If you’re like me, you’re a big fan of the progress Brian Burke mustered in his first two and half seasons as Leafs GM. Starting out with Matt Stajan and Jason Blake on his first line, Luke Schenn pretty much the beginning and end of the club’s prospect depth, and without tanking for a high draft position, Burke managed to add two elite pieces (Phil Kessel and Dion Phaneuf) and considerably increase organizational depth while still managing to make three first round picks in his three drafts in Toronto.
And if you’re like me, you’re disappointed in his club’s lack of progress since the 2010-11 campaign ended on a high note. No reasonable fan saw the Leafs as contenders this season, but it was the expectation the Leafs would take another step forward in the path towards contention. As of late February, 2012, it’s been a baby step at best. 62 games into the season, the Leafs are only three points ahead of their position on February 26, 2011 (62 vs. 65 points). Four points out of a playoff spot, seven out of second last, and 28th in the league in goals against. This was the year the Leafs were expected to be more consistent and to avoid their perennial season killing slump typically reserved for the first couple months of the season. The emphasis this season was to come out of the gate without digging themselves in a hole – which they did so promisingly – Â but as we’re learning now, the type of 1-7-1 skid the Leafs are currently riding can derail your season no matter what month it transpires in.
You don’t have to be onboard with Steve Simmons’ latest garbage to be pissed off at the lack of progress this season. It’s a worthwhile question to ask – what has held this team back so far from making the stride forward we all expected this season?
For one, even his most ardent supporters have to concede Burke’s off season work has been disappointing. Franson – acquired via trade – appears to be a useful piece going forward, but his other summer additions outside of Clarke MacArthur have flopped across the board. Mike Komisarek, Tim Connolly, Matthew Lombardi and Colby Armstrong make a combined $15.5 million and their best redeeming quality is that their contracts expire after next season. Just how much has this held the club back this season has to be considered; the fact that Burke opted to rebuild the way he did means he has to get his free agent acquisitions right. There’s no top five draft talent coming into the league on entry level contracts on this team as the theme has been on many recent Cup winning teams. He traded for his elite talent in Phaneuf and Kessel and both were already on big ticket deals. This isn’t intended as a criticism of a rebuilding approach I rather respect – and Peter Chiarelli pulled it off in Boston with a Cup ring to show for it – but to make the approach work Burke has to get his valuations right. His trades have been 90% genius, his signings have been 90% off the mark.
Fortunately, Burke got one thing right with those deals; none were terribly long term, and the Leafs will not be burdened for much longer. He also has flexibility of possibly moving some of the above names because he isn’t hamstrung by contract duration.
Two, the goaltending dilemma isn’t solved. Burke now faces the probable need to move out some of the assets he’s amassed in order to solve this team deflating issue. Fortunately, the Leafs have enough depth at a number of positions, including the goalie position itself, to try to get themselves a true number one netminder.
Third, his team hasn’t made any noticeable strides when it comes to an effective system of team defense. Does this fall on the coach, the goaltending, or lack of player execution? Depends on who you ask, but I think there’s a case to be made that all of these factor in, and the fact that the Leafs remain a bottom five team in goals against for the fourth season running agrees with the logic that there’s more than one point of failure here. There’s nothing more corrosive than terrible goaltending, but at the same time we’re seeing a lack of execution of the basics when it comes to defensive play. And the consistency of this lack of execution suggests there’s a disconnect between coach and player, or that the system flat out sucks. So that’s coaching, goaltending, and execution wrapped into one succinct-as-possible answer as to why the team defense sucks.
Then there’s the fourth question – does Wilson have the pieces to implement an effective system given the goaltending provided and the lack of options when it comes to style of play? I had someone ask me the other day: “how can Brian Burke’s team so badly lack a physical side to their game?” It’s a valid question. To a certain extent, Burke has acknowledged the need for his team to incorporate a higher skill to plumber ratio, if you will, in order to compete, but my answer ended up being that “it wasn’t intentional.” Brian Burke spent his first two and a half seasons as Leafs GM accumulating assets and organizational depth whatever way he could. He did whatever it took to add assets and it seems he’s ended up in this spot unintentionally. He certainly didn’t plan on Matthew Lombardi and Tim Connolly constituting two thirds of his third line, let’s say that much.
At this point there’s three big areas of concern Burke is looking to resolve; goaltending, team defense, and team toughness (particularly at the forward position). This is the time of year when the biggest mistakes are made and champions are rarely crowned, and with his team in a horrendous funk, it’s not the ideal time to start the heavy lifting. Burke has said he won’t be sacrificing all he’s worked for the last three years in a panic move to squeeze into eighth place, but – long term considerations in mind – I expect Burke to get started and make some sort of shake up before the deadline passes. After his team fell flat in the biggest game of the year to date in the midst of a crippling slump, sitting out the mayhem on the sidelines doesn’t seem like an option anymore.