With the lockout in full force, I thought Iâ€™d try to get you all thinking about this actual Leafs team again. Take my word for it: eventually, even if the season is completely wiped out, NHL hockey will again be played and a new Leafs season will begin. When that happens, as is our nature, we will all get back to arguing with each other about various Leaf-related topics. On a chilly Tuesday in the dead of the lockout (snow doesn’t have the same appeal without the Leafs on the TV at night, does it?), here’s ten things to fill your time thinking about:
1. If thereâ€™s one thing that generally got overlooked about the Leafs acquiring James Van Riemsdyk, itâ€™s that he represents a safety net should the Leafs lose Joffrey Lupul to free agency. This is currently the last year of Lupulâ€™s four year, $17M deal, making him a UFA next summer. According to the last lockoutâ€™s rules, heâ€™s a free agent whether there is a season or not this year. We all know the story with Lupul from last year â€“ stayed healthy for the first time in years, teamed up with Phil Kessel to light the league up, was top five in league scoring for most of the year – Â but if he wants to be paid upward of $5M per year over a long term, who thinks the Leafs are going to dish that out with JVR in the fold? Dave Nonis said that JVR and Phil Kessel are part of their main of core forwards moving forward, and when we were speaking with Dave Poulin for Lindyâ€™s magazine, he all but implied that the whole JVR-to-center thing was mainly about getting he and Kessel to begin playing together. This isnâ€™t to suggest the Leafs arenâ€™t going to attempt to resign Lupul, but it is definitely saying that the Leafs donâ€™t have to dish out the dough to keep a guy who is coming off a slightly over point per game season after numerous injury plagued and underachieving ones.
2. Further to that point, if the Leafs donâ€™t resign Lupul or Clarke MacArthur, that leaves a ripe top six winger spot for Nazem Kadri to lock up alongside Mikhail Grabovski and Nikolai Kulemin on the second line. We could then finally get a real, extended look at Kadri in the NHL. Iâ€™d be remiss if I didnâ€™t point out how unfortunate it would be if the Leafs lost MacArthur to free agency after declining to trade him for what was thought to be a conditional pick that could have turned into a second round pick at last yearâ€™s deadline. Itâ€™s not Burkeâ€™s fault there is a lockout, and he couldnâ€™t have completely known at that point in time that a full year lockout was a legitimate possibly, but it would kind of hurt to lose a player like that for nothing.
3. A reasonable time to begin preparing for an impending lockout? The summer, when negotiations were sparse and time was ticking. The Leafs added some veterans to their organization in Mike Kostka, Keith Aucoin, Dylan Yeo while retaining older players like Mike Zigomanis and Ryan Hamilton. The Marlies have played nearly a quarter of their season at this point, and to date kids like Spencer Abbott and Brad Ross have only played five and four games respectively. Other young prospects such as Greg McKegg and Jesse Blacker have gotten into more action, but are being played in limited roles with limited ice time. Sure, everybody wants to see the Marlies win, but at the same time the main priority has to be getting prospects ready to graduate to the next level. The question at the end of the day is this: who has a better chance of being a productive Leaf, five to ten years from now, kids like Blacker, McKegg, Abbott and Ross, or Aucoin, Kostka, and the like? Itâ€™s not a knock against the veterans, most of who have played well, but it is discouraging to see kids not get ice time and develop in the AHL. And it needs to be emphasized that this is still the AHL.
4. Anyway, back to the Leafs. Should the lockout go the full year, Toronto will enter next season with a defense of Phaneuf, Komisarek, Liles, Gardiner, Holzer and Franson, which is what they have now. Assuming Komisarek gets bought out with a prospective amnesty clause Â (admittedly no guarantees there), that opens up the remaining spot for Morgan Rielly to come in and grab it. Regardless, that leaves the Leafs defense with their four best defencemen as Phaneuf, Gunnarsson, Gardiner and Liles, all of whom are lefties. Phaneuf already plays the right side, Gunnarsson has formed a strong pairing with Dion, while Liles is a veteran in the league who has generally played the left side during his career. Point being, are the Leafs or Marlies at this point going to start toying with Gardiner on the right side? Heâ€™s played mainly on the left with Mike Kostka, but it may benefit the Leafs to start getting him acclimated to playing on the right. Even if the Leafs do eventually come to terms with Franson, he hasnâ€™t proven he can be a legitimate top four D-man, and it would take an even bigger leap of faith to expect Holzer to fill that role. Even if Ranger makes the Leafs, he too is a lefty. On top of that, Rielly can still only play in the WHL or NHL next year, and he looks ready for the next level, so it would be a shame to have a logjam of good left handed D in Gunnarsson, Liles and Gardiner blocking the way for him. At this point, itâ€™s not too early to start thinking about next year.
5. I would be willing to bet that, had the NHL season started on time like it should have, the Leafs would have reasonably been comfortable going in with a healthy James Reimer and a Ben Scrivens who was coming off an excellent season in the AHL.This of course takes into account the Leafs not acquiring Luongo. Now, if youâ€™re Brian Burke watching Scrivensâ€™ slow start, it might be making him think twice about what heâ€™ll give up to get a goalie. Itâ€™s still early in the season and Scrivens has only played 11 games, but if he continues to be relatively average â€“Iâ€™m being nice – thatâ€™s going to have to force management to think twice. Itâ€™s funny how the lockout can affect situations like this.
