Hockey, Sports, The Campaign to Fire Brian Burke

The Campaign to Fire Brian Burke: the ’11-’12 Leafs Preview

Cast your mind back a few years to when Burke was rumoured to be the first choice as Leafs’ GM, despite already having a job. There was a lot of hype by his supporters – and Leaf fans in general – about how he would change things, how he would be different than JFJ specifically.

Well all I see is the same old same old, only the team is worse. Both men tried to save their jobs by constantly making deals instead of going for the full rebuild. But at least JFJ had a team to work with, what Burke has hasn’t amounted to much.

And if you really disagree with me so much just ask yourself this:

  • if, on the day of Burke’s hiring, you were told that as a condition of his hiring you would have to accept a first line of Phil Kessel, Tim Connolly and Joffrey Lupul would you really have said yes?

Of course not. Because you would have believed, like many of us did, that John Tavares was the future of the Maple Leafs, and that somehow Burke was going to get him – and that Tavares was going to develop a little faster than he has.

And here we are a couple years later, nearly half way through the supposed rebuild and what to we have to build on?

Not much. I present, as yet more evidence of Burke’s bungling of his job, the Leafs’ prospective roster for the coming season:

Your 2011-12 Maple Leafs:

As it stands right now here is the Leafs’ depth chart (subject to some minor alterations through training camp and injuries of course):

  • Lupul Connolly Kessell
  • MacArthur Grabovski Kulemin
  • Kadri / Frattin Bozak Armstrong
  • Any of: Brown, Crabb, Dupuis, Lombardi, Orr, Rosehill, Steckel
  • Phaneuf Schenn
  • Liles Komisarek
  • Gunnarsson Gardiner
  • Franson
  • Reimer
  • Gustavsson

The top line:

Joffrey Lupul, LW/C:

  • Best season: 28G, 25A for 53P, -13 in 81 games with Anaheim in 05′-’06
  • Career 82 game average: 23G, 24A for 47P, -10.

Lupul, like Kessel, is a winger who couldn’t make it at centre in the NHL for the fairly obvious reasons that he doesn’t set up guys and doesn’t appear to play much defense. The Leafs brass (Wilson specifically) would like us to think that playing the most minutes of his career with Kessell and Connolly will give him a career year at 28 (a full six years after his previous career high).

They might be right but I really think they won’t be. [I was wrong] Kadri should be in this spot or not make the team (see below).

Will playing the defensively inept Lupul with the defensively inept Kessel work?

Tim Connolly, C:

  • Best season: 17G, 48A for 65P, +10 in 73 games with Buffalo in ’09-’10
  • Career 82 game average: 16G, 36A for 52P, -5

Connolly at least had his best season recently. Like Lupul, he has been beset by injuries playing 600 games in 10 seasons. If he is healthy, he looks like a good second line centre – though his peak numbers suggest first line, who knows if at 30 he is past or in his peak. He needs to be healthy to make this group offensively effective as I think Lupul’s scoring sort of rests on him.

Phil Kessel, RW/C:

  • Best season: 32G, 32A for 64P, -20 in 82 games with Toronto last season
  • Career 82 game average: 28G, 25A for 54P, -5

We know why Kessel can’t play centre – he doesn’t set up guys enough, even though he can, he can’t play defense more than one game at a time – but we also know that you can pretty much count on him for 30 goals every season.

The problem is that last year, during his best offensive season ever, he was on the ice for 71 goals against. Kessel needs defensively inclined linemates to help him out and I really doubt these two fit the bill. They will need to score a lot.

Will Kessel ever be more than a 30 goal, 60 point player? I certainly hope so given the investment.

The second line:

Clarke MacArthur, LW/C:

  • Best season: 21G, 42A for 63P, – 3 in 82 games with Toronto last season
  • Career 82 game average: 18G, 24A for 43P, -5

MacArthur had a career year last year and it’s hard to see him repeating it this year. This line was the real first line for much of last year and MacArthur was the playmaker on the team. We don’t want to break up the chemistry of this line but I have half a mind to play him with Kessel.

