Optimism 2.0: Leafs fans getting ready for the big O, part two


When Brian Burke became the new general manager of the Toronto Maple Leafs in November of 2008, Leafs Nation embarked on a new journey.  A new beginning.  With Burke at the helm, the Leafs organization finally had a general manager who had credentials.  Who had a winning pedigree.  Who had the exact type of attitude the Toronto market needed.

A man who wouldn’t take any nonsense from anyone, and a man who wasn’t afraid to pull the trigger on a big move that may set the team up for the better in the long term, a characteristic it seemed so many Leafs GM’s lacked in between the time of Fletcher’s first run, and Burke being christened as the new head of the front office.

Finally, Leafs fans were able to legitimately talk about the “Big O”, and they weren’t faking it either.

With Brian Burke and Ron Wilson in town, the Leafs management began laying a foundation for what they hoped would be a model of what a successful franchise should be.

Adding talented people like Francois Allaire, Dave Poulin and his old running buddy David Nonis to the fray, and it appears that Burke has taken care of the front office, something that is an absolute necessary first step for a team to return to prominence.  For a GM to have men in place that he completely trusts to do the job to the best of their ability goes along way, not just in helping the GM in every day activities, but in the overall grand scheme of the team make up.

Everything after that, begins to take care of itself.

And in the 2009-2010 NHL season, it appeared it did, although you’d be forgiven if some fans in Leafs Nation, or many outside of it, didn’t quite see it that way.

In actuality, in what was really Brian Burke’s first full year as the general manager of the Toronto Maple Leafs, many significant steps were taken toward making this team a legitimate team that fans can once again be proud of.

It started in the offseason, when Burke began to make his mark on draft day.

He had a tense on floor standoff with Senators GM Bryan Murray, virtually bullying him while mic’d up for TSN, seconds before coming to the podium in Montreal to a chorus of boos, before proudly selecting Nazem Kadri 7th overall.

Burke was busy on day two as well, grabbing serviceable players who appear to be on the fast track to becoming players that the Maple Leafs organization can use.  While they still have a long ways to go, one can not help but be impressed with the strides taken by Kadri, Blacker, Ryan, and D’Amigo in their first year as a Leafs prospect.

Burke also dipped his toes into the college free agent market, winning the services of Tyler Bozak and Christian Hanson, both of whom have made significant impacts with the Toronto Maple Leafs, albeit in different roles in the past 82 NHL games.

Hanson is coming along nicely as a solid third/fourth liner who always keeps his feet moving, works hard when he is on the ice, and has a knack for using his size to go to the net.  Hanson does the little things well that sometimes don’t necessary show up on the scoresheet, but are important in earning victories.

Bozak, for his part, earned a mid-season call up and began scoring at a pace that would have had him lead all rookies in scoring, had he played a full 82 games.  Bozak found a very comfortable home riding shotgun with resident Leafs sniper Phil Kessel, Kessel of course being the first 30 goal scorer on the Leafs since Mats Sundin and Alex Mogilny, but more on Kessel as we digress.

Aside from the two mentioned above, Burke also won the right to sign Swedish goaltender Jonas Gustavsson, a highly touted free agent goalie who had many suitors, much like Bozak and Hanson, and decided to sign with the Maple Leafs, just like Bozak and Hanson.  And that’s to say nothing of prospects Carl Gunnarsson and James Reimer who also made strides this year.  And the mentioned above are really just a sample of Leafs prospects that have progressed forward in their projections.

And while there are a lot of reasons these players chose to sign in Toronto, immediate playing time among them, another reason was Brian Burke’s clear and concise vision for this team, and his belief that he could turn it into a contender.

Simply put, Brian Burke brought credibility to this team that they were sorely lacking, and made Toronto a sort of destination place for free agents.

The draft, however, was just the beginning of Burke and his staff putting their stamp on the Blue and White brand.

As Canada Day rolled around, Burke was busy making his moves through free agency that would help to shape this team further in his image.  Unlike years past where veterans were sought, the emphasis for Toronto in the summer of 2009 was signing players who were just hitting or nearing their prime.  Players who could help the team now, and in the long term.

The onus was on defense, which has been a sore spot for the Leafs for a number of years.

Mike Komisarek and Francois Beauchemin were signed, Garnet Exelby was brought in via trade.  It’s fair to say that none of these players had the year that they wanted, but in the interest of fairness, it’s also to say that it wouldn’t be fair to assess the signings, or the defense as a whole, until we see them play further.