6. Leo Komarovâ€™s time in North America is done for now, but itâ€™s safe to say he made a positive impression. With six goals and nine points in 14 games, he showed he can contribute on this side of the pond, albeit in the AHL, and he was also his pesky self Â (Komarov was suspended for one game and also had 22 PIMs). The most underrated part of his game, though, might have been his ability to be a net presence on the power play, screen the goalie, and bank in rebounds and tip pucks. At the end of the day he probably makes the Leafs as a fourth liner with Mike Brown and either Steckel or McClement centering him, but itâ€™s nice to have a player that can bring you something dynamic like that in the bottom of your roster – that hasn’t been the case in recent seasons.
7. Matt Frattin is always a player that invites popular debate in terms of what his upside is, but the real question has to be this: what are the Leafs going to employ him as? Is there any doubt that he can be a 20+ goal scorer if he plays consistently on the second line with Mikhail Grabovski and gets steady power play time with his shot, skill, and physicality? There shouldnâ€™t be. At the same time, heâ€™s one of the Leafs’ better defensive wingers at the moment and Carlyle likes physical shutdown lines. Everyone can argue about Frattin all they want until their face turns blue, but itâ€™s really in the Leafsâ€™ hands. Considering Carlyle had Frattin playing with Kessel for games at a time down the stretch, my bett is that heâ€™ll see more offensive opportunities than not.
8. The most interesting possible UFA-to-be on the Leafs, to me, is Tyler Bozak. How much does a guy like that get to demand after playing between two wingers who were lights-out? Bozak has his detractors, but he has steadily improved since entering the NHL and is excellent in the faceoff circle. Considering Steckel is also a UFA, itâ€™s not crazy to think that the Leafs let Steckel walk, retain Bozak, and drop McClement to the fourth line. Then again, who would Carlyleâ€™s â€œshutdownâ€ line be centered by if that were the case? With so many UFAs upcoming, a lot of young players on the Marlies, and a relatively deep free agent pool, this team may get a dramatic facelift from the last one we saw when the league starts up again.
9. For your perusal, here is the potential free agent class for next season as of this moment.Â Have fun with the possibilities.
10. Your say: At this point in time, from a Leafs perspective, would you rather watch half of a tainted season, or have a legitimate chance at getting Nathan MacKinnon? Be honest.
With the NHL lockout in full force and not looking as if it is going to end anytime soon, fans are rightfully turning their hockey-starved eyes toward action in Europe and the junior ranks. When it comes to Leafs fans, most are understandably searching out hockey that contains Leafs property, specifically prospects.
The Marlies are primed to compete for another championship, the Leafs have a shiny new toy playing out in the WHL, and the OHL is full of Burke selections. It’s as a good time as any for fans to be watching Leafs prospects. Here are some things to look for and keep in mind while watching these players this year:
- Joe Colborne is a perplexing player for most fans. When he had his now infamous hot start in October, Big Joe shot the puck 27 times. Over the entire season he shot the puck 121 times total, meaning 22% of his shots came in one month. Obviously a large part of his shot production falling off was due to his injuries, but he’s healthy now and shooting is a big part of his game. Many people confuse Colborne for a pure playmaker, but he isn’t just that. When he’s on his game he will take the puck to the net himself and look for his own shot. The more Colborne shoots, the more he draws in defenders and when that takes place his talent, vision, and reach takeover to provide good passes to open teammates. When Colborne is looking to be an aggressor, that’s how you know he’s on his game.
- In the big picture, it also has to be recognized that Leafs management still believes he is a top six center and he’s going to have to show something this year that is concrete and consistent to prove he has the potential. If he doesn’t, it will probably mean it’s time to start figuring out what other roles the 6’6 forward can fill.
- How the pairing of Fraser-Holzer looks, especially against NHL players who are in the AHL due to the lockout, is notable. The Leafs NHL defense is chalk full of offensive-minded defensemen. Holzer and Fraser are the opposite and do the dirty work in the corners and in front of the net and take the body. It would be a very optimistic leap of faith to think these two will be paired together on the Leafs third pairing, but if they were able to handle those duties and kill penalties, it would make the Leafs D a lot more complete and well rounded. It might not make them a good unit, but they would be more balanced.
- By that token, how will Paul Ranger play? The Marlies have struggled on the power play for a few years now and when this was brought up during their playoff run I pointed to the lack of a big shot from the point. They have one now. Ranger has – or at least had — an absolute cannon, plus he moves the puck smartly and crisply. Of course, he’s been out of hockey for quite a while and it’s not as if this sport is like riding a bike and can be picked up again that quickly. It will be interesting to see his adjustment and where he fits in.
- Looking at the defense in general, the top four is going to be interesting. Jake Gardiner and Korbinian Holzer will be there without a doubt. After that, take your pick between Fraser, Gardiner and Blacker. Blacker might seem like the easy odd-man out choice to some, but he was playing in every situation for the Marlies during the season before getting hurt and the Leafs love him. Do you really drop that kind of player with his potential down to the third pairing? Eakins is going to have his work cut out for him.
- Where does Nazem Kadri fit? It will be very telling what position he plays this year. With Mike Zigomanis, Keith Aucoin and of course Joe Colborne on the team, it’s easy to picture him on the wing. If the Leafs have any designs on making Kadri a center though, you would have to think they will shift one of those two veterans to the wing and accommodate Kadri. If he’s playing wing this year, I’m considering him a winger from here on out. In terms of his play, he has nothing left to prove in the AHL as far as I’m concerned. I will be looking to see if he has gotten faster this year, though. He’s never been a bad skater, but players with his size usually need to be well above average in the wheel department and have “breakaway speed.” He’s been working on his core and explosion this summer, so we’ll see if it pays off.