The problem is nobody knows if last year was something that can be expected for the future or whether it was to secure a contract.

Mikhail Grabovski, C:

  • Beast season: 29G, 29A for 58P, +14 in 81 games with Toronto last season
  • Career 82 game average: 21G, 30A for 50P, +1

Grabovski showed us a lot last year, that he really is a 2nd line centre in the league and that he is actually a pretty decent two-way player when he can be motivated to do that. He doesn’t pass enough to be a #1 but I think the Leafs have to be pretty happy.

The problem is his age: the idea that Grabovski has a higher ceiling than 60 points seems a preposterous since he will turn 28 in January. He will probably be this good for a few years more and then there will be a decline.

Nikolai Kulemin, RW/LW:

  • Best season: 30G, 27A for 57P, +7 with Toronto last season
  • Career 82 game average: 21G, 22A for 44P, +/- of 0

Kulemin on the other hand showed some real potential – being a few years younger than Grabo – and showed that he can play both ways. He is one of true bright spots for the team. Since he and Grabo are pretty much the best thing the team has defensively among the forwards it stands to reason that they will be playing the tough defensive match-ups which means their point totals may suffer – unless they both become so good that they both shutdown opponents and score at the same time – but I don’t know that the line should be broken up if they are scoring less.

The team needs someone to play D up front.

The third line:

Nazem Kadri, LW/C:

  • Last year in the NHL: 3G, 9A for 12P in 29 games, -3.
  • Last year in the AHL: 17G, 24A for 41P in 44 games, +2.
  • Career 82 game average in the OHL: 31G, 56A for 87P, +20

Kadri may not get this spot but at the moment it seems to be his and I think that’s terrible (see below). Lupul should be here despite his iffy defense. Or a prospect who isn’t attempting to become an offensive player in the league.

With the lack of defense on this line, one can only hope for power play time for Kadri and for enough minutes to show what he could possibly do. He needs an actual chance, not a 29 game taste. Good decision making him a winger though.

Update: His injury means that Frattin will start in his place. I think this is probably good for Kadri because if Frattin can do a good job of being a 3rd liner then maybe Kadri can get top six minutes in the minors – or, if Lupul is about as good as I expect him to be, in the majors – and we can finally see what he is.

Frattin’s career 82 game average in NCAA: 46G, 39A for 86P

Tyler Bozak, C:

  • Last year in the NHL: 15G, 17A for 32P in 82 games, -29
  • Career 82 game average in the NCAA: 36G, 42A for 78P, no +/- info available

Bozak was put in a terrible position by the team last year and failed miserably. As a result they have decided he should be put in another difficult position. What about being a team worst -29 says this guy plays defense? I admit I’ve seen potential from him too but it can’t be consistent: either Kessel is so bad defensively that he dragged Bozak down with him or Bozak isn’t good defensively even though he looks it at times.

This line is going to struggle to stop people.

Update: Bozak will once again centre the “first” line while Connolly is hurt. Oh dear.

Colby Armstrong, RW:

  • Best season: 16G, 24A for 40P, +15 in 47 games with Pittsburgh in ’05-’06
  • Career 82 game average: 17G, 23A for 40P, +6

Putting aside what I think of Armstrong’s salary, Armstrong has proven he can be an effective player , though I really don’t get all those people who claim he affects the Leafs’ winning percentage, because even if they do have more wins with him in the lineup, the guy played 16 minutes a game last season…that’s out of 60 folks.

I’m just not sure he’s so effective he can counter the defensive problems of his two linemates over the course of a season. But this is where he belongs despite his salary.

The fourth line:

The Leafs have tons of options for the 4th line – at least 6 players once Lombardi is healthy -and it’s not all that important provided they do their job properly, i.e. hit people, don’t give up goals, score the occasional goal.

Certainly a healthy Lombardi has a greater chance than the rest of them at playing further up the depth chart.

Forward summary:

I wouldn’t have signed Connolly as you all know, and not just because he was a very distant second in terms of available free agent centres, but more because I thought the Leafs should tank for some elite talent this year. I know that wouldn’t happen, but I tried to dream.

