff experience in the process. What names could be available that would meet this need? I’ll leave that to the rumour mongers, but it seems like an area Burke could realistically improve without moving heaven and Earth.

Alec Brownscombe is the founder of MapleLeafsHotStove.com, where he has written daily about the Leafs since September of 2008. He was also the editor of the 2009-12 Maple Leafs Annuals. You can contact him at [email protected]