After missing the playoffs for the fifth straight season, finishing with their fewest points since 1997-98, the Toronto Maple Leafs are rebuilding on the fly, expressing intentions to be in playoff contention next season.
Off-Season Game Plan examines what the Leafs could do this summer, as they continue the re-modeling process that they have undergone since Brian Burke took over as General Manager.
As is the case with every GM, there have been hits and misses on Burke's record, but he has managed to bring in a couple of cornerstone pieces around which to build, with goal-scoring winger Phil Kessel and hard-rock defenceman Dion Phaneuf the most obvious infusions of talent.
As the rebuilding process goes, the Leafs do have young players making progress. Carl Gunnarsson, Luke Schenn and Tyler Bozak, most notably, showed real promise in the second half of the season and will be counted on to play bigger roles going forward.
Even so, there are still several variables at work when looking at next season's potential roster. Forwards like Viktor Stalberg and Luca Caputi, for example, had an opportunity to play top-six forward roles down the stretch and, while that's where they ultimately figure to land if they are NHL regulars, it might be a reach to suggest that a team harbouring playoff aspirations would start next season with both of them in the lineup.
Even throw top prospect Nazem Kadri into that mix. If one of Kadri, Stalberg or Caputi is among the top six forwards out of the gate next season, that's enough risk to take if the team really believes it's competing for a playoff spot.
That likely means internal improvement won't be nearly enough and the Leafs will have to look elsewhere for help. While many rebuilding franchises play the waiting game, willing to wait through years of high draft picks, that doesn't appear to fit with Burke's impatience to move this team to the next stage of its development -- the playoffs -- even if the team needs to be dragged there.
As such, it seems likely that Burke would make another blockbuster trade if he felt it would make the Maple Leafs a playoff team in short order.
A Tomas Kaberle deal figures to be on the table at some point this summer, and Toronto does have the financial wherewithal to bury a salary in the minors if it means getting an impact player, but glitz and glamour isn't the only need for this team.
This is just throwing names out there, but if the Sharks faltered in the postseason again, it would seem reasonable that the Leafs would inquire about the services of Joe Thornton, or maybe the for-sale Dallas Stars wouldn't mind shedding Brad Richards' $7.8-million contract, which expires at the end of next season.
The point isn't that the Leafs will specifically be after Thornton or Richards, but that, based on their transactions and financial situation, they can remain open to possibilities that will bring an obvious upgrade in talent to a team that needs it if they are going to be a playoff contender.
"We don't have the split we need," Burke told the Toronto Sun, referring to his oft-stated preference of having six skilled forwards at the top of the depth chart and six hard-boiled checkers, grinders, scrappers filling out the lower half. "I don't know if we're 8-4 or 9-3. Some guys are going to have to define their roles here or play somewhere else."
So, in addition to doing what they can to upgrade the skill level from a team that finished with one 20-goal scorer (Phil Kessel) after dealing away Alexei Ponikarovsky, Niklas Hagman, Lee Stempniak and 19-goal man Matt Stajan during the season, the Leafs are going to need more bottom-six forwards.
Even if some of those bottom-six forwards, that bring the physical element and toughness Burke desires, have some offensive upside, that's probably a trade-off worth exploring at this stage of the team's development. After tying Montreal for 25th in goals for 2.56 per game), it's not prudent for the Leafs to be turning down offensive potential.
With a passionate fan base and an outspoken general manager, who has a history of making big deals, it at least promises to be an interesting summer for the Maple Leafs.
Brian Burke/Ron Wilson
Not only is Phil Kessel going to face a certain amount of pressure being the only proven scorer in the Maple Leafs lineup, but there are inevitably going to be comparisons between the career of Kessel and that of the No. 2 pick in tthe upcoming draft -- just one of the picks that the Leafs gave up last summer to get Kessel.
For his part, 22-year-old Kessel has put up back-to-back 30-goal seasons, so the Leafs already have some idea what they have in hand. Thirty goals should be the base expectation for Kessel, but if his linemates improve, 40 isn't out of the question at some point.
Mikhail Grabovski has offensive talent, but is a long way from being a consistent point producer. In an ideal world, Grabovski could anchor a secondary scoring line for the Leafs, but expecting that next season does require a certain leap of faith.
