2010, 2011, Hockey, Sports, The Campaign to Fire Brian Burke

The Campaign to Fire Brian Burke: 2010-2011 Leafs Season

There has been a recent upswell of support – from fans, from the media, and from hockey fans not normally partial to the Maple Leafs – for Burke’s “plan” in recent weeks, following the team’s remarkable post-all-star-break performance this season. Despite missing the playoffs, the majority opinion seems to be that the Leafs are very much on the right track, and that they are merely a few players shy of being a contending team.

This view overlooks a number of obvious problems:

  • that the team was still horrible defensively for most of the year and that, even with great goaltending for a third of the season, only managed to finish 25th of 30 (i.e. in the bottom 6th of the league) in Goals Against;
  • that the team did not score all that much, finishing 23rd out of 30 (i.e. in the bottom third of the league) in Goals For, despite nearly having three 30 goal scorers for the first time since 1996;
  • that the great goaltending they got was during a very limited sample;
  • that the team lacks not only a multi-dimensional offensive star in the pros but also lacks a prospect who projects as one in the system;
  • that the team lacks a true blue-chip defensive prospect.

Keeping this things in mind, I look at this year’s edition of the Leafs and I suggest the course management might take, contrary to what everyone else seems to prefer.

The Leafs finished the season with a 37-34-11 record (37-45 for those of us who hate the current NHL method of awarding points), earning 85 points, which is 52% of their possible points (the league average is 56%).

Since more teams make the playoffs than not, we know that the Leafs’ record is less good than it appears: not only are they in the bottom 6th of Goals Against and bottom third of Goals For, but the bottom half of Points Won, all things that say they are nowhere near a playoff calibre team. This is more obvious when we think of them as 4th out of 5 in their division, 10th out of 15 in their conference, and 21st overall in the league.

These things main not be that important if the ultimate goal is merely to make the playoffs each year. I suggest to you that the ultimate goal such be much more than to squeak in to the playoffs a la the 2010 Flyers or the 2006 Oilers (look how well that worked out for them).

Leafs Forwards:

As I mentioned above, this edition became nearly the first Leafs team in 15 years to have three 30 goal scorers. But this fact – and the tendency of fans to somehow get nostalgic for a 1996 Leafs team that lost in the first round – obscures the lack of overall scoring, and the complete and utter lack of a genuine playmaker among the top 6.

Phil Kessel, 23:

  • 32 goals (team high, tied for the division lead), 32A (2nd among forwards) for 64 points (team high) in 82 games, playing 1611 minutes in those games, -20 (2nd worst).

By now we know what Kessel is: he is a talented scorer, who isn’t particularly efficient and goes into long slumps, who is abysmal defensively and who doesn’t pass enough. That is to say, he is one dimensional. Though Kessel is still quite young, I don’t see this changing. Yes, some players become better defensively as they get older, as they mature. But some don’t (look at Spezza). And there’s no way of knowing who will and who won’t. And some players become more inclined to pas in old age (look at Mogilny) and some don’t. Moreover, for Kessel, his special skill is that he doesn’t pass. That’s what makes him a deadly goal scorer when he’s on.

It’s fairly clear to me (and most others it seems) that for Kessel to become more effective he needs two things: a centre who can get him the puck in higher percentage spots more often, and a centre who can play defense.

Kessel requires a lot of ice-time to score 30 goals. He might require more to score 40. I am not for a moment advocating a trade. (Unless of course someone is willing to give up three first round draft picks!) I recognize this is the Phil Kessel era. But something must be done. Either we accept his limitations and therefore the team’s, or we address them. I will explain why the less obvious of the two choices makes more sense a little later.

Mikhail Grabovski, 27:

  • 29G (3rd), 29A (4th) for 58P (3rd) in 81 games, +14 (1st). 19:22 ATOI (2nd among forwards)

I think it’s pretty obvious that Grabo has demonstrated he is a legitimate second line centre in the NHL. He is clearly far more reliable defensively than anyone on the top line and he can score, more than I thought he would I must say. That’s what we want.

But the idea, though, that his potential is only partially tapped is sort of ridiculous. He is in his prime right now, he is far too much of a puck hog to ever become any kind of playmaker. The Leafs should be happy that they have at least filled this position for the definite future. A contract may be in order but something that befits a #2 centre, nothing more.

Tyler Bozak, 24:

  • 15G (5th), 17A (tied for 8th) for 32P (7th) in 82 games, -29 (worst). ATOI 19:17 (3rd among forwards)

Bozak, for much of the year, was the team’s #1 centre. This has proved a disaster. He is clearly not enough of a playmaker and he is also a sieve – the idea that he is reasonable defensively is severely tested by his team worst minus: either Kessel is beyond terrible or Bozak isn’t as good as people claim. Bozak may indeed be an NHL 3rd line centre, I think it’s quite likely. But he isn’t more than that. If he wants more he shouldn’t be a Leaf any more.

