Leafs still putting together a mediocre puzzle


Photo: TheStar.com

Now that we’ve seen Brian Burke meet his annual off-season quota of wheeling and dealing, it’s time to sit back for a minute – much like the Leafs have. With only defenceman Luke Schenn left to re-sign for the blue and white, it seems as though we’re at a “what you see is what you get” stage in the building process for the upcoming season.

It’s likely that the lineup we’re currently looking at will primarily make up the Leafs‘ squad in October.

There are, however, a few spots left to fill. Burke and the Leafs brass will likely hold off on any more additions and allow prospects to compete for a place in the lineup during training camp – which seems like a pretty smart move.

Over the past week, the team has gone ahead and made a few minor upgrades, adding center Tim Connolly and defenceman Cody Franson, while they hope Matthew Lombardi could suit up for a game or two in the next two years. But while these moves have been carefully executed and well thought-out as to not hurt the team or put them in a salary cap crunch, the group up front is still terribly mediocre compared to other teams throughout the league.

There were a number of pleasant surprises for the Maple Leafs this past season - most notably the MGK line, and of course James Reimer. We know what to expect of our lone elite talent in Phil Kessel, and the defence is of no real concern to me, personally.

But when I look at the projected lineup I still notice that the Leafs are still terribly imbalanced in regards to their attention to defencemen over forwards. The reason this is sort of startling is because I can easily recall having the same concern last summer.

Even with Tomas Kaberle leaving, the Leafs still have over 18 million tied up in the back-end after adding John-Michael Liles, another acquisition I was pleased with.

Eighteen million seems like a fairly low number. But that’s without a Schenn signing (expected to be around 3-3.5 million per year), no Jeff Finger(3.5 million for one more year), and we also must consider that Keith Aulie and Cody Franson are restricted free agents next summer and will command more salary.

The fascination Burke has with adding more defenders is truly something to behold. I mean, if Aulie and Schenn, for example, weren’t in the lineup, would this defence corps look bad? Probably not. Haul out Gunnarsson and Komisarek and are the Leafs struggling? Doubtful.

Burke made reference to this again recently, via the National Post;

“I think we used 10 defencemen when we won the Stanley Cup in Anaheim. I think you need to have depth at that position. It’s a wear-and-tear position. Players get injured. I think you need depth. And it gives you assets to put in a trade. We’re in a position to move a defenceman if we need to or want to.”

I’ve heard this one before. And it isn’t that I necessarily disagree with this approach, but the way things have been going make it a tad bizarre that Burke hasn’t unloaded a defenceman or two for real help up front outside of a futures package like the Colborne deal.

I sort of admire Burke’s lack of urgency to make the playoffs, but at the same time I’m puzzled by it.

I mean, this is the third real chance for Burke’s team to bring about some results. The club showed some improvements toward the end of last season, but unless they nab a playoff spot in the coming year, you’ve got to expect some major heat for the general manager (I won’t even include Ron Wilson in that discussion, he’ll be long gone if the Leafs aren’t above .500 by Christmas.)

I admire some of the work Burke has done since coming into the fold with the Leafs, and I think his moves this off-season have been well though-out and safe. But I look at the forwards still without a real top line center – hoping for Tim Connolly to appear in 50-60 games or so – and I realize that this team is one Phil Kessel groin-pull away from being out of the hunt early.

If Reimer doesn’t hit elite goaltending numbers, the team is in trouble. Even an injury to Mikhail Grabovski would be a crushing blow, throwing the MGK line out of whack.

You could probably say these types of things about a number of teams. But this is my favorite team, and they haven’t played a playoff game in almost a decade.

While I don’t consider myself to be acting negatively over the Leafs’ current situation, I realize that the stars really have to align for the team to make the playoffs next season. And if things start looking bleak heading into camp or the team starts to fail early in the season, Burke may have no choice but to deal a defenceman or two – likely someone that a lot of people won’t want to see leaving Toronto.

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