- Carter Ashton scored 21 goals in his rookie AHL season and had a brief call-up with the Leafs to end the year. He’s listed at 6’3, 205 pounds on the AHL website, and he uses that size aggressively, which are two things the Leafs lack. His height would also put him in a tie with JVR as the second tallest forward on the team behind Steckel. Ashton plays a two-way game and grinds in the corners as well as in front of the net. You know Carlyle will like him. The question when it comes to Ashton is whether he’ll be a pure grinder in the mould of Jay McClement – scoring 20-30 points a year – or whether he can be a point contributor who can at least occasionally play in the top six. Whenever you watch Ashton you can expect him to take the body and get “dirty”; what you should be looking for is whether or not he is creating any kind of offense to go along with that.
- Another grinder Leafs fans are looking at is Leo Komarov. The important thing to keep in mind with him is that he’s crossing the pond and adjusting to new surroundings and a smaller ice surface. Let’s give him some time. Often fans and even pundits watch players like Komarov play a few games and draw conclusions on them. The first 5-10 games of the season are an adjustment period.
- How much ice time will the young kids get? I’ve looked at the Marlies roster before and suffice to say it’s going to be tough for players like Greg McKegg, Brad Ross, Spencer Abbott and Andrew Crescenzi to see any sort of substantial ice-time. If these guys are playing under 10 minutes a game routinely, there’s really nothing to say about them. It’s not their fault there is a lockout and this team is stacked with players young and old who are established pros.
- I’m sure everyone will attempt to watch Morgan Rielly at one point or another. We all know he can produce offense and skate; it really goes without saying at this point. The knock on him is the typical one of any D-man who plays offensively – that he struggles defensively. If you get the opportunity to watch him, look to see how many times he’s actually forced to play real, positional defense. He usually doesn’t have to because he’s busy in the offensive zone. During the times he is playing defense, note how his speed covers his mistakes and ask yourself how many times he’s actually making defensive errors. Just something to chew on when it comes to Rielly. He also needs to stay healthy. If he has a full, great year in the WHL, he’s going to challenge to be on the Leafs defense the following season.
- Another guy who needs to have a healthy year? Stuart Percy. A concussion sort of ruined his OHL season, but he showed very well with the Marlies in the playoffs. That said, two straight injury-ravaged years for a prospect makes it very hard to stay on track developmentally.
- And finally, because I feel like if I don’t stop here I could go on forever, what goalie will win the backup job to Scrivens? We know at this point Scrivens is a good AHL goalie, what we need to find out is how good Mark Owuya and Jussi Rynnas are. Whoever wins that spot is basically passing the other on the goalie depth chart.
It’s going to be a long season, especially if there’s no NHL hockey to watch. I encourage everyone to get out and watch other great leagues like the AHL, CHL and NCAA. It’s good hockey. However, please don’t make the mistake of watching a guy once and forming a conclusion on him. If you’re watching the Marlies, ask yourself how these guys fit with the Leafs. We know the Leafs can score and skate, we also know they can’t play defense, hit or kill penalties. With that, there are quite a few pieces on the Marlies that could make sense in a Leafs uniform very shortly.
Even when the Leafs aren’t playing, there’s always a Leafs story to be had. I’m sure you all know that by now.
Brian Burke is not a superhero. He doesn’t have magical powers that allow him to move faster than everyone else. He cannot use pure energy to forge amazing things out of nothing. He’s a normal man trying to do a well-intentioned job – one for which he is eminently qualified – by using the significant earthly resources at his disposal to sort out justice in an incredibly dark, cynical, and complex environment. He’s trying to build future positives from the smoldering pile of ash that was past tragedy.
Brian Burke is Batman.
Yeah, this post is a longwinded beast. And it gets kind of preachy in the middle. I won’t be upset if you bail now. But it’s Friday, and we both know you’ll spend a chunk of the afternoon doing nothing, so it’s here if you need it.
And you should know going in, it wasn’t intended as a pure Burke defense. It may well end up that way after a few thousand words, but honestly, I’m trying to be as objective as possible. This isn’t a “Brian Burke is awesome” vs. “Damn Yankee and his hellions!” discussion. It’s a “How do we see him, and why?” one. I’m a Burke defender, but a pragmatic one – not a blind one.
I won’t argue that his promise of a truculence upgrade has been, to this point, anything but mostly empty. And I can’t say that I ever saw any sense in spending so much time, money, and effort to improve a defensive squad on paper just so that ridiculously-mismatched-with-the-on-ice-strategy roster could fail for three years playing a run and gun style. I will not proclaim to have any clue about why John-Michael Liles’ extension needed to happen when it did, given the player’s health situation. And that whole “not being a seller at the 2012 trade deadline” thing? Seemed seems a bit crazy.
After the [INSERT GIANT VEHICLE DISASTER METAPHOR] that was the 2011-2012 season, defending Brian Burke is not a particularly popular position to take in any discussion, even totally unrelated ones. You could be talking about bunt cake with Gordon Ramsay, and he’d find a way to work in “All that talk of truculence, and they still have maybe the softest forward group in the league. Isn’t that simple to fix? Wanker.”