Joe Colborne, 21:

  • 1A for 1 point in 1 game, +1. ATOI 18:41

Colborne played as the first line centre in the last game of the season. Wilson thinks he is a first line centre. Wilson is part of the brain trust who believed that Bozak was a first line centre. Colborne’s college numbers aren’t mind blowing. And even if they were, there’s no way to know if they would translate. The only way to find out if he is a legitimate NHL player is to let him play next year. They might not want to let him sink like Bozak, so it might be wiser to give him less minutes than Grabo at first.

Joffrey Lupul, 27:

  • 9G, 9A for 18P in 28 games, -7. ATOI 17:51.

Lupul was certainly reasonably productive since he got here, scoring above his career per game averages. I don’t know that I see him as a future 30 goal scorer if only because his history is that of an injury plagued player. If he keeps up this pace next year he will score more than 25 goals, but he has to stay healthy.

Nikolai Kulemin, 24:

  • 30G (2nd), 27A (5th) for 57P (4th) in 82 games, +7 (3rd). ATOI 17:19.

Kulemin was one of the few unqualified success stories of the year. He demonstrated that, with the right combination of linemates, he is absolutely a legitimate top 6 forward in the NHL. Hell, he might be more if he played with a playmaking centre instead of Grabo. They should sign him to a reasonable extension ASAP.

Clarke MacArthur, 25:

  • 21G (4th), 41A (1st) for 62P (2nd) in 82 games, -3. ATOI 17:07

MacArthur was a surprise (which I called!) as the Leafs’ most efficient offensive player. He was also their best playmaker, which doesn’t say much. He was an absolute bargain this year but he won’t be now. I think there is no reason to resign him if he wants a large raise for his career highs. Though I am a fan, there’s no way of knowing whether he can keep this up. He also had an uneven year, as he got off to a great start but cooled when the rest of the team got hot. I think he should only be resigned if he is okay with only a minor raise.

Colby Armstrong, 28:

  • 8G, 15A for 23P in 50 games, -1. ATOI 16:07

Yes, I was wrong. He didn’t get suspended for a head shot. But that being said, $3 million is still a hell of a lot to pay for a good guy in the dressing room. Somebody said that the team wins when he is healthy, but I don’t think he plays enough (he plays 1/4 of the game) for there to be anything causal relationship there.

Frankly, this is a bad contract, no matter how much he boosts morale. If he can up his production, I might change my mind, but I have a hard time seeing his value without knowing what goes on behind closed doors which supposedly makes him so important.

Nazem Kadri, 20:

  • 3G, 9A for 12P in 29 games, -3. ATOI 15:47

Kadri looked much better at the end of the season than the beginning (when they should never have brought him up). And fortunately the Leafs’ run kept the pressure off his shoulders. I still think the way they have handled him is pretty bad. Could have easily left him in the minors all year. But it worked out.

At this point Kadri looks like he could well be a future top 6 forward, but I don’t know that he can be a top 3. Certainly he seems to be better on the wing, like so many former junior centres (Kessel, Lupul, MacArthur for examples). That means that he doesn’t address the Leafs’ glaring hole in the middle. But he is coming along well and hopefully he breaks out next year.

Joey Crabb, 27:

  • 3G, 12A for 15P in 48 games, -1. ATOI 12:59

The idea that this guy is anything more than a role player is hilarious.

Tim Brent, 26:

  • 8G, 12A for 20P in 79 games, -4. ATOI 11:39

Role player. He’s young enough. But really, why all the fuss? These guys are good until they want too much money.

Boyce, 25:

  • 5G, 8A for 14P in 46 games, +8. ATOI 11:23

Better than average role player. Young too.

Sjostrom, 27:

  • 2G, 3A for 5P in 66 games, -3. ATOI 11:13

Clearly superior to Mayers. Clearly.

Not even going to bother talking about Orr or Rosehill. Those guys are jokes.

Maple Leafs Defense:

The Leafs D improved drastically over the season, particularly since the departure of Beauchemin and Kaberle (in trades that I somewhat liked at the time, but I must say now look pretty fantastic).

Dion Phaneuf, 25:

  • 8G, 22A (6th) for 30P (8th) in 66 games, -1. ATOI 25:18 (team high, 9th in the league)

Phaneuf has greatly improved his play since the trades of Beauchemin / Kaberle and / or being paired with Schenn. There are various theories as to why. It’s clear to me that in order to be effective (albeit still grossly overpaid) he must be paired with a stay at home like Schenn or Aulie. I am not confident, at this point in his career, that Phaneuf is consistent enough at both ends of the ice to be the bona fide #1 D that so many of us thought he would become (myself included) and that the first couple seasons of his NHL career seemed to indicate. But he is here to stay.