Several Leafs forwards have promise, though caution needs to be exercised when placing long-term expectations on unproven players.
Tyler Bozak, the 24-year-old who emerged as the Maple Leafs' number one centre in the second half of the season, appears to be the most promising of those who spent significant time with the Leafs last season.
Bozak has good speed and is a savvy puck distributor with fine offensive instincts, but can still improve his all-around game as he grows into a prominent role in the league.
Toronto's rebuilding plan is going to require development of some of their other young forwards. One of those is Viktor Stalberg, a 24-year-old who ripped it up in preseason last year before stalling and going down to the AHL for a spell.
Stalberg has size and can finish but, as it goes with young players, who knows if he's good for 20 goals or is going to land in the AHL next year?
Another challenger for position as a scoring winger is Luca Caputi, the 21-year-old picked up from the Penguins in the Alexei Ponikarovsky trade.
Caputi is lanky and talented and while 47 points in 54 AHL games last year suggests he's a legit prospect, two goals in 23 NHL games indicates he may not yet be ready for the scoring line duty that will ultimately be expected of him.
The less-heralded part of the trade with Calgary, Fredrik Sjostrom, doesn't provide much offensively, yet his size and speed makes him an effective penalty killer and fourth-line checking forward.
Sjostrom doesn't necessarily provide the kind of pugnacity that Burke prefers in his fourth-line forwards, but that's not an issue with Colton Orr.
Orr did manage a career-high six points last season but, more importantly, he fought 23 times and racked up a career-high 239 penalty minutes. How much that helps the Leafs win is debatable, but Burke wants a heavyweight enforcer and Orr fits the bill.
One of the more underrated players in the league, though maybe not for long, is Nikolai Kulemin. The Russian winger plays a good two-way game and can be a factor on the forecheck, but his impact was elevated later in the season once he started getting prime ice time.
Kulemin scored a career-high 36 points last season, so counting on him for first-line productivity could be a reach, but he's certainly worth a top-six role once he agrees to a new contract.
Toronto has been patient with 25-year-old John Mitchell, waiting for him to develop. Mitchell hasn't broken through offensively and his defensive game is still a work-in-progress, so he might be worth a third-line role or could merely be a fringe forward, depending on the level of competition up front.
Christian Hanson has enough size (6-foot-4, 228 pounds) that he ought to be able to contribute in a checking role if his offensive game doesn't pan out. The 24-year-old had 31 points in 38 AHL games, but had zero goals in 30 NHL games before tallying a pair in the final game of the season.
Even with a number of holes in the forward ranks, there doesn't appear to be much reason for the Leafs to bring back unrestricted free agents Jamie Lundmark, Wayne Primeau and Rickard Wallin.
In need of a serious upgrade of forward talent, the Leafs will likely hope that 2009 first-round pick Nazem Kadri can make the jump from the Ontario Hockey League. Of the No. 7 picks selected since the lockout (Jack Skille, Kyle Okposo, Jakub Voracek and Colin Wilson), Skille and Okposo didn't see a lot of NHL time a year after being drafted, while Voracek and Wilson both saw significant NHL time, so it's not unreasonable to expect Kadri to play, but it's hardly a sure thing.
Kadri has the skills to potentially be a top-line scoring forward, but expectations have to be tempered, even if he's playing with the Leafs as a 20-year-old next season.
While a Tomas Kaberle trade would ideally bring a scoring forward in return, the Leafs could also dip into the free agent pool, as players like Ilya Kovalchuk and Alexander Frolov would figure to provide the kind of scoring that the Leafs need, though neither one seems to have the style of game that appeals to Burke.
Given Burke's reputation for loyalty to "his" guys, it's not beyond the realm of possibility that the Leafs could consider someone like Todd Bertuzzi.
He's no longer an elite power forward, but Bertuzzi's settled in the 15-to-20 goal range in recent seasons and, with those expectations, he could help bridge the gap while the Leafs wait to find out whether Stalberg and Caputi will sink or swim.
Toronto could also use an upgrade in the checking forward department. Depending on the money available after addressing scoring needs, the Leafs could look to free agent checkers like Colby Armstrong, Christopher Higgins or perhaps Zenon Konopka -- a tough guy who can win some draws.