The Batman analogy hit me this week upon seeing some informal polls and ensuing (largely negative) discussion about Burke’s job performance since 2008. I realized I was seeing, in real life, a story very similar to the one we’ve watched unfold during the past eight years of director Christopher Nolan’s cinematic universe.
(If you’re not a nerd or simply don’t agree, feel free to skip to the comments below and start sounding off. Or come back in about 15 paragraphs when the comic book movie stuff is over. Otherwise, hang on. This is going to reach frightening, unprecedented levels of geek talk.)
Those Batman movies are great because they’re not just flash popcorn superhero movies. They’re legitimately smart. They incorporate real world themes and concepts to ask some very modern and complex questions. They don’t settle for “good vs. evil.” They try and walk a line of morality that’s not easily drawn, and in the end, make a very definitive point about what being a hero means in our contemporary world. That series grossed billions of dollars worldwide, and sometimes – from my perspective, anyway – it feels like not a single person in Toronto saw it.
Here’s the revolutionary thing about Christopher Nolan and Christian Bale’s Batman: Most of the time, people hate him.
Take 2008’s The Dark Knight. This creepy albino guy called the Joker shows up in Gotham and basically says, “Hey, you guys enjoying your lives? Great. I’m gonna screw it all up. Because I find that, like, totally hilarious.” Then he starts killing people, and issues some ridiculous ultimatum that Batman has to publically reveal his true identity before the deaths will stop.
Now the audience – and Batman – know this is utter horseshit. The Joker’s a psychopath, and a liar. So Batman says no. But the public starts to get really ornery. So Batman starts feeling miserable, and Alfred shows up for a pep talk. For anyone not familiar with Batman lore (or just wondering how the hell any of this relates to the Leafs), picture Alfred as Cliff Fletcher but with good advice that people actually want to hear.
Bruce Wayne: “People are dying, Alfred. What would you have me do?”
Alfred Pennyworth: “Endure, Master Wayne. Take it. They’ll hate you for it, but that’s the point of Batman, he can be the outcast. He can make the choice that no one else can make, the right choice.”
He’s right. Actually, old Al is pretty much bang on. Batman is just a character to the public, a symbol, a myth, who cannot be literally taken to task. He knows his reputation is independent of the situation’s necessities. Alfred’s pragmatic, saying it’s fine if people hate Batman, because their feelings about him are irrelevant to the job he does. As long as Batman’s actions serve a greater purpose – the greater good – their opinions are meaningless. This allows Batman to do things that are tough – but also right, and necessary – that others might not have the stomach for, because they don’t match public sentiment.
Wait. It gets better. Not quite Oscar-winningy better, apparently, but that’s a debate for another day.
Batman’s girlfriend ends up pissed at him and starts complaining about this stuff to Alfred, too. Basically, Alfred is the complaint box of The Dark Knight. And that’s fine, because he’s having none of it:
Alfred: “Perhaps [Batman] stands for something more important than the whims of a terrorist, Miss Dawes. Even if everyone hates him for it, that’s the sacrifice he’s making. He’s not being a hero. He’s being something more.”
The “something more” Alfred’s referring to is Batman’s ability to recognize the greater good through the shortsighted noise, do it, and then willfully accept a backlash by those less aware of what the situation really is. Being a hero without being known as one.
Batman ends up taking it all the way. Some beloved public servant named Harvey Dent goes nuts and kills a bunch of people. Batman knows the city’s spirit will break under that news, so he has Commissioner Gordon lie and say Batman was actually the murderer. He full on takes the rap. Why?
Lt. James Gordon: “Because he’s the hero Gotham deserves, but not the one it needs right now. So we’ll hunt him. Because he can take it. Because he’s not our hero. He’s a silent guardian, a watchful protector. A dark knight.”
“What the hell does this movie review have to do with Brian Burke?” – All of you.
Brian Burke is Christopher Nolan’s Batman. Burke arrived in this city with the mandate of building a championship team. Which really means accumulating as many high-level assets as possible, and doing so as reasonably quickly as the system he’s working within allows.
That’s the greater good. Can we agree? Awesome. So what’s the problem?
We’re impatient, and unrealistic. Sorry. It’s true, and it’s 100% our fault.
That agreed upon “greater good” is impossible to do fast within the confines the NHL’s cap system, especially when you’re beginning – essentially – emptyhanded. It requires a longterm approach of asset management and accumulation. Good spot for a Burke-inspired crop metaphor? Imagine a farmer planting his corn on April 29th, and then walking out to an empty field on May 2nd and wondering where all the ripe cobs are. That farmer would be an idiot, wouldn’t he?
You could say Burke inherited Luke Schenn, who became James van Riemsdyk. We’ll give Cliff a point for Grabovski, too. And technically, Reimer was in the system already. But beyond that, I honestly don’t think it’s hyperbole to say Burke started out with practically nothing.
In slightly more than three years of acquisition (because, y’know, he couldn’t exactly walk into a “superstar shopping mall” in November 2008), he’s turned that “practically nothing” into what anyone must admit is an impressive list of player assets. Phil Kessel, Dion Phaneuf, Joffrey Lupul, Jake Gardiner, Nazem Kadri, van Riemsdyk, Morgan Rielly, Jake Gardiner, Carter Ashton, Matt Finn, Joe Colborne, Stuart Percy…and that’s just, in my subjective opinion, the cream of the crop.