The other reason was that so Kadri, if he makes the team, could play top 6 minutes. I get that he isn’t an NHL centre, and I’m actually quite happy the team has recognized this and moved him to the wing. But if you want to find out if this guy can play, you need to give him a real opportunity, either at the AHL or the NHL. One of my biggest peeves with the Leafs since I have returned to the fold is that they almost never develop prospects properly. (Kaberle and now Schenn being the rare exceptions.) I believe that anyone in any role in any organization needs to understand the expectations set for them, but when a team says “you’re not good enough” and then “we need you” repeatedly over a career it is probably hard to take. Kadri should have spent the whole year in the minors last year and if he didn’t perform that well he should do it again this year. He certainly shouldn’t be trying to learn a checking role when the team wants him to become a top 6 forward.

Remember Tlusty? They did the same thing with him and look what happened.

Interestingly, Cullen has the 2nd line ranked first and Kessel’s second, which is certainly more accurate in terms of quality of the lines, but I think it won’t be reflected in minutes.

Basically, I think that Kadri (or Colborne or whichever “prospect” makes the team) should be on a top six at the sacrifice of an older player. (Lupul anyone?) The concern is to develop a future, not to promote mediocrity now. Having their supposed best offensive prospect play third line minutes is retarded. This reminds me somewhat of Lindros centreing Kilger and Domi way back (’07-’08).

The Leafs have acquired Steckel as I was writing this leaving me to wonder why, as they already have a million guys like him.

The top D pairing:

Dion Phaneuf, D:

  • Best season: 17G, 43A for 60P, +12 in 82 games with Calgary in ’07-’08
  • Career 82 game average: 15G, 32A for 47P, +3

Phaneuf is quite far removed from his best seasons but there is no reason to think he can’t return to this form given his age. It remains to be seen.

Personally, I think the best bet is to pair him with Schenn – or possibly Aulie if Aulie becomes a dependable defensive D at the NHL level – allowing Phaneuf to play a more risky style.

Luke Schenn, D:

  • Best season: 5G, 17A for 22P, -7 in 82 games with Toronto last year
  • Career 82 game average: 4G, 15A for 19P, -6

Schenn appears to be to be getting better and better. His minus, as far as I’m concerned, stems from playing for a shitty shitty team the last three seasons. I am convinced that it will go away as soon as the Leafs are better than .500. (I mean a real .500, not an NHL .500)

As far as I’m concerned, he is their best stay at home defenceman and a legitimate #2/#3 in the league depending on how the pairs are set up. (I.e. a #2 when paired with a Phaneuf, a #3 when paired with another shutdown.)

The second pairing?

John-Michael Liles, D:

  • Best season: 14G, 35A for 49P, +5 in 82 games with Colorado in ’05-’06
  • Career 82 game average: 11G, 33A for 44P, -3

Liles is supposed to be the poor man’s Kaberle. If he is better in the playoffs than Kaberle – which is not hard, but Liles’ numbers don’t bear that out – then he already is more.

I thought he was a good pickup, if the Leafs weren’t so inundated with D. I think he should be fine as a top 4 offensive D. I don’t think he is part of the future but he certainly should be able to do this job reasonably well.

If not, trade him! He isn’t young enough and Franson is sitting around without a job.

Mike Komisarek, D:

  • Best season: 4G, 13A for 17P, +9 in 75 games with Montreal in ’07-’08
  • Career 82 game average: 2G, 11A for 12P, -1

It must drive the old guys nuts that someone like this could make that much money. Alas, it is the way of the world.

Komisarek looked to be a legitimate #2 / #3 shutdown D in Montreal, but it seems as though this was the Markov effect instead. Without Markov he has been just abysmal in TO (-17 with 14 points) and last year was demoted to the 6th D. I have him this high only because I have heard that they are playing Gardiner protected minutes. Gunnarsson might be here instead, it’s hard to know. I am trying to stick to Left / Right pairings as long as I can so I put Komisarek here in the hopes that if the Leafs do give him this much of a role, he doesn’t play as bad as he has the last two years.