I can’t say that I know what he does for the room, though he strikes me as a dick. Supposedly he is good for morale. I can buy that a lot more than I can buy Armstrong, if only because Phaneuf clearly has talents beyond morale-boosting.

Still, I think at no point should the team become so committed to him as to regard him as untouchable, provided of course he doesn’t play like a true Norris candidate – not a Mike Green-esque Norris candidate – during his days here. I think he should have a role at least until his contract expires, despite my general dislike of the trade for him – I have explained elsewhere and I know everyone else disagrees – and my general feeling that he is grossly overpaid.

Luke Schenn, 21:

  • 5G, 17A for 22P in 82 games, -7. ATOI 22:22

Despite that minus, Schenn has become one of the best young defensive defensemen in the league. He seems to always be in the right position, he takes fewer penalties than he used to and he often seems to be one step ahead of the forward he’s checking. He shows flashes – very brief flashes – of having some kind of offensive skill but I think these are just flashes. It will take quite some time for him to develop into even a moderate scorer, if indeed he ever does. I think it is silly at this point for the Leafs to decide that is going to happen.

They should view him as a legitimate #2 at this point, and not hope against hope that he will turn into a #1 before he starts wanting more money. That being said, he looks pretty good out there.

Keith Aulie, 21:

  • 2G for 2P in 40 games, -1. ATOI 19:08

Aulie looks like a legitimate stay at home defenseman in the NHL. Maybe even a true Top 4. That’s good.

Carl Gunnarsson, 24:

  • 4G, 16A for 20P in 68 games, -2. ATOI 18:15

I liked Gunnarsson last year and I still like him this year. I think he needs to play with a guy like Aulie to be truly effective but I like him. I hope that Burke doesn’t go all Stralman on him. Wait, he’s too big for that.

Matt Lashoff, 24:

  • 1A for 1P in 11 games, +1. ATOI 13:50

Not really a good enough sample size for a D.

Mike Komisarek, 29:

  • 1G, 9A for 10P in 79 games, -8. ATOI 13:38

A disastrous signing. Far worse than Beauchemin. But of course Burke could move Beauchemin – as much as he called it a mistake – because Beachemin had value. Komisarek has no value right now. His contract is too big. He is playing few minutes and not very well. Maybe it had something to do with past injuries but I figure it had more to do with no longer being saved by Andrei Markov. It sucks to no longer play with one of the best defensemen in the league and suddenly have all your bad tendencies revealed to everyone. Trade him as soon as anyone offers anything.

Bret Lebda, 29:

  • 1G, 3A for 4P in 41 games, -14. ATOI 13:20

I was wrong about this one. Thought he would help out (when he could play). I guess playing for the Wings obscures your bad tendencies. Get rid of him.

Maple Leafs Goaltending:

The Leafs were far from the only team this year to make use of at least three goalies. In fact, it has become quite common, with any number of non-playoff teams relying on 4 or even 5 goaltenders because of injuries, poor play and other factors.

James Reimer, 22:

  • 20W, 10L, 5 “other” in 37 appearances. 2080 minutes. .921 SV%. 2.60GAA

Before we get too carried away on anointing Reimer The Saviour – the accidental saviour, mind you – we should remember a thing about goalies: Many – if not most – NHL goales have hot streaks of 20-30 games at some point in their career. Recently we have seen a number of “rookie” goalies come into the league and stand on their heads before the book was out. Then they come back to earth. But it even happens to not so new goalies.

Take Chris Mason for example. In January 2009 the Blues were terrible. Then Mason put them on his back and they made the playoffs only to get swept by the Canucks. Everyone talked about Mason like he was the second coming of…well any number of goalies. Everyone was impressed. Where is he now? Backup goalie on Atlanta.

So let’s not get excited. The only way we will know that Reimer is the real deal is if he plays a full season like this. Remember, he’s still very very young for an NHL goalie. What the Leafs need to do is put him in a position to succeed, hopefully having a decent (but inexpensive) veteran to ease him into the workload. Then we will see how good he is.

JS Guigere, 33:

  • 11W, 11L, 4 “other” in 33 appearances. 1633 minutes. .900 SV%. 2.87 GAA

Guigere cannot be retained unless it’s for less money. That is clear. And if so, he should only be there to give Reimer breaks. I’d take him back at $1-$1.5 mil maybe. But with the understanding that he’s there simply as a backup. If that’s not acceptable let him walk.