There’s no guarantee all the names above will all become anything. Everyone’s always free to debate whether or not those “personnel choices” are correct to begin with, and heaven knows, the current mix certainly isn’t working. But before an organization can contend, an organization must be – at a base level – healthy. And the Toronto Maple Leafs were downright terminally ill when Burke took over.
No one can say that now.
I was in a protracted labour day argument with an anti-fan (definition: someone who hates the Toronto Maple Leafs out of pure spite, only because they are the Toronto Maple Leafs) about this very subject. My contention: whatever specific, situational errors Burke has committed during his tenure as General Manager are vastly outweighed by the colossal improvement in the overall health of the organization.
I’d tend to agree that giving Burke a letter grade at this point is…well, pointless. It would be like reviewing a movie while they’re still shooting it. But that public poll’s result was what prompted the Batman analogy. I thought to myself, “How can people really not see beyond a few specific examples of what Burke’s done wrong to recognize the cumulative nature of what he’s done right?”
It’s not Brian Burke’s fault that the clock won’t spin faster so Jake Gardiner and Morgan Rielly can become NHL stars. It’s not Brian Burke’s fault that he made a largely lauded signing in Mike Komisarek only to have the player undermine the agreement by performing at a level far below what we know he’s capable of. And it’s not Brian Burke’s fault that the other General Managers won’t just “make available” every player that the Leafs want or need at a price less than something that would decimate Toronto’s rebuild more than the acquisition itself would help it.
But he’s blamed for all of those things. Daily.
This Toronto Maple Leafs on-ice product will probably continue to suck if there’s hockey this year, but that’s not because the greater good isn’t being served, and the greater good is Burke’s responsibility. He’s not “on-ice manager.” He’s not “prospects manager.” He’s not “trades manager.” He’s the general manager. His responsibility is organizational, so it’s only fair to evaluate him on an organizational basis.
Do we really believe he does anything not thinking it will lead to the club winning?
Now, here’s where you’ll say the disagreement is – and you’ll be right. I’m arguing for intent. If you want to call him incompetent, and you agree that while Burke’s intentions are good, his execution has been a total mess, you’re perfectly entitled to say it. You could very well end up right once all of this is over.
And I don’t want to seem pretentious about it. Measuring this objectively is a hard thing to do, and I’m not claiming to be great at it. I spent most of August feeling significant anti-Burke sentiment myself due largely to non-movement on the trade front and the general apathy I’ve felt towards the club since their colossal winter/spring 2012 collapse. I saw discrepancies in Burke’s quotes (JULY: “We’re definitely not done, look at the depth chart, we can’t be done.” SEPTEMBER: “We’re done.”), no immediate reason for hope, and a general lassitude toward the sport itself. Add in Allairegate, and you’ve got a veritable rock bottom for the Toronto Maple Leafs in my lifetime.
It’s an easy time to hate Burke because it’s the kind of frustrating time that breeds hatred. But that feeling will be irrelevant as long as the greater good remains intact. Burke’s management team has a proven ability to recognize necessity and act on it, assembling the players needed to be successful.
Now, if your opinion of the man is less than stellar because you simply disagree with his evaluation of those players, that’s fine. That’s debate. And it’s an argument that can only be settled retrospectively. It’s when people claim his mistakes are born of ignorance that I start vehemently disagreeing and writing painfully long, superhero-fueled posts.
Everything you think you know that they don’t know – they know.
I hate to break it to the cynics, but yes, Brian Burke’s vision of a championship calibre team includes a #1 centre and a bona fide #1 goaltender. That he hasn’t acquired them yet isn’t a testament to his supposed ignorance of their necessity. It’s a testament to their availability at a price that makes sense (for established cases), or their place in the development process (for potential internal cases).
These aren’t excuses for his errors. He’s made some. He’s human. And on some calls, he’s been downright wrong. A Tim Connolly doesn’t exactly help the rebuild.
But the fans’ best interest is a team that’s built for perpetual contention in the future. Our best interest is to not make trades that don’t make sense just to say we made them. Our best interest is to let the assets in the system mature and develop into more capable versions of themselves, even if it means waiting through some frustrating losing while they gain the experience necessary to be winners. For my money, Burke’s time in Toronto has been spent largely furthering those best interests.
At the end of the trilogy, (SPOILER WARNING)…
…(who are we kidding, it’s been out for two months, if you haven’t seen it, you don’t care)…
…Batman saves the city and they realize he’s been a hero all along, and then they build a damned statue of the guy. A Batman statue. Seriously. They love him that much. He’s gone, they think he’s dead, and so they build a stone version of him inside City Hall for the sole purpose of permanently worshipping the guy they all misunderstood.
Burke’s lived that story once in Vancouver. If he lives it again in Toronto, it won’t be fair. But I guess, if the world has taught us (read: Leaf fans) anything, it’s that fairness isn’t an entitlement.
Burke takes the rap as a figurehead of the city’s problem, and the shared frustration that we can’t live in the kind of world we want. He’s working tirelessly to fix it, and we hate him not because he isn’t doing it – but because he isn’t doing it fast enough.
Public sentiment might run him out of this town. Whether or not you, the reader, contributes to that sentiment is a personal choice. If your interest is seeing immediate success as a sort of relief to the perpetual losing we Leaf fans have suffered for the better part of ten years, then feel free to hate on Brian Burke for not providing it. Heck, you can criticize every individual player decision he’s made wrong, and you’d be totally right.