Set to become the Leafs' captain, Dion Phaneuf is touted as an impact player, but wasn't particularly productive after arriving in Toronto (two goals, ten points in 26 games). If the Leafs improve their forward talent, that could help free up Phaneuf, particularly on the power play, where his heavy shot should be an asset.
Tomas Kaberle has played 820 games with the Leafs since 1998-1999 and last season's minus-16 was the worst mark of his career. He finished the season with only six points in his last 26 games. With his no-trade clause voided by the Leafs missing the postseason, Kaberle is a logical candidate to be moved, provided the Leafs can get something significant in return.
Given the Leafs' depth on the blueline, it would make sense for the Leafs to deal Kaberle in an effort to upgrade their offence. With only one year remaining on his current contract, Kaberle isn't quite as desirable as he's been in the past, but his ability to quarterback a power play will make him an attractive commodity.
One reason Toronto has such depth on the blueline is the development of Carl Gunnarsson, the 23-year-old Swede who seamlessly handled a top-four role in the second half of the season. Gunnarsson is smart in his own end and makes good passes. If Kaberle is moved, Gunnarsson's puck skills will be even more valuable on the Leafs' back end.
After a relatively slow start to his second NHL season, Luke Schenn emerged in the second half of the season (effectively after the Phaneuf trade) as a much stronger defensive presence, handling nearly 20 minutes per game from February through the end of the season.
Francois Beauchemin struggled at times defensively, but didn't back down from a heavy workload that saw him play more than 25 minutes a night while playing all 82 games. His versatility allows Beauchemin to play in any situation -- he handles and shoots the puck well enough to work the PP, while he's tough and durable enough to play a defensive role.
Perhaps with the Leafs' improved depth along the blueline, Beauchemin could be more effective while logging fewer minutes on a night-in, night-out basis.
In part because of his hefty salary, Jeff Finger is the most maligned of Maple Leafs defencemen. While he's still a capable penalty killer, Finger struggled early in the season and fell out of the defensive rotation before playing in a limited role late in the year.
Finger is the kind of player that could be demoted to the AHL if the Maple Leafs need cap room in order to make a significant acquisition, but he could still be a serviceable third-pair defenceman; maybe not worth $3.5-million a season, but useful nonetheless.
The Leafs' prized acquisition last summer, Mike Komisarek, endured a forgettable first season in Toronto. Among other things, he tried to fight more than he had in the past, and the result was not at all what the Leafs were hoping for. Komisarek's season ended after 34 games as he underwent shoulder surgery, yet he still managed a career-low minus-9 rating while also struggling on the penalty kill.
A healthy and focused Komisarek will be an important part for the Leafs going forward and now, with Phaneuf, Gunnarsson and an improved Schenn, he has plenty of support.
If the Maple Leafs make any additions on defence, and presuming that Garnet Exelby will look for a fresh start elsewhere, it will likely be of the depth variety, as there aren't a lot of NHL-ready options in the system if injuries or subpar play affect the regulars.
Jean-Sebastien Giguere lost his job in Anaheim to Jonas Hiller with a year-and-a-half of mediocre (.900 save percentage) play, but the veteran improved with his move to Toronto, posting a .916 save percentage in 15 games with the Leafs. Going into the final season of his contract, and facing an opportunity to start again, Giguere ought to be motivated.
Backing up Giguere is The Monster, Jonas Gustavsson, the highly-touted Swede who had an up-and-down rookie season, but played well down the stretch to provide more hope for the future. The 25-year-old already inked a two-year deal in off-season, giving him an opportunity to prove he's worthy of a long-term starter's role.
Goaltending is one reason to hold some optimism for the Maple Leafs. After Vesa Toskala posted an .874 save percentage in 26 games with the Maple Leafs last season, there is a good chance that the Leafs will improve simply based on better goaltending.
For example, Giguere and Gustavsson combined to post a .906 save percentage with the Leafs. By replacing Toskala's .874 save percentage (on 676 shots) with a .906 save percentage (and, given Gustavsson's finish, it would be fair to expect even better), the Maple Leafs would give up approximately 22 fewer goals over the course of the season.
