There are two distinct stories on the surface of the upcoming Stanley Cup Finals. The Los Angeles Kings play the role of a team built for a Cup run. Deep down the middle, boasting a solid leadership group led by a hard hitting captain Dustin Brown and a veteran presence of Willie Mitchell and Rob Scuderi (who won the Cup with the Penguins not so long ago). Then thereâ€™s their scoring depth, their starsâ€™ willingness to accept lesser roles (Richards, Carter) and great goaltending provided by Jonathan Quick.
Then there are the New Jersey Devils. No matter how you decided to paint the picture looking at the full length of the regular season, the Kings were always in the running for this yearâ€™s Stanley Cup and that percentage didnâ€™t shrink when they traded for Jeff Carter. 8th seed or not, they always had the personnel to make that run. On the other hand, New Jersey took us completely (yes, yes it did) by surprise.
Sure, NOW everyone is quite capable of saying: â€œWell if you think about it, they do have Parise, Kovalchuk, Zajac, Elias, Brodeur is still a solid goaltender with Cup experience and you had to figure they were hungry given their financial situation, Martyâ€™s advancing age and a looming free agency for Pariseâ€. Even if you factor in all that, you still couldnâ€™t have predicted Adam Henrique and the season he is continuing to have, the Devilsâ€™ playoff forecheck (which is, frankly, one of the best Iâ€™ve ever seen), or Kovalchukâ€™s commitment to team effort and his transition into a two way player and playoff performer.
The Devils were, by almost all accounts, a team which would struggle to get past the second round. Sure, some (including yours truly) called them dark horses, but thatâ€™s just an alibi for them not making it, right? Yep, New Jersey was some way behind Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, NY Rangers, Boston as a potential Conference winner. Even if you ranked them next to Washington and Ottawa (who are also a poster team for my yet-to-be-made point) people wouldnâ€™t exactly call you crazy for it. Basically, all you really knew was that they were better than Florida. That disbelief reached the point of some people even questioning their playoff berth at the start of the year (based on their previous season).
What has all this have to do with the Leafs you ask? Well, it are we closer to Florida or closer to being the Devils? “Just get in,” a phrase often spoken by many NHL fans and very much ignored by Brian Burke. Is he wrong in ignoring the one NHL teamâ€™s potential to surprise?
Thing is, anything CAN happen in the playoffs, itâ€™s one of the main reasons we watch hockey at this beautiful time of the year (and because itâ€™s hockey). There is a â€œbutâ€ though. You either need to have the season or the personnel to make it count. An easy way to assess if your team has that is by looking at the trades made at the trade deadline. If the Devils didnâ€™t believe (ok – and werenâ€™t hindered by the cap and impending bankruptcy), their core could do something, they wouldnâ€™t have traded for Marek Zidlicky who was, might as well face it, a much needed but minor facelift.
Be it either out of desperation or out of the pure â€œshrewdness of Lou,â€ the Devils made that deal and gave up quite a lot for that facelift, especially for a team that should have been looking towards the future and preparing for the storm ahead. Zidlicky was traded to the New Jersey Devils from the Minnesota Wild in exchange for Kurtis Foster, Nick Palmieri, Stephane Veilleux, a Washington Capitals’ 2nd round draft pick in 2012 and a conditional pick in 2013. Think about that – No, they didn’t “just” get in, they had to get in and they had the capability to get in and, more importantly, win.
Why didnâ€™t Burke try to get us in the playoffs? Easy – we wouldnâ€™t win in the playoffs, even with a slight makeover. Weâ€™re not even Florida â€“ yet. The Panthers made the playoffs (poor points system, ranking system yadda yadda) without sacrificing any of its future whatsoever. They boast a ton of quality prospect including Jonathan Huberdeau, the likes of whom Leafs Nation can only dream about (this draft included). If he alone isn’t enough the Panthers also have Jacob Markstrom (ranked 8th in the THN’s Top 20 Future Watch prospects) and Nick Bjugstad (19th). Quinton Howden, Rocco Grimaldi and Alex Petrovic might have a word or two to say.