Komisarek started slowly, and then was injured, putting him on the shelf for lengthy periods of time, before shutting down for good early into 2010.  Beauchemin, for his part, pushed himself to be more than he was.  Always an effective shutdown player, Beauchemin tried too hard to make a difference for his new team, and the results were bad pinches which cost his teams goals against.  To his credit, Beauchemin admitted as much about the trying too hard.

Exelby never did make the impact with the Leafs that he had with the Thrashers, where he became known as one of the hardest hitting defenseman in the NHL.  Personal theory by myself states that being scratched so often perhaps made Exelby more cautious, scared to make any one mistake perhaps that may cost an odd man rush.

On September 18th, Burke pulled off one of his biggest moves as a GM, trading away 1st round picks to the Boston Bruins in exchange for sniper Phil Kessel.  A controversial deal from the start, it’s still much scrutinized by many in Leafs Nation and around the NHL.

On one hand, Kessel held his end of the bargain, scoring 30 goals in an injury shortened season, with little to no help up front.  On the other hand, the Leafs dismal record could see the Bruins draft a future superstar.  It all depends on how you want to look at things; Are you okay with the deal because Kessel proved he can be counted on as a perennial 30 goal scorer, or are you still upset because rebuilding teams should never trade away their first round picks?

No matter how you feel about the deal itself, one thing is for certain.  We no longer have a patsy GM who is scared to shake things up, scared to reach out and make the big move.  Brian Burke was brought in to be the GM of this team in part because of his brash, confident attitude, and that includes pulling off blockbusters like the Kessel deal.

And little did Leafs fans know, it wouldn’t be the last blockbuster Burke would pull off in the course of the season.

While the Leafs clearly weren’t having the season they wanted on the ice standings wise, it was easy for some fans to see that strides were being made.  Young players were getting their chances, and playing quite well.  Phil Kessel was healthy again, and scoring at a good pace, and the Leafs were almost rid of all their bad contracts, and very little holdovers remained from the pre-Burke era.

And those holdovers who remained, were jettisoned in blockbuster number two which took place on January 31st.

Brian Burke made two separate trades, both of which will have extreme emphasis on the Toronto Maple Leafs future.

The first was a deal which saw longtime Leafs Matt Stajan and Ian White, along with veterans Niklas Hagman and Jamal Mayers traded to Calgary.  In return the Leafs acquired a quality penalty killer in Fredrik Sjostrom, future shutdown defenseman Keith Aulie, and potential building block defenseman Dion Phaneuf.

Moments later, Burke pulled off another deal, this time pulling off the near impossible, trading the near valueless Vesa Toskala and Jason Blake to the Anaheim Ducks in exchange for an old friend, goaltender J.S. Giguere.

The impact Giguere and Phaneuf have had, not just on the ice, but off of it with the younger players, has been a positive factor the Leafs.

With that, Burke had virtually re-defined the Toronto Maple Leafs.  Tomas Kaberle remains the only holdover from the previous era (unless you count Jeff Finger, who was brought on with Cliff Fletcher) and if you believe the word, Kaberle may be exiting stage left quick soon as well.

With those deals, Burke had completely turned over the Toronto Maple Leafs, adding tougher, more skilled players, all the while cultivating an attitude that players have bought into.

It’s a little step, and there is no doubt a long way, but for the first time in a long time, fans can breathe easy, knowing that their team is in good hands, and headed in the right direction.

And with the season over, and with sixteen teams that are not the Toronto Maple Leafs competing for the Stanley Cup, it’s time to get ready for the big O again.  It’s time watch Brian Burke work his draft magic, although this year he may need the help of Criss Angel is he hopes to pull off something special.  Then the free agency period will see him again attempt to cultivate the right players for the right roles.

it is all part of the plan, and although it seems easy to question at times, at the end of the year, it’s hard for members of Leafs Nation to admit that we aren’t farther along right now than we were one year ago at this exact time.

The big O.  Optimism.

With a leader like Brian Burke at the helm, and players like Kessel, Phaneuf, Gustavsson, Giguere, Bozak, Hanson, Grabovski, Gunnarsson, and others, it isn’t hard to see why the optimism level is perhaps at an all time high in Toronto.

And this time, we aren’t being fooled and led on by parlour tricks.  Brian Burke may be a magician of sorts, but there is no smoke and mirrors.  He’s showing us all his tricks.