That doesn't entirely close the gap (Toronto allowed 53 more goals than they scored last season) enough to make the Leafs a playoff team, but it's definitely a move in the right direction.
||35-58-93,+26, 56 GP
||2-4-6,+2, 48 GP
||15-19-34,+6, 39 GP
||Assat Pori (FNL)
||2.50 GAA, .929 SVPCT, 31 GP
||5-18-23,-13, 68 GP
||24-20-44,-4, 63 GP
||14-8-2, 2.25 GAA, .925 SVPCT, 25 GP
||DEG Metro Stars (DEL)
||6-16-22,+12, 52 GP
||7-15-22,+18, 12 GP
||25-43-68,+10, 53 GP
Nazem Kadri is the shining offensive hope of Maple Leafs prospects. He steadily improved in each of his four OHL seasons and has the creativity to be a point producer, but he'll need to improve his conditioning -- getting stronger and faster -- to withstand the grind of being a scorer in the NHL.
Included as part of the blockbuster trade with Calgary, Keith Aulie is a 6-foot-6 stay-at-home defenceman who can skate well for his size. He also suffered a shoulder injury not long after joining the Marlies, so another year of seasoning in the AHL should help Aulie's development.
Toronto native Brayden Irwin was signed as a free agent out of the University of Vermont, with Burke stating that the Leafs expect Irwin to be a scoring forward after he put up 34 points in 39 games. Given his marginal offensive numbers (including 48 points in 105 games in his first three years with the Catamounts), Irwin may need to trade on his 6-foot-5 frame for more of a grinding role in the pros.
Finnish goaltender Jussi Rynnas elected to sign with the Leafs, over other suitors, reportedly in part because of goaltending coach Francois Allaire, who is a guru for a big netminder like Rynnas, who stands 6-foot-5.
Lanky blueliner Juraj Mikus adjusted to the North American game with the Marlies last season and his ability to move the puck offers some promise. He'll need to get stronger and improve in his own end if he's going to challenge for an NHL job.
Acquired in exchange for Jiri Tlusty, Philippe Paradis was a first-round pick in 2009. He didn't score enough in junior to think that he'll make an impact like that at the next level, but Paradis does play with some grit and could eventually earn a role as a checker.
James Reimer has worked his way up from the ECHL and put up strong numbers in a backup role with the Marlies in 2009-2010. With Rynnas in the fold, Reimer may not be a top priority, but if he keeps stopping pucks, he can't be forgotten.
German blueliner Korbinian Holzer has been improving since he was drafted in 2006 and the 22-year-old played in the Olympics and is set to play in the upcoming World Championships. Perhaps he'll be ready to spend next season with the Marlies, just to see how his progress compares to other prospects.
Chris DiDomenico played only a dozen regular season games as he returned from a broken femur, but he has shown that his scoring touch wasn't lost with all that time off. A chance to prove himself in the American Hockey League awaits.
Same goes for Mikhail Stefanovich, a big and skilled winger who saw his production dip from 49 goals in 2008-2009 to 25 last season. If one or two of the Leafs' fringe forwards joins some of these younger players in the AHL, there is likely a chance that the Marlies can develop some offensive talent.
More long-range prospects include Ontario Hockey League defenceman Jesse Blacker, a second-round pick in 2009, as well as collegians Jimmy Hayes and Jerry d'Amigo, both of whom had productive seasons; Hayes with national champion Boston College and d'Amigo, who plays at R.P.I., was a standout for the gold-medal winning U.S. team at the World Junior Championships.
No first-round pick.
According to www.capgeek.com, the Maple Leafs have approximately $50.1M committed to the 2010-2011 salary cap for 16 players.
Needs: Two top six forwards, two top nine forwards.
What I said the Maple Leafs needed last year: Three first line forwards, backup goaltender.
Who did they add? Phil Kessel, Colton Orr, Francois Beauchemin, Mike Komisarek, Jonas Gustavsson.
TRADE MARKET Mikhail Grabovski, Tomas Kaberle.
Scott Cullen can be reached at Scott.Cullen@ctv.ca and followed on Twitter at http://twitter.com/tsnscottcullen