Backchecking: Leafs have a long way to go

Scott Cullen
11/28/2008 1:10:30 PM
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After months of rumours, general manager Brian Burke is finally coming to Toronto, charged with the task of fixing a Maple Leafs franchise that has been a mess for quite some time.

Interim GM Cliff Fletcher has actually been quite efficient in the moves he's made since taking over from John Ferguson Jr., but even with that little bit of progress, there is so much more that will need to be done to end the Leafs' Stanley Cup drought.

If we were to operate on the assumption that Burke's Stanley Cup-winning team in Anaheim is something close to his ideal style of team to put on the ice, then what kind of moves would be necessary to shape the current Toronto Maple Leafs into something resembling that Ducks team over the next couple of seasons?

It's going to take a lot of work, as only a handful of the current Leafs would seem to fit the kind of player that Burke has used to be successful in the past.

Burke has infamously described his ideal checkers, "In our bottom six forwards, we look for the requisite level of pugnacity, truculence, belligerence, hostility and testosterone."

It's not like Brian Burke doesn't appreciate skilled players, as he has enjoyed success with the likes of Markus Naslund, Henrik Sedin, Daniel Sedin, Brendan Morrison, Andy McDonald, Teemu Selanne and Scott Niedermayer -- all of whom are generally pacifist-type hockey players.

But, when it comes to the depth guys, expect players that are going to play a physical game and won't be afraid to drop the mitts when necessary. In fact, they may even go looking for it on occasion. Rest assured, though, they will be difficult to play against.

And Burke comes with a character reference from Ducks defenceman Chris Pronger, who told the Globe and Mail, "He's a great guy to play for. He always has your back and is always looking out for the best interest of the team. You are going to know where he stands. If you're on the trade block, he will tell you. If he tried to trade you and there were no takers, he'll tell you."

From the sounds of things, Burke may have several conversations in the coming months.

First, a look at the Ducks team that won a Stanley Cup in 2007:


Now, compare that to the current version of the Maple Leafs, a team that currently sits 12th in the Eastern Conference, 26th overall in the NHL, with 20 points through 22 games.  

Obviously, it's going to take some time to re-make the current Maple Leafs roster into something resembling the 2006-2007 Ducks.

The first players for Burke to deal with will be those with expiring contracts.

Expiring in 2009
Antropov (UFA) - Should be a valuable trade chip as part of a rebuilding effort. Given what teams have paid for top-six forwards in recent seasons, getting a first-round pick plus a prospect in return isn't an unreasonable expectation.
Moore (UFA) - Has played well enough as a checking centre, but doesn't necessarily play with the kind of edge that Burke seems to desire from his grinders. Under the surface, there is also that touchy bit of history with Dominic's brother, Steve, as well.
Grabovski (RFA) - Rookie leads the Leafs in scoring and may be part of the long-term plan (as an Andy McDonald or Brendan Morrison), though it's hard to imagine both Grabovski and Stajan manning the top two centre spots on a Cup contender.
Hollweg (RFA) - Hasn't done much but get in trouble for hitting from behind, but Burke had Jarkko Ruutu in Vancouver, so he's not inherently against having an agitator. Even so, Hollweg is easily expendable.
Deveaux (RFA) - Gets first shot at the enforcer role and has 20 fights in the AHL since the beginning of last season (regular season and playoffs), but isn't the kind of policeman that Burke had with George Parros in Anaheim.
Joseph (UFA) - The end can't come soon enough.

Expiring in 2010
Ponikarovsky (UFA) - Big, hard-working winger who could fit as a third-liner on a good team, though his paycheque may be exceeding that role.
Stempniak (UFA) - Not a bad comparable to Chris Kunitz, a college winger who can work the corners and score some goals in a second-line role.
Stajan (UFA) - Emerging as an offensive contributor this season; should get a chance to build on his strong start.
Kulemin (RFA) - Rookie winger is playing well enough, but will need to score more to hold a spot among the top six forwards.
Mayers (UFA) - Has a team-worst minus-9, but does play the gritty style that would seem to fit with Burke's expectations.
Mitchell (RFA) - Hustling rookie is getting a chance to play, but will have to keep improving to hold a spot on a good NHL team.
Kubina (UFA) - Has a limited no-trade clause, but if the Leafs miss the playoffs again, he could be moved next summer.
Van Ryn (UFA) - May have been Toronto's been defenceman when he got hurt.
Frogren (UFA) - Hasn't played much, but is a stay-at-home defender who may fit in a depth role on the blueline.
White (RFA) - A healthy scratch early in the season, he's moved into the lineup and played well lately, which may improve his value around the league.
Stralman (RFA) - Promising puck-moving defenceman; probably too soon to give up on him without getting something significant in return.
Toskala (UFA) - Play this season has wiped out his trade value, but if he can string together a good stretch of quality starts, he could bring some decent assets in return.

Long-term contracts
Blake (2012) - Prime candidate for a buyout, if he's not simply waived to the minors unless his play turns around dramatically.
Hagman (2012) - Underrated free agent signing has played well and not a bad fit in a complementary role.
Kaberle (2011) - Doesn't have Niedermayer's wheels, but his playmaking, puck skills and limited physical involvement are similar. Has a no-trade clause, but TSN's Darren Dreger says that the Leafs could get a significant return for him.
Finger (2012) - Perhaps a tad expensive for what he does, but certainly capable of playing top-four minutes.
Schenn (2011) - Handling a heavy load as an 18-year-old; could be an impact player in a couple of seasons.