But if your interest is in seeing a properly revitalized and constructed organization contend for a long time with Stanley Cup-shaped success…well, it seems to me that’s the greater good. Feel free to think differently, but respecting that greater good means respecting the process it takes to get there. And that Batman guy…well, even though he’s sort of an insane recluse, he usually seems to have a handle on it.
That doesn’t change the truth. We have watched a lot of on-ice terrible product before and since Brian Burke became the Leafs’ GM. Some of it his fault, most of it not. Fans in this city have earned the right to complain, if for no other reason than their never-ending patience. So, if it gives your fandom meaning, feel free to blast the job Burke’s done.
All it means is that if the Toronto Maple Leafs win a Stanley Cup with a roster that was significantly assembled by Burke, he won’t be a hero. He’ll be something more.
…and just because I can’t not include it:
We had some Leafs news yesterday as Francois Allaire announced he isn’t returning and we found out the extent of Joe Colborne’s injury.
When it comes to Colborne’s injury, I’ll say a few things quickly.
Leafs management knew Joe was hurt in January, yet he played the rest of the year. To our knowledge, he didn’t further damage himself further physically by doing so but he didn’t play nearly as well as he was prior to the injury. To put it in perspective, Big Joe had 23 points in 22 games before hurting his hand, and only 16 in 43 after the incident. Colborne had surgery in June and is hoping to be back for October, which is over four months of recovery. He would have been back roughly around April/May had he gotten surgery immediately upon being injured.
Many fans have been wondering why Colborne played even though he was hurt, but ask yourself this: Would you rather have had him play those months injured, deal with that adversity and struggle down the second half of the AHL season but get to play in that playoff environment and pressure; or get surgery in January, miss basically the rest of the season, maybe comeback out of shape for the playoffs at some point, but be healthy and ready to go coming into this year?
I’d like to think he gained something by playing hurt all that time, but maybe that’s just being optimistic.
Anyways, here are 10 thoughts on Francois Allaire’s departure:
1) Couldn’t help but think about Ken Hitchcock when Francois Allaire made his announcement. Hitchcock, you may recall, was really put through the shredder when he was fired by Columbus. Many said he was out-dated, hadn’t changed with the times and that the game had passed him by. It led to articles like this to be written about him. Sounds familiar to the criticisms Allaire takes, no? Of course, last year all that prehistoric Hitchcock did was guide the Blues to a division championship, first round playoff victory, and win a Jack Adams. It’s amazing what these coaches do when they have good players at their disposal. It will be interesting to see if Allaire’s NHL career continues from here and how he does.
2) Many blamed Francois Allaire for ‘ruining’ Jonas Gustavsson, but many forget that Gustavsson was actually coached by Allaire before coming to the Leafs. During February this year, The Monster told the Post, “I’ve been working with François [since] before I came over here and I tried to play that kind of game back home too.” If you believe Allaire ‘ruined’ him, then he ruined the very product that he helped assemble.
3) Francois Allaire’s presence helped the Leafs recruit goalies such as Ben Scrivens, Mark Owuya and Jussi Rynnas. Both Scrivens and Owuya attended Allaire’s camp this summer and Reimer had nothing but good things to say about Allaire yesterday, too. Even though he’s no longer technically apart of the organization, it would appear that he’s going to still have an influence on some of the goaltenders on this team.
4) Brian Burke, from Behind The Moves: “What we’re selling free agents – like when we recruited Jussi Rynnas in April 2010 – is, ‘Look, we’ve got the best goalie coach in the world, and our Marlies team practices in the same building as the big club. You don’t only see the goalie coach three days a month, like most minor-league goalies; you see him 10 days a month.” It will be fascinating to see if the Leafs are able to recruit any other goalies here during the rest of Burke’s tenure. Whether you believe Allaire is the best goalie coach in the world or not, you’d have to think any prospective free agent goalie and agent will be asking Burke, “According to you, you had the best goalie coach in the world here, how on earth did you piss him off enough for him to want to leave? What kind of goalie environment is this for me to learn in?”
5) On that note, as I’m sure many have seen, Francois Allaire had some rather sobering comments regarding the organization yesterday. In particular, “To be honest, I don’t think the Leafs need a goalie coach. I think they have enough of them. They have two or three guys who were making decisions with the goalies.” There are many pot-shots taken at Burke for his large management and coaching staff, but the whole point of it is to hire the best available people at each position to do their specific job, and then leave them alone to do that job. Clearly that wasn’t happening in Toronto last year. Is this whole notion of a mega-staff not plausible, or are the people apart of the staff simply not executing and instead sticking their noses where they don’t belong? Everything seems to avalanche when you’re losing.
6) This quote from Reimer was also something: “I think there was some confusion last year and a couple of misunderstandings. I don’t know if everyone clicked last year. There was some trouble in some areas and … I don’t know if I want to get into it that much or comment on it too much. But I know that there were times when he was frustrated that we didn’t have more time to work on some stuff.” This made me think of Ron Wilson’s choice words about the goaltending last season. It’s just speculation on my part, but you could see how moments like those could foster everyone “not clicking,” and having internal controversies and arguments. On one hand, you had a coach in Wilson fighting for his job and thinking that the only way he could win was to outscore the teams problems. On the other hand, you had a goalie coach preaching patience with a long-term vision and asking for a more defensive-minded approach to protect his goalies. As Allaire said yesterday, “It’s difficult to have the numbers when you’re not playing defensively.”