The best case we could have hoped for was Ottawa. Yet, the scoring depth on this team wasnâ€™t quite as good and the derailed Leafs train was never going to make the postseason, let alone make the post season with any kind of traction necessary to make a quality appearance. Thereâ€™s also a question of toughness and size to address. All that canâ€™t be created with one or two moves at the deadline and even if it could, even if that augmented team made the postseason, there are no guarantees. Youâ€™d basically be mortgaging some of your future for a small percentage of a playoff miracle, without home ice advantage and thatâ€™s IF our team made the playoffs.
Burke could have made some people happy for a short period of time, but he couldnâ€™t make those same people happy for an extended period of time (not at this time), which is the goal. And, as the modified saying goes, Burke canâ€™t make all the people happy all of the time. Right now, the happier ones are those looking at the big picture, which is fine by me.
Huberdeau admiration aside, Leaf Land is not barren by any means. Like Rick Dudley pointed out in a recent interview with Dave Shoalts:
â€œI know Leaf fans get down because itâ€™s been a long time and all that but the Leafs are so close to being good,â€ Dudley said. â€œBut if they make those moves, and I believe they will, then I believe this team becomes a good team in a very short period of time.â€
Summer moves, not deadline deals that inflate trade value and are by no means a guarantee. I fail to see any player that was moved at the deadline who would drastically make this team better for longer, especially when factoring in the price (Gardiner plus) to get such a player (Carter and his contract). At this point, given Carterâ€™s performance on a stacked Los Angeles team, Iâ€™m not sure how anybody can argue giving up a player like Gardiner for (basically) 65 point, 30 goal center with a big, LONG term contract (UFA 2022).
Whatâ€™s imperative is that people realize such contracts are a giant gamble, especially ahead of the CBA negotiations, and that banking on the cap going up or amnesty periods isnâ€™t the best way to conduct business. Short term sounds good, but short term also gets you the team Burke started with. If you donâ€™t want that, respect the process. If you do, well, right now, when youâ€™re feeling the consequences, is there even a point to being mad?
â€œGet in, anything can happenâ€ might sound grand, but ask yourself this â€“ is there a single player, not overly big of an addition, someone like Marek Zidlicky for the Devils, who could help this team to win even a round in the playoffs? He might have been just a lonely, not overly big cog they needed to address but the Devils were prepared to pay a hefty price to get him, because they obviously believed that team was capable of winning in the postseason or at least wanted to try to win prior to a possible postseason franchise chaos. If you believe the latter isn’t a big motivator, go ask the Coyotes.
We on the other hand donâ€™t yet have the roster to make winning augmentations nor are we in panic mode. Thereâ€™s getting in and thereâ€™s getting in. The whole hockey world might be salivating over Ottawaâ€™s one year rebuild. Give it time and see if it was indeed that. One season doesnâ€™t prove a whole lot. A lot clicked there – Spezzaâ€™s career year, Karlssonâ€™s wonderful year (can he repeat?), veteran pride kicking in, just to name a few things. What happens next year? The Rangers? They sure were winning a lot of one goal games, whoâ€™s to say it happens next season? Where were they three years ago? Is Florida a real playoff team or a byproduct of Washingtonâ€™s failures and a weak division?
My point is, itâ€™s really difficult to view change as positive until success happens and when it does itâ€™s often so misleading that it makes you think itâ€™s permanent or that it happened overnight. Burkeâ€™s decision making, not all of it, but a good chunk of it, sells the process to me. The Rangers didnâ€™t create their â€œRyan Callahan captainâ€ culture change in a day. It took a coaching change, a more collected Sather and a ton of willpower (not skill) and they still havenâ€™t got a whole lot to show for it, just this one year of success. Nope, no Conference title, no Presidentâ€™s Trophy. This is how fragile success in the NHL really is. Yes, itâ€™s probably true, Dudley was indeed being courteous to a team he was leaving but much of his statement was in fact true.
To have continued success, you have to respect the process. Sometimes, even as a GM, you do your best not to get in. All you want is to compete, but you go against your nature, you do whatâ€™s right for the franchise and you donâ€™t get in. Itâ€™s why the process is hard, but itâ€™s also why the rewards are that much better at the end of it. And when we finally get in, it will most likely look as fast to a New York Rangers fan (in a Burke time frame), as their success looks to you, a wanting Maple Leafs fan. When it happens, much of it will be down to that process and Brian Burke. And you still might hate him for it.