When Brian Burke officially came to Toronto he told everyone exactly how he wanted the Toronto Maple Leafs to play hockey.
He wants his team to be tough, physical, entertaining and to fit into a top six/bottom six scheme. Fans of the Leafs were giddy after his opening press conference. This team would no longer be soft. This team would no longer be pushed around.
Fast forward three and a half years later and they are arguably softer.
So what’s happened? This vision Brian Burke had for this team has not come to fruition at all. Did he abandon the plan? Did he all of a sudden wake up and decide he no longer likes toughness? No. He’s just built it – or at least is attempting to – in a way that none of us saw coming. Especially after he essentially started his tenure by trading two first round draft picks and a second for Phil Kessel.
Besides Kessel, there are – based on contracts, status, assets used to acquire the player – only five other players currently on the Maple Leafs that are essentially locked in as future Leafs. They are Mikhail Grabovski, Dion Phaneuf, Jake Gardiner, John-Michael Liles and Luke Schenn.
Some will argue Luke Schenn, and there’s no way I’d sit here and say the Leafs wouldn’t trade him, but you do not lock up a player to the kind of contract they did without intentions to have him as a solid piece of the organization for years to come.
I also suspect Nikolai Kulemin may join that group this summer depending on what happens with his contract situation.
After those select players – and again, other than Schenn, none of those other five are leaving anytime soon while Burke’s still here – it is essentially open season on the Leafs roster. Why is that the case? Essentially two reasons:
1) The management group has failed to bring in quality free agents over their time here.
2) Brian Burke is ironically attempting to build the majority of this team through the draft, despite the Kessel deal.
To the first point: Any which way you cut it, the Leafs have just flat out been terrible when it comes to free agency under Burke’s watch. Mike Komisarek is the poster boy, but Tim Connolly, Colby Armstrong, Brett Lebda, Colton Orr, and Jonas Gustavsson haven’t exactly worked out either considering the financial commitments and expectations laid upon each of them by the Toronto brass.
I think it’s fair to say that, upon coming here and saying he has no patience for a five year rebuild, Burke misread the direction of the free agent market. He probably – and I’m just making an assumption here – believed that he could add impact players through the free market to add to, and support, his core. His initial moves would all seem to support that, too. He acquired a young all-star sniper, brought in the top college free agent center, signed the “best goalie not in the NHL,” and had a few other young toys to play with such as Viktor Stalberg. He supplemented that by packaging assets to acquire the big defencemen he loves to build his team around. But throughout all of that he has failed to surround these particular pieces – some good, some bad of course – with any sort of substantial support cast or high level of talent.
Instead we’ve been left to watch Phil Kessel play with the likes of Joey Crabb, Matt Stajan, Alex Ponikarovsky and Tyler Bozak. All players well below his talent threshold, even if some of them are effective in other areas. Only this year, when Burke gambled on Joffrey Lupul, did we finally see some substantial payoff from and support for a star player Burke has brought in.
Dion Phaneuf on the other hand has been forced to play with Francois Beauchemin, Keith Aulie and Carl Gunnarsson. All can be contributors, but are any the high impact defencemen that we envisioned Burke complementing – or even bettering ,- Phaneuf as his partner? No.
Sure, Clarke MacArthur was a pleasant surprise last year, and Tyler Bozak is absolutely a contributor, but are either going to be long-term pieces here? I’m not so sure.
With that all said, and with the clear failings of free agency signings by this group, it has to be noted that this does not compromise the long-term vision of this team. That’s no excuse for the failed signings, because let’s be honest, if the Leafs picked up some impact players for free over the last few years they’d probably be a playoff team this year, but it is to say that the identity, the blueprint, the “plan,” or whatever you want to call it, is still there.
Look who Brian Burke has drafted early each year of his tenure in Toronto. We’ll only look at the first two rounds because those are really the “money” rounds of a draft that should consistently be churning out NHL players. Nothing against rounds 3-7 -and some will inevitably argue round 3 should be looped in with the first two, but they just aren’t of the same quality. Worth noting here that 44 of the top 60 scorers this year were drafted in round one or two.