Jonas Gustavsson, 26:

  • 6W, 13L, 2 other in 23 appearances. 1242 minutes. .890 SV%. 3.29 GAA

Frankly I’ve seen what I need to see. The Monster has too many health problems and has yet to adapt to the NHL game. But I don’t see Burke giving up on him any time soon. I believe he is still under contract next year. He isn’t healthy enough to backup Reimer. At least that’s the way it seems. But if it’s between Gustavsson and a ridiculously expensive veteran I’d definitely take Gustavsson, for reasons which will become apparent. The idea that he is a future starter seems pretty preposterous at this point.

The Good of the 2010-11 Season:

The Leafs are insanely young; they appear to be growing as a team and genuinely enjoy each other; they work hard; there are a lot of young players and prospects

The Bad of the 2010-11 Season:

The special teams; the general lack of top-end talent, among both players and prospects; the emphasis on character over talent; the expectations the end of year run has set among fans and (probably) the front office for next year; Burke’s arrogance and rejection of consensus, the way all successful organizations are run; Burke’s loyalty to Wilson

Where do we go from here?

I have an obvious course of action that I have stated before but will state again. I know most people disagree with this.

If I were GM, I would gather the long-term people (Kadri, Kessel, Kulemin, Phaneuf, Schenn and maybe Grabovski and Reimer) and personally apologize to them that the quick rebuild hasn’t worked. I would ask for their commitment to a slightly more substantial rebuild over the next couple years. I would then seek to move anyone who wasn’t supportive of this direction.

I would attempt to move Komisarek and possibly another player or two prior to the draft.

Though I am normally all about gaining more assets and giving up less, I would seriously investigate the possibility of moving the two first rounders to move up in this summer’s draft. Burke has said he won’t do this. Volume is important. I agree. But that’s what the Leafs have right now. They have volume. They need more top end talent. The problem, of course, is that most people regard this draft as weak. So I would only bit on this if I could fleece someone. For the most part, I think Burke is correct that they should keep these two picks. But if someone was offering a Top 15 for the two late 20s (plus a role player or something) I might seriously consider it.

I would not, under any circumstances, overpay free agents to fill the obvious gaps at centre and on the back end (powerplay quarterback). The only guys I would sign are bargains like MacArthur last year.

I would say to the team: this is the team for this season, deal with it. I would let Colborne and Gardiner come up and anyone else who looks ready and throw everyone to the wolves.

If the Leafs got off to a preposterously good start, I would trade anyone who isn’t on board with the rebuild, but particularly

those over 25 who aren’t. I would tank as much as possible and hope like hell to do well in the lottery. If it didn’t work quite well enough then maybe the Kessel-Phaneuf edition would have to be axed. I don’t know.

The fact is, the Leafs do not have a bona fide #1 centre in the system (some insist Colborne is such), nor do they have an obvious Power Play quarterback (some insist Gardiner is such). The only way to get these guys without tanking is trades (whereby Burke will have to give up something, probably someone proven i.e. Grabo, Kulemin, etc) or free agency, where the buyer always overpays and usually signs for too long. Moreover, the free agent crop this season is looking mighty slim.

As I have pointed out elsewhere, successful teams rarely acquire top flight talent through free agency but more often through trades and drafts. The problem is that in order for the Leafs to trade for their top flight talent they will have to trade away part of the supporting cast Burke has built.

I don’t for a second believe that Burke plans to tank next year. Burke plans to make the playoffs. This is the shortterm solution. Tanking with a draft pick (as they did last year, without a draft pick) is the longterm solution.

The short term solution will unfold like this:

  • Burke will sign or trade for one or both of a supposed #1 centre and a powerplay quarterback during the off season and / or early next season. At least one of the two will be substantially older than the rest of the team (begging the question, how are they supposed to be part of Kessel’s prime?).
  • Burke will probably overpay for a veteran goalie to backup Reimer.
  • If Reimer plays well, the Leafs will be a playoff team but will not be obviously superior to many teams.
  • If Reimer plays badly, the Leafs will be in a position similar to this year, only with seemingly more reason to trade for veterans at the deadline.
  • Either way, the trade deadline will prompt Burke (despite what he says) to trade away young players or prospects for older players to make the team better.
  • Mark my words: 2011-2012 will be the beginning of the return to the old ways of Quinn / Ferguson. The Leafs will perennially need one or a couple more players to be competitive and will bankrupt the system. They will not go anywhere save maybe a lucky trip to a conference final on the back of a hot goaltender.
  • Eventually Burke will resign or a new owner (one can only hope) will fire him after years of being “competitive” but never actually contending.

Or: the Leafs will become the new version of the St. Louis Blues: a bundle of potential that doesn’t seem to ever get better.

Either way, the future sucks.

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