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30 Teams in 30 Days: Burke models Leafs in own image

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TSN.ca Staff
9/6/2009 5:37:49 PM
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TORONTO MAPLE LEAFS

2008-09: 34-35-13 (12th in the East – Out of Playoffs)
TSN Pre-season Power Ranking: 25th
General Manager: Brian Burke (2nd Season)
Head Coach: Ron Wilson (2nd Season)

What They Did In The Off-season:

Heading into the summer, Maple Leafs general manager Brian Burke stated that size and toughness were the two traits that he coveted most. And he was very proactive this off-season to ensure the Leafs would not be pushed around again this season. 

After a draft day trade of Tomas Kaberle to the Bruins for Phil Kessel never materialized, Burke shipped rearguard Pavel Kubina and forward Tim Stapelton to Atlanta for tough guy Garnet Exelby and forward Colin Stuart. The team added more sandpaper in the free agent market, signing defencemen Mike Komisarek and Francois Beauchemin and winger Colton Orr.  The Leafs then acquired a 'Monster' of a different kind by inking the heavily-recruited Jonas Gustavsson to a one-year deal. Toronto's European odyssey continued as the team brought Rickard Wallin back into the NHL fold from Farjestad.

Now with a glut of blueliners, Burke shipped Anton Stralman and the newly-acquired Stuart to Calgary for centre Wayne Primeau.  The Leafs rounded off a busy summer by trading netminder Justin Pogge to Anaheim and signing backup goalie Joey MacDonald.

Biggest Issue facing the team:

Burke wasted no time in re-modeling the Maple Leafs in his own image. Now the key is seeing if this team can compete night after night in what is a very tough Northeast Division. 

Burke was certainly right about one thing - this team will be much more difficult to play against. On far too many occasions last season, opponents were able physically intimidate and impose their will against a smaller Maple Leafs squad. The additions of Komisarek, Exelby and Beauchemin will ensure that it will be 'bad night at the office' for opposing forwards who dare go into the corners.

In addition to making it tougher for teams to play against, Burke is betting that the 'extra-beef' in the Leafs lineup will allow the team's more skilled players some additional room to maneuver. Tomas Kaberle was a player that was singled out as a beneficiary of the open ice. When he's on his game, the smooth skating Kaberle makes the first pass out of the zone as well as any blueliner in the NHL. Far too many times last season, he was, as Burke stated, “picking his teeth out of the glass all night.”  If opponents are no longer allowed to take liberties with the All-Star for fear of retribution, then Kaberle should be able to focus on what he does best - make solid decisions in his own zone and contribute to the offence at the other end.

A secondary benefit of a beefed-up blueline should also mean the Leafs ought to be able to cut down on their goals against. Last season, they allowed a league-worst 293 goals, so the good news is that they have nowhere to go but up. However, it may take a little time for so many newcomers to gel as a cohesive unit.  Once they do, watch out - because facing this team will be a much more punishing encounter than it has been in recent memory.

Player to watch:

To put it bluntly, Vesa Toskala had a poor season last year for the Maple Leafs. The Finnish netminder did not come to training camp in the shape that he needed to be in to compete at an elite level every night. He also struggled with a groin injury and his play suffered mightily. His statistics dipped across the board and he lost the confidence of the coaching staff for a period of time. By the time the team shut him down to undergo hip surgery in March, it was clear that Toskala had taken a major step backwards in his development.

The thought coming into the season is that last year was an aberration. Toskala is finally healthy and enters camp facing a real challenge from the newly-signed Gustavsson.  The team has already stated that they hope to give 'The Monster' between 20 and 25 starts in net this season - to bring the young netminder along slowly and also remind Toskala that his days as 'the man' between the pipes could be limited.

Toskala should also be motivated by the fact that he's heading towards unrestricted free agency. And at age 32, he would likely be looking for a final big contract. The problem is that it's hard to earn that lucrative pay day if you are sitting on the bench watching a hot-shot rookie steal your ice-time. This season, Toskala needs to re-establish himself as a true No. 1 netminder. Not only for selfish reasons, but because if he doesn't, the team as a whole will suffer greatly.

The addition of defensive specialists Beauchemin and Komisarek will greatly benefit Toskala, as will a second full season from promising blueliner Luke Schenn, however the onus still rests on the veteran Finn.  While no one expects Toskala to suddenly become the second-coming of Johnny Bower at this stage in his career, a return to form of just two seasons ago is certainly not an unreasonable expectation. The ball is in Toskala's court, what he decides to do with it will define his career.

Scott Cullen's Fantasy Take:

While the summer of 2009 brought about a lot of change in Toronto, and it may result in better results on the ice, the fantasy appeal of the Leafs is still at the lower end, in most cases.

Toronto's top returning scorer, Jason Blake, is an eager shooter and that's okay given the lack of proven finishers on this team, and last season he rebounded to put up a more typical 25-goal season. The 36-year-old figures to still draw quality ice time as long as he's drawing his hefty paycheque and putting the puck in the net.

Often underrated Alexei Ponikarovsky set career marks with 23 goals and 61 points last season, which is quality production from the wing. Entering the final year of his contract, Ponikarovsky ought to be motivated for another productive campaign.

Read more of Scott Cullen's fantasy analysis of the Maple Leafs, including a look at Toronto's projected depth chart for next season.

Chris Neil and Luke Schenn (Photo: Graig Abel/NHLI via Getty Images)

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(Photo: Graig Abel/NHLI via Getty Images)
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