Year One: Nazem Kadri, Kenny Ryan, Jesse Blacker. Yes, Kadri plays a skill game, and even though he’s relatively small he does throw his weight around and is occasionally a “head hunter” out on the ice. Just ask Paul Martin. Kenny Ryan is in the ECHL, but Jesse Blacker is another player along the lines of Kadri that has skill, but also hits, fights and is a bit of a “dirty” player (in a good way) if you want to call him that.
Year Two: Brad Ross. This guy was considered the biggest agitator in the draft class and has been compared to Darcy Tucker for years (this is not news to pretty well any Leaf fan at this point).
Year Three: Tyler Biggs, Stuart Percy. Percy is a cerebral guy who isn’t very physical but the real key here is Tyler Biggs. Already 6’3, 210lbs. That pretty well speaks for itself. Loves to hit, fight, get dirty and so on.
So in these two money rounds we’re essentially looking at one very skilled player who delivers a big hit once and awhile, a defenceman with bite, an agitator/pest/whatever you want to call it, and a big hulking winger. Add in some draft selections used to bring in potential legitimate enforcers in Jamie Devane and David Broll, plus picks used to select high compete grinders in Sam Carrick and Jerry D’Amigo, who both look like they have some degree of promise.
On top of that, there have been moves made to bring in young, big players in Carter Ashton and Joe Colborne plus acquiring – or attempting to in one case – and grooming JFJ picks in Korbinian Holzer, Matt Frattin and Leo Komarov.
There’s a consistent theme of size, “truculence, pugnacity and testosterone” and any other term you want to label it. Now, am I sitting here saying it will work? Far from me to make that sort of comment in regards to how every single one of those guys will fit into the puzzle, but the long-term view is there. It always has been.
This year, Burke finally got the coach that fits the mold now, too. So is it all coming together? They have the coach, the Marlies are doing great while being led by all these young and often big players and the Leafs have assembled some degree of talent. Who knows? Time will tell and that question will be answered much better after the summer once we see who else is drafted/traded for/signed.
But let’s not suggest Burke has lost sight of what he’s wanted to do all along. The majority of his moves have been made with an eye towards the future – again, it’s ironic considering the Kessel deal – but he unfortunately hasn’t been able to bridge the gap for these young players by bringing in productive free agents. It is, however, no coincidence that the Leafs have seven forwards who will be free agents next year.
Leafs management has pretty well refused to mortgage the long-term for any sort of short term additions and gain.
What Burke does next is anyone’s guess now. With so many players in the organization seemingly ready to take their games to the next level, the management group has to evaluate who still fits what they’re doing moving forward (based on roster spots/progression/growth/position) and then move out who doesn’t for players who can help them now.
Again, that will be a conversation to have at the end of the summer. But for now, it’s pretty clear to see what Burke’s plan is. It’s the same plan he always told us he wanted to develop. People can debate the Tim Connolly signing until their faces go blue, but at the end of the day it doesn’t really matter. Burke never committed to a player like that to be a long-term piece of this organization. Bad signing? In hindsight, probably. Detrimental acquisition? No.
In Vancouver Burke drafted the Sedins and Ryan Kelser and then patiently waited for them to develop as he also acquired a power forward in Todd Bertuzzi and a number one defenceman in Ed Jovanovski. He waited for the team to grow. In Anaheim he had Corey Perry and Ryan Getzlaf very close to being ready along with several other strong contributors in the fold. In Toronto he had Nikolai Kulemin, Luke Schenn and Mikhail Grabovski. Work has been done to add more core players to those three and players have been drafted that fit the mold of what was always laid in front of us.
Is it perfect? No.
Is it being completed in the time period we thought it would take? No.
Is it the identity Burke told us he wanted to establish? If the draft picks pan out, yes.