7) I dug up this quote from Francois Allaire earlier in the year, when he responded to being asked if whether he was frustrated or not: “I had the same thing in Anaheim. We have to build something and you cannot do that overnight, OK? So I have been through that process. When we had Giguère, we were 15th overall in the West … So you have to build up and build up and build up and build up. And when I came here three years ago, the only goalie that we had basically was Reimer [coming] out of the [ECHL] and nobody [knew] about him, and Toskala was going out of the NHL no matter what. So we have James, and after that we tried to put through a process of recruiting guys, because we don’t have any draft choice. We don’t have any. So we have to recruit four guys in a hurry. And we have to build up those guys in a hurry again. But when you see the progression of James getting out of the [ECHL] to the NHL in a year-and-a-half, that’s a quick progression. A really quick progression. But that’s what we have.” He appeared highly committed to the process here. Things must have been really bad internally for him to essentially walk out on the team; that quote is from just this past February.
8.) Even though articles like this are part of the problem, we have to remember that, ultimately, if any of the goalies in the Leafs organization are going to be successful it is squarely on their shoulders to do so. Surely nobody is naïve enough to believe that players make the NHL without any help whatsoever, but in 9/10 NHL cities losing a goaltending coach is not news. At the very least, it’s not news the way this Francois Allaire departure has blown up. The Leafs have managed to actually bring in some goaltending talent over the last few years and it has begun to develop nicely at all levels. You know what’s more important than a goaltending coach in Toronto? Actually supporting the goalies on the ice with strong defensive play.
9) On the positive side for the Leafs, it appears much of the organization is going to be receiving a clean slate and fresh look. Obviously, Randy Carlyle is still relatively new behind the bench and he brought with him long-time assistant coach Dave Farrish to guide the defence. The Leafs also hired Barb Underhill as a new skating coach and it appears they already have a new goaltending coach in Rick St. Croix. It remains to be seen what kind of impact these relatively big coaching changes will have as the new voices instructing the players, but for Burke’s sake, they better get the job done. It’s doubtful he’s going to get the opportunity to fire and hire another head coach should this all not workout.
10) In regards to St. Croix, he’s been coaching with the St. John’s IceCaps and has previously been a goalie coach of the Dallas Stars overseeing Eddie Belfour and Marty Turco. So, he isn’t exactly a no-name sieve. On his goalie-school website he lists his four pillars of goaltending to be balance, angles, rebound control and save selection.
As with everything new this off season, only time will tell.
As the old saying goes, you have to learn how to walk before you can run. For a Leafs team that finished 25th out of 30 teams last year and has made few changes so far this summer, the Maple Leafs are still very much in that walking process.
The big changes Leafs fans hoped for haven’t quite come to fruition as of right now. The Leafs were one of the youngest teams in the NHL last year, crumbled down the stretch, and have to this point only made three noteworthy roster changes this summer by bringing in James van Riemsdyk, Jay McClement and freeing a roster spot up for Korbinian Holzer. Thus, if the Leafs do improve next season, it will mainly be due to internal growth and development from the same group that totaled 80 points last year.
When fans and pundits evaluate teams from year-to-year the most obvious thing to do is to look at who has been subtracted and added to the line-up. Because Burke and co. have made such minimal changes, we are forced to look passed that. Instead, let’s take a look at the roster that’s returning and some of the areas where internal improvement is possible, hopefully leading to some more wins.
The first area the Leafs are looking for an improvement from is the least experienced position on the roster: goaltending. James Reimer and Ben Scrivens have combined for 83 games of NHL action in their careers and right now they are set to basically double that by this time next year provided there’s a full season. Reimer is the one guy in particular that the organization has committed money and term to, and they have also vocally backed him as a long-term number one goalie.
The simple thing to say is that things can’t possibly get worse than they were last year when Reimer got hurt, Gustavsson was hot-and-cold, and the team even had to turn to Jussi Rynnas for a bit. However, that seems to be more optimism than anything else. Since beginning his junior career ‘Optimus Reim’ has only twice played more than 50 games in a season. One of those times was two years ago when he played 52 combined games between the Leafs and Marlies, the other was his second year of junior hockey when he played 60 games. That’s seven seasons worth of hockey and only two, somewhat full workloads. Before any questions are asked about whether he can give the Leafs the level of goaltending necessary for them to succeed, we have to simply ask whether or not he can stay healthy first.
On the positive side Reimer has played well at all levels of hockey and has shown he can carry an NHL team for a good chunk of the season. The hope is that he learns from his tough year, comes back a little more focused, resilient, and prepared for what it takes to be a Leafs net-minder and improves. Some like Reimer, some don’t, but he’s a good goalie. He’s certainly not a goalie who gives up over three goals per game like he did last year. The .900sv% he posted was also the lowest of his career at any level where he’s played over a prolonged period of time. It’s doubtful he repeats that. Plus, it’s unlikely that a guy with Reimer’s character returns and has a second consecutive bad year.
