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Managing Heated Summer Expectations

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Photo Credit: The Star

Brian Burke is mad. Make no mistake about it, he’s mad about missing the playoffs. Despite what is written/said down below, Brian Burke is mad, not elated:

“It’s hard to see a positive when you have the finish we had,” said Burke. “There are some positives, some building blocks. The pieces you need, the Phil Kessels, the Jake Gardiners, the Dion Phaneufs, the second line. All those things have been put in place. That’s what can’t be overlooked as you dissect the season. Even a season that’s marked by failure, I think we’re going in the right direction. It’s very hard to see that today.”

Leafs Nation is the greatest hockey fan base in the world, no two ways about it. But that always comes with a price. Elevated expectations, partially self imposed by the team’s uplifting performances, are always present. However, unlike seasons past Brian Burke and his (for all intents and purposes) team doesn’t have the luxury of time anymore.

“It’s not easy to fix a team that’s broken. I had no delusions. I watched GMs get up on their first day and say: ‘I’ve got a five-year plan.’ They’re buying five years out of the gate. I don’t respect that. My view is I was hopeful to do it quicker. We haven’t. But I haven’t changed the plan.”

Faster, quicker, sooner or later, slower, more conservative, it doesn’t really matter at this point, not for Burke. Unlike seasons past (not that he ever did this) we can’t justify the coaching profile and Wilson’s style of play impacting Burke’s personnel decisions. After all, he hired Carlyle and, judging by past experience, their marriage is made in a truculent hockey heaven.

He now has pieces to win with if, and only if, he makes smart decisions over the summer. It’s his summer, his alone. Don’t be fooled, it is a key summer. On one hand, Burke has to make sure his team is competitive in what will surely be his last season with the team if they miss the postseason. That kind of attitude and pressure (not that Burke’s self imposed pressure to win agitates him any less) isn’t the healthiest of atmospheres under which to conduct trades.

On the other hand, Burke has to make sure he doesn’t “cheat the franchise” by making moves strictly for the short term. Luckily, this writer is of the opinion that the man has too much credibility for that and he hasn’t shown willingness to make dealings of this nature in the past. Pressure certainly rose, but I think his principles will endure.

Funny thing with principles – even though this writer fully supports them he can’t argue that they constantly benefit the organization. They may be a good thing for the aforementioned part of the equation, but it has also shown to be a hindrance when signing big ticket free agents (like Parise, but that’s a story for another time). Few value principles as Burke does.

Could it be that they are all part of the plan? Since this is a very shrewd NHL GM we’re talking about, quite possibly. Nobody knows what the next CBA is going to bring, and few could fully convincingly argue that Burke is making a mistake by not going long term for a big ticket free agent. Without knowing the next CBA, arguing that would be foolish.

Like MLHS‘ own Michael Stephens pointed out to me, Burke is just waiting for the long term contracts to become a problem for a lot franchises. To fully quote Michael:

“I honestly maintain that Burke, and a few other GMS, organize their team/franchise building with an honorable and pessimistic mind-set. If it doesn’t pan out, don’t plan a position for a decade even with cost benefit.”

One can surely argue Grabovski here. If Grabo’s situation had indeed cornered him into overpaying and committing that amount until 2017-18 out of fear where the “What to do without Grabo” situation would put him/his team than why would we expect anything different this summer? Without tongue in cheek I’ll try to argue that, although the situation without Grabo would be dire, Burke knew who he was paying for and why. Was it too much? Probably. Can we all agree that Grabo is a vital cog and probably the hardest working skilled forward on our team? Yes.

As for moves that didn’t pay off, there was always Tim Connolly. But we can’t argue this: Connolly was a stopgap with proper damage control in terms of term. So yes, he didn’t exactly provide what he was supposed to provide but one can argue he was misused at times and, to add to that, Connolly fit the profile of available skill. This summer, bet your bottom dollar the Leafs go with grit.

People keep claiming that this team needs a talented center to play with Phil Kessel, and I always agreed. But is this our primary need? No. If you’re shocked by this answer ask your self this – honestly, has Phil Kessel underperformed this year? How far do you think Phil Kessel is from reaching his NHL peek? Is our offense really the reason the Leafs missed the postseason?

This team needed good goaltending, solid team defense, physical presence in the corners and veteran leadership a whole lot more than it needed a more potent offense, at least while Joffrey Lupul remained healthy. Therefore, I’d expect increase in size, improved goaltending, an “in your face” attitude switch. I expect our new skating coach Barbara Underhill to work some magic with the “quickness of foot” of some of our defensemen and locker room guys who can prevent a truck from going off a cliff. Only then will I expect a centerman to play with Phil Kessel.

Oh yes, the draft. Expect the Leafs to draft a forward with high upside who could contribute sooner rather than later (not to stray too far from that 5 year plan). A lot of scouts slated Mikhail Grigorenko as the most NHL ready forward in the draft and from what we’ve learned he was scouted pretty heavily by the Leafs. Not only would that suggest all that’s written above but it would also mean that Burke intends to move up, if possible (Grigorenko probably won’t be available at our current draft position).

Last but not least, expect improved goaltending. Burke already said that he still views Reimer as a future No1 Leafs goaltender and that he’ll probably be looking for a solid veteran backup to help with the load (or step up if necessary). Keep in mind that this was quite some time ago, back when Luongo/Thomas weren’t exactly on the market. Luongo has as much baggage (emotional and financial) as he has goaltending skill so I’m not sure how this impacts Burke’s dealings in the future. What I will say is that good goaltenders tend to save rear ends of GMs. Realistically though, all we can expect at this point is that goaltending is a position which will be definitely be improved. This most probably means Gus is gone, regardless of how fair that is. Principles tend to stop at sub par goaltending.

All in all, it will be an interesting summer, more so given the fact the Wings, Sharks and Canucks made an early playoff exit. Burke said there are going to be changes and this climate certainly does nothing to argue against it. As things stand now, with hindsight as an ally I’m not sure I trust Burke to hit with just about every summer move he makes, but I’m quite sure every move he makes will still be for the long term benefit of this franchise. When you combine that with a man who hates to lose and a favorable climate, this writer suddenly doesn’t want to bet against a perfect storm – even when a slightly less perfect one would probably be good enough.