Trade him ASAP. I mean, if he plays well, don’t sit and think about it: trade him. This is a terrible, terrible contract.

Third pairing?

Carl Gunnarsson, D:

  • Best season: 4G, 16A for 20P, -2 in 68 games with Toronto last season
  • Career 82 game average in SEL: 5G, 10A for 15P, +8

I like Gunnarsson though I think he might find himself the odd man out.

Frankly I do think this is too far down the chart for him but he is ostensibly the third best left shot on D. I predict that he will play like he deserves more time, probably won’t get it and will eventually find himself traded because of his lack of a physical game and he will prove a useful piece on some other team.

Jake Gardiner, D:

  • Career 82 game average in NCAA: 13G, 38A for 51P

Gardiner impressed more than most thought he would and he has made the team ahead of both Aulie and Franson, who both have more experience.

One writer – he works for the Sun so we can *cough* write him off – claims he will be a star. I will believe it when I see it. For the moment it doesn’t make sense to me to play him in protected minutes in the NHL when you can play him in top 2 minutes in the AHL and when you have Franson to play here instead but who am I to judge?

7th D:

Cody Franson, D:

  • Best season: 8G, 21A for 29P, +10 in 82 games with Nashville last year
  • Career 82 game average in the AHL: 12G, 37A for 49P, -1 (barely)

Franson looked great in very limited minutes with Nashville the past two years. The point of getting someone like this and putting him on a rebuilding team – as opposed to having him play a depth role on a competitor like Nashville – is to see if he can play top 4 (or even top 2) minutes. Starting him in the press box does not accomplish this. The Leafs will not know what they have with this guy until they play him.

D summary:

There are eternally two options on D: either you pair your best offensive (think Kaberle and McCabe together) and defensive players – shutdown pairs on many teams, like Bieksa / Hamhuis on Vancouver this past playoff – together or you pair offense with defense (think Keith and Seabrook before Seabrook started scoring).

I think the latter works for a team like the Leafs because of the talent involved; Komisarek and Aulie aren’t good enough to play shutdown with Schenn and it leaves Phaneuf, Liles and whomever else exposed without those guys playing with them. It’s tough to figure out this year with all the shakeups.

  • Aulie didn’t make the team as expected.
  • Komisarek made it – which is a surprise only if we thought Wilson was being rational about this process – and
  • Franson sort of made it.

My pairings are guesses because honestly I can’t watch preseason hockey, it is meaningless. But I really can’t understand why Gardiner is playing instead of Franson: put Gardiner in the minors for a year and see if he can play and let Franson play to see what he does. Jesus.


It boggles my mind that this team is what results from the Leafs being as bad as they have been for so many years. Other teams acquire top end talent the Leafs… acquire talent which isn’t thought to be top end.

Maybe they will luck out on someone like Colborne or Gardiner (one can only hope) but they haven’t lucked out on Kadri (so it seems anyway) or Bozak or any number of others. (They have only lucked out so far on Kulemin, Reimer – perhaps – and Schenn.) It is a chancy thing, rebuilding, and the only way to ensure you have a good chance is to accumulate as much of these risks as possible (like the Jays are trying to).

But the Leafs don’t believe this; they believe they can buck trends and do things differently. The result is a top line of Lupul, Connolly and Kessel – which will probably be unseated by the real top line just like last year – and a whole bunch of 2nd, 3rd and 4th liners who may collectively be good enough to make the playoffs (with a hot goalie) but have nowhere near the talent needed (at either end) to advance.

The only way this team wins anything is if it turns into some kind of crazy shutdown beat-the-shit-out-of-you-while-the-refs-pretend-it’s-pre-lockout-hockey team (like the ’07 Ducks, last year’s Bruins) and do any of us believe that a Phil Kessel-led team is going to be that?

Please MLSE, fire your GM so you can hire a guy who believes that he isn’t always right, who believes in consensus, who believes that just because he thinks something, doesn’t mean it’s true, who isn’t his own brand of hockey and who understands how to create a successful organization.

Otherwise the Leafs will be mediocre (at best) ad infinitum.

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