Backing him up is Ben Scrivens. Is he an upgrade over Jonas Gustavsson for next season only? That’s tough to say. Is he a better fit with Leafs goalie coach Francois Allaire though? Yes. That’s relevant because goalies need consistency at all times and they can’t be second guessing things constantly if they are going to succeed. Scrivens has obviously played very well at the AHL level and proved he could handle a starter’s workload in that league. If Reimer rebounds as hoped he won’t be asked to be a saviour in net this year. He’ll simply be asked to give the Leafs a good 20-30 games and that is something he’s ready to do. Scrivens has gotten his feet wet in the NHL already, and is not only physically ready, but mentally ready as well. Both goalies are also going to mesh much better with Randy Carlyle’s system of hockey as opposed to Ron Wilson’s.
That brings us to the defense.
For the first time since the Leafs had the Bryan McCabe and Tomas Kaberle duo, Toronto is set to return a solid top pairing. The tandem of Dion Phaneuf and Carl Gunnarsson isn’t flashy but they showed last year that they could play reasonably well together against the oppositions best players. The 2011-12 season represents Gunnarsson’s first year against top players, and only Phaneuf’s second full year against top players—worth noting Phaneuf looked much better this year in that role compared to his first try. With the hope of improved goaltending and the expected shutdown line to be formed under Carlyle – along with the fact that Phaneuf and Gunnarsson will have a year’s experience of playing together to build off of – the Leafs now have some sort of steady foundation on the backend to look forward to.
After the top two, the rest of the defense still has to come together but there are still logical areas for easy improvements. Jake Gardiner had 20 points in his last 40 games of the season last year, while John-Michael Liles was on pace for a career high 50-point season prior to being concussed. The chances that both of them keep those paces up all season, along with Phaneuf’s expected 40+ points is high unlikely (there aren’t an infinite amount of points to be distributed). But, one of them will have a very good year on the top PP unit with Phaneuf, while the other still produces modestly in a secondary scoring role. Don’t forget Cody Franson, either. He got off to a rocky start under Wilson, but did show flashes on occasion—most notably a seven point outburst in 10 November games. Carlyle didn’t appear fond of him either as he scratched Franson amid rumours of him not being happy with Franson’s practice habits, but the talent is there for him to help this team out should he play consistently, get in a groove, and see steady PP time.
That leaves Korbinian Holzer. The young German may not ever become what Luke Schenn has the potential to be over the next five years, but he is certainly capable of replacing the mediocre 16:02 per game that Schenn was giving the Leafs last year. Plus, he can kill penalties and clear the front of the net.
Up front, the Leafs are currently returning the top seven scoring forwards that contributed to the 10th highest scoring team in the league (plus, they are adding James van Riemsdyk). The leading scorer of the group was obviously Phil Kessel, who is an elite point producer and should be expected to produce similar numbers to what he did last season moving forward. Meanwhile, Joffrey Lupul and Tyler Bozak might be hard pressed to repeat the seasons that they just had; however, the Leafs have more than a few forwards coming off of down years. Nikolai Kulemin had seven goals, Clarke MaCarthur dropped 19 points (and is now in a contract year), Tim Connolly had his lowest points per game since the lockout including just five PP points, Matthew Lombardi had a career-low in points, and Matt Frattin took 18 games to get his first NHL point. That’s five players, all of whom possess varying degrees of talent, who have a lot of room to improve next season. Even Mikhail Grabovski and his 51 points last year can be bettered if his linemates begin finishing more consistently. There were a lot of nights last year when passes were bouncing off Kulemin’s stick and MacArthur was nowhere to be found; that altered Grabovski’s game.
There’s also, of course, JVR, Jay McClement and probably one wild card –Kadri, Komarov, Colborne, whoever– that are going to be added to the group giving it a little more size, skill, and versatility. Last season when the Grabovski line wasn’t producing, Ron Wilson didn’t have many good options to change things around. His options were basically a rookie Matt Frattin, Connolly on the wing, an unsure Lombardi, and Joey Crabb. This year there’s a few more possibilities to play with as the Leafs forward depth is growing. Frattin showed a steady progression throughout the year and should be much better suited to play in a scoring role moving forward. The addition of JVR will push a former top six forward down the line-up, so now that player will be waiting for his chance to get back up there, and dare we say Kadri looks ready to be a full-time NHLer?
When it comes to Carlyle as the new coach for the year, it’s probably safe to say that had he been hired over the summer his acquisition would probably be being met with much more optimism. It wasn’t “sexy” to have him coaching the Leafs when they were firmly down the gutter as the season came to a close, but it gave him a very good look at the work that’s ahead of him while also giving him a feel for the players on the team.
As far as whether he makes this team better though, I think that’s hard to say either way. There could be legitimate cases made as to why Carlyle might do a good job in Toronto, and why he might not. It was only a few years ago Ron Wilson came in as a highly regarded coach, and now he’s left with a tarnished legacy in Leaf-land. It’s best to wait and see here.
At the end of the day, when it comes to where the Leafs could internally improve from last season to the one upcoming, most of the improvements aren’t exactly earth shattering. That’s not a huge surprise considering the Leafs haven’t been overly active throughout the summer. This team finished with 80 points last year. If some of their players rebound while the others continue playing well, it could mean a few more wins and 6-12 more points – which places them actually in the playoff hunt – but still more than likely on the outside looking in. Unless a player takes a big leap forward –Reimer/Scrivens in net? JVR working at center? Gardiner on D?—this is still a team on the bad side of the playoff bubble.
But things aren’t all bad. There is plenty of room for internal improvement should this group remain the same when the season starts.
They might not be running yet, but they aren’t exactly crawling either.