The Toronto Maple Leafs held their annual charity golf tournament on Tuesday, and general manager Brian Burke addressed the media, touching on everything Maple Leafs heading into the 2011-12 season. It was evident that with just more than a week from the start of training camp, Burke was excited about the team he has assembled this summer.
"We think we made some changes that made our team dramatically better," said Burke. "We've made some changes to the coaching staff, we made some changes on the blue line, and we made some changes up front."
Burke added free agent centre Tim Connolly from the Buffalo Sabres and traded for forward Matthew Lombardi and defenceman Cody Franson from the Nashville Predators this off-season. The team also replaced two assistant coaches, adding Greg Cronin and Scott Gordon after letting Tim Hunter and Keith Acton go.
"We think those things have put us in a position where we want to be, which is to compete for a playoff spot. It's the most depth and size and youth we've had on the back-end, but we think we've made some pretty critical additions up front too with Connolly and Lombardi. We're excited about the start of the season."
And while Connolly and Lombardi are both expected to be locks to join the Leafs' group of forwards that returns relatively intact for this season, Burke said that doesn't mean there won't be at least a little bit of competition for spots in training camp.
"If you've noticed we've left one spot open, we want some competition for one of the forward spots," said Burke. "Whether that's Matt Frattin or Nazem Kadri or Joe Colborne or whomever, we do want to have some competition for a spot."
Burke went on to say that if more than one young player impresses in camp, the team is willing to adapt.
"At least one, it doesn't mean that someone else can't do it too; if two of these kids can make it and someone's in the press box, then that's fine, too."
So with the right mix of new additions and competition in training camp to a lineup that finished last season strong, Burke said he is optimistic this year could be the one the Leafs finally snap their playoff drought. While he acknowledged that many teams ahead of the Leafs in the standings at the end of last year had improved as well, he said there were some he thought his team could still jump.
"We think there are a couple catchable teams and I'm not going to name them - no reason to start with bulletin board material before the season even begins - but we think they're catchable."
"You guys know my philosophy is to build from the blue line out and we think we're set in net. We're confident that (Jonas Gustavsson) is going to be in a position to finally show what he can do with his physical problems behind him and the weight he's gained; we think James Reimer is the real deal; and we think we've put a pretty respectable blue line group in front of him so we're excited."
Burke, now in his fourth season as general manager, was encouraged by last year's finish and thinks his lineup can carry that momentum into this season.
"We had the fourth best record in the East from the All-Star break on. It wasn't a short run, it wasn't a 'hey, they're out of it so they played well' run, it was a deep, long, hard run and that's the group that's coming back with the additions we've made so we think we have reason to be optimistic, but we've got to avoid a start like we had. In October, November, and December we just weren't good enough and we're going to have to start better than we did last year."
Burke added that if you're looking for a comparison for this year's Leafs, then a good one could be the Vancouver Canucks teams he managed in the late '90s and early 2000s.
"I think there are parallels. I think the Vancouver team played at a .720 clip from Christmas on (in 2001) and made the playoffs. We weren't successful making the playoffs but my philosophy has never changed: have the best blue line you can have, have strength in net and that's what we're doing here."
The Leafs blue line continued to come up in Burke's news conference, and it's clear he is happy with the talent he's assembled there, even if there are still some question marks up front.
"I think this (defence) is as big and young and talented a group as we've had here in a long time, not just since I've been here. This group stacks up really well against just about any other team in the East in terms of our blue line. Now the question is, the guys we've brought in; are they going to answer the needs and can we count on some more internal improvement from the guys we have?"
As for the forwards he's brought in, Burke said that Lombardi is progressing well and while he didn't have an update on his status at the time, said that he was symptom-free, working out hard and the only reason he may not be cleared for the start of camp is his aerobic component may not be on target. Burke added that he thinks Connolly, the team's other big free agent signing, will benefit from the change of scenery.
"A player can get stale in a market; a player can get buried on a team and go somewhere and find new life. We're counting on that happening with Tim. He's a real good hockey player; he's a real competitive hockey player.
"We're confident that he's going to get new legs and new life here."
Burke did also say that the team has cap space remaining and he won't be hesitant to make a move, if it makes sense.
"We've still got some cap space; we're still open to adding. We've never spent to the cap since I've been here," continued Burke. "But if we have an opportunity to spend the remaining cap space we have - after we sign (Luke Schenn) - then we'll do that."
As for the contract negotiations with Schenn, a restricted free agent, Burke said it's not his policy to discuss such topics with the media but he is optimistic something will get done.