Lethbridge: Lots to consider for Brian Burke and Leafs Nation

Stephen Lethbridge, Contributing Writer
@stephenleth

(Tim Kolupanowich/CM)

The Toronto Maple Leafs certainly looked like they were going to break the six-year playoff drought the organization had been experiencing coming into this season. In fact, the team remained in solid playoff contention throughout the majority of the season until the beginning of February.

Joffrey Lupul, Tyler Bozak and Phil Kessel found some chemistry on the top line, with those players having the most productive seasons of their careers. The defensive core had some solid young talent, with Cody Franson being added in the offseason and Jake Gardiner having an exceptional rookie campaign, adding to the mainstays in Luke Schenn, Dion Phaneuf and Carl Gunnarson. And it wasn’t hard to feel optimistic about goaltender James Reimer after his run to end the 2010-11 season, either.

But instead, the Leafs broke down during the latter half of the season and received the fifth overall pick in the upcoming NHL Draft, so things obviously did not go as planned. Following the all-star break, the team went on a monumental skid.

After three straight wins to start February, the team lost 10 of the remaining 11 games that month and things didn’t go much better in March. The team went 5-8-2 and were shut out four times in that span, which led to them finishing 13th in the Eastern conference – the nail in the coffin being the 4-1 loss they suffered to the hated rival Montreal Canadiens on the final day of the season.

It would be easy to dwell on the collapse of the team, but if Brian Burke, Randy Carlyle, and the rest of the Maple Leafs organization want to break free from its unfavourable reputation and make the playoffs any time soon, they must make some major changes in the offseason.

The most obvious flaw in the Leafs line up is at the position of goaltender. Although he started out the season strong, James Reimer seems to have been significantly shaken up by a head shot suffered at the hands of Brian Gionta. He missed significant time this season, appearing in just 34 games. In that time, he posted a .900 save percentage and averaged 3.10 goals against per game. And while his numbers are a little better, Jonas Gustavsson was not able to hold the fort in Reimer’s absence, nor was Ben Scrivens, an AHL call up who appeared in 12 games for the team. Gustavsson looks to be on the way out of town, with his contract up on July 1.

(Tim Kolupanowich/CM)

Besides his injury, it was clear this season that James Reimer was not up to the task of being the No. 1 netminder in Toronto. The team would be best served by putting Reimer into a supporting role, at least for the next season, and going with a more experienced netminder as their starter.

Tomas Vokoun is the first name that comes to mind, with his one-year contract with the Washington Capitals ending this summer. He split time with Michael Neuwirth this season, playing in 48 games, and may be looking for another team come July 1. He has played well consistently throughout his career and would benefit from the big bodies on the Leafs blue line, while also giving some guidance to the younger Reimer.

As far as young goaltenders go, perhaps Brian Burke could reconnect with his former club, the Vancouver Canucks, and make a play for Corey Schneider. Schneider posted a 1.96 goals against average and .937 save percentage in 33 games this season, not to mention being given the nod as the ‘Nucks starting goalie in the playoffs. It’s becoming abundantly clear that he’s getting too good to be just a backup, and the Leafs may be a possibility for him. It may still be a gamble considering Schneider’s inexperience, although having the postseason games under his belt can’t hurt his value.

Offense is the next problem the team needs to address (specifically getting a top line centreman), though the free agent pool for centres that will be available on July 1 is pretty shallow.

Olli Jokinen is the only player up for free agency that fits the bill of top line middleman, and although he did have a stellar season in Calgary, it’s clear that his best years are behind him. Besides that, his age would indicate that he doesn’t fit into the Leafs plans going forward, so the team may have to look at trading for one.

Both Ryan Getzlaf and Jordan Staal are entering into contract years next season. Anaheim is a team in flux and may consider moving Getzlaf for the right package. One thing the Leafs have in spades is young talent, so some of those players could be packaged for Getzlaf. Staal may be a long shot, but he could be a good fit for the Leafs if he wants a chance to be a bonafide, No. 1 centreman – a chance he will likely never have in Pittsburgh.

Also, the Leafs must look toward the draft. Given his draft ranking, play style, and ability, Alex Galchenyuk seems like the logical choice. He is a centreman, who suffered a lengthy injury this past season, but he scored an impressive 83 points in his first season with the Sarnia Sting. If he had a healthy season, his draft ranking no doubt would have been increased, so his injury may work out in the Leafs favour. Galchenyuk’s former coach, Bruno Bragagnolio with the Chicago Young Americans of the Midwest Elite Hockey League, said that the odds of having another kid like Alex play for you are akin to winning the lottery. There seems to be a surplus in defensemen in this draft, but with the Leafs already stacked defensive core, going back to prospects like Jesse Blacker, they will likely address their offensive woes in this year’s draft.

While the future is bright in certain aspects for the Toronto Maple Leafs, there are still major issues with the team, which must be addressed.

Following his public apology this past week to the fans of the team and his admittance that his job is always in jeopardy, Brian Burke must be feeling the heat. Leafs fans are as vocal and tenacious as they are loyal, and some have been calling for Burke’s head after the disastrous end to this season.

It will be interesting to see where the team goes from here. Next year may be the most important season in the organization’s storied history.

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