None of the prospects on the way should be considered blue-chip, but they are assets that can either develop with the Leafs or be used to acquire players more suited to Burke's style.

Some of the top prospects include:
Jiri Tlusty, LW (1-4-5, even in 10 GP with Marlies)
Justin Pogge, G (6-6-2, 2.71 GAA, .901 SVPCT in 14 GP with Marlies)
Dmitri Vorobiev, D (3-10-13, plus-8 in 27 GP with Lada Tolyatti in KHL)
Jimmy Hayes, RW (6-2-8 in 11 GP with Boston College of Hockey East)
Chris DiDomenico, C (9-19-28, plus-10 in 21 GP with Saint John of the QMJHL)
Mikhail Stefanovich, C (10-14-24, plus-4 in 22 GP with Quebec of the QMJHL)
Chad Rau, C (9-11-20 in 14 GP with Colorado College of the WCHA)
Viktor Stalberg, LW (6-6-12 in 13 GP with Vermont of Hockey East)

Going into next summer's free agent market, here are some players that have played for ever-loyal Burke that are headed for free agency and may be of interest once again:
From Anaheim: Samuel Pahlsson, Travis Moen, George Parros, Brad May and Francois Beauchemin (the Niedermayers are too, but given that Scott flirted with retirement once already, he's probably a pipe dream)
From Vancouver: The Sedin Twins and Mattias Ohlund will be free agents at season's end

It's a big job, but Burke is getting a long-term contract so that he can get it done. A high draft pick in the 2009 draft plus some room to move under the cap in the summer of 2009 should give the Leafs a dramatically different look by next season, perhaps even by the trade deadline this season.

- The Buffalo News suggests it's time for the Sabres to ship out RW Maxim Afinogenov, C Tim Connolly and D Teppo Numminen, while hoping that the Sabres might be able to put together a package for Florida D Jay Bouwmeester. The Miami Herald notes that the Panthers are trying to make deals, with Bouwmeester being the most popular name in rumours. The Ottawa Sun chimes in, noting that the Panthers are looking for someone to fill the No. 1 centre void created when they dealt Olli Jokinen to Phoenix. The Newark Star-Ledger says that the Devils will surely be interested in Bouwmeester's services as well.

- Capitals rookie D Karl Alzner tells the Calgary Herald that Washington is trying to make trades after telling him that he would get a chance to play in the NHL. Alzner played more than 21 minutes in his NHL debut this week.

- Noting Montreal's continued interest in Mats Sundin, the Ottawa Sun wonders if the Canadiens might consider moving Alex Kovalev to help create the cap room necessary.

- The Ottawa Sun has the Flames quietly shopping veteran D Adrian Aucoin.

- The Philadelphia Inquirer noted that there were rumours of the Flyers dealing RW Mike Knuble in order to create room to sign Brendan Shanahan, but Knuble's strong play has put that idea on the shelf.

- According to the Ottawa Sun, the Senators have been getting lowball offers for D Christoph Schubert and LW Antoine Vermette.

Notable Recent Healthy Scratches
Dustin Penner, LW, Edmonton; Rostislav Olesz, LW, Florida; Henrik Tallinder, D, Buffalo; Maxim Afinogenov, RW, Buffalo; Dustin Byfuglien, RW, Chicago; Brendan Morrison, C, Anaheim; Kent Huskins, D, Anaheim; Matt Niskanen, D, Dallas; Nigel Dawes, LW, N.Y. Rangers

Scott Clemmensen, G, New Jersey (3-2, 2.60 GAA, .909 SVPCT in last 6 GP)
Matt Hunwick, D, Boston (3-3-6, plus-5 in last 5 GP)
Jay Bouwmeester, D, Florida (1-4-5, even in last 5 GP)
Ryan Malone, LW, Tampa Bay (3-3-6, minus-2 in last 6 GP)
Curtis Glencross, LW, Calgary (3-6-9, plus-2 in last 7 GP)
Loui Eriksson, LW, Dallas (4-3-7, plus-5 in last 5 GP)

Ron Hainsey, D, Atlanta (0-0-0, minus-7 in last 4 GP)
Craig Rivet, D, Buffalo (0-1-1, minus-4 in last 7 GP)
Peter Mueller, C, Phoenix (0-1-1, minus-5 in last 7 GP)
Alex Tanguay, LW, Montreal (0-0-0, even in last 6 GP)
Mike Ribeiro, C, Dallas (0-0-0, minus-1 in last 4 GP)

"If you are pushing that little snowball, it gets bigger and bigger and before long you won't be able to move it." - Oilers G Dwayne Roloson, on his slumping team

"Our dad is proud of us." - Avalanche C Paul Stastny, after his first NHL matchup against his brother, Blues C Yan Stastny

"I think it hit some snow and I kind of just overskated it. You can't do that when the best player in the world is three feet behind you." - Islanders D Andy Sutton, after a turnover to Sidney Crosby

"It happens to everybody." - Canadiens D Ryan O'Byrne, after scoring on his own net (Really, it does?)

"It takes 10 minutes to decide a goal is not in, which we knew a long time before that, it wasn't in, but we waited and waited. You have the momentum you want to play. When you have the momentum, you don't want to go for coffee." - Wild coach Jacques Lemaire

"Chris never quit on any of his saves and we threw everything but the kitchen sink at him. I think we did throw the kitchen sink, too, and he stopped that." - Predators G Dan Ellis, after Blues G (and former Predator) Chris Mason stopped 47 shots to shut out the Predators

Scott Cullen can be reached at

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