I can just imagine Maple Leafs General Manager Brian Burke on that old 1970’s game show Let’s Make a Deal. You know the one where the winning contestant gets to choose between a solid prize like a TV or the infamous mystery box. The mystery box of course could contain a very valuable prize or something meaningless like a rubber band.
Burke no doubt was in this position when he made the trade for Phil Kessel with the Boston Bruins. On the one side you have a solid young player in Kessel and on the other a bit of a mystery with two first round picks. One of those picks has turned out to be Tyler Seguin who looks to be a solid future pro while the other pick will be determined this summer.
Living in Toronto I have shied away from writing about the Maple Leafs since everywhere I turn I hear relentless analysis about the most miniscule things. Writing about other pressing NHL topics provides a refreshing change of pace. In this instance however I will break my rule.
Kessel has turned out just like many other key signings over the past decade or so in Leafs Nation. Flashes of brilliance with little or no substance. He will always be a 30-goal scorer and will probably finish with no more than around 60 points. His team leading minus-14 is a bit staggering at first but I’ll give him a break because the team overall is weak.
The point is clear though that he is not going to be winning any Selke Trophies for his great two way play. People will always make the excuse that he doesn’t have a top line centre to get him the puck. Well I would say great players make others around them better. I don’t consider Pascal Dupuis and Maxime Talbot top line wingers, but Sidney Crosby still gets it done.
Burke made the mistake that most GM’s have made since I have been following the Leafs. They feel a decent player will become a great player by putting on a Leafs jersey. Just doesn’t happen. I could name a dozen examples but Leaf fans have suffered enough recently.
It is my belief that contrary to popular opinion Toronto is not a place where players enjoy playing. When is the last time the Leafs made a big marquee signing? I’m not talking about a past their prime fan favourite. I’m talking about a legitimate superstar that every team was lining up to score on July 1st.
The team certainly has no shortage of money. Why would someone want to play here when they can play in Anaheim, Dallas, or Tampa and contend for a Stanley Cup all the while not living under a microscope?
Despite what people may think Toronto is not a hockey town. It’s a Leafs town. There is a big difference believe me.
In 2008 when the American Hockey League’s Toronto Marlies went on a semi-final run to the Calder Cup there was no significant increase in attendance at games. Even with the Leafs long since done there was still no support shown to the Marlies. This would never happen in other places across Canada where AHL and CHL teams have an incredible following. Let’s hope this years Memorial Cup in Toronto is received a little better.
In fairness to Burke this makes his job even tougher and you would have to say that just over two years into his regime it has been a big failure so far. Even the most foolishly optimistic Leafs fan would have understood the process was going to take time but the team seems no further ahead and there seems to be no light at the end of the tunnel.
If you compare them to the Oilers who were in the same spot a couple of years ago it looks to be night and day. The Oilers have a plethora of young talent and in the next few years could easily resemble last seasons Chicago Blackhawks.
The Leafs however look lost in the abyss. They win games for no particular reason. Maybe there goalie stands on his head or they catch a team on an off night but they give you no reason to believe they will win the next game or they have a foundation to build on.
Burke certainly has an uphill climb ahead to fix this problem. One thing for sure though is trading away draft picks is never the answer. In a salary cap world it is vital to build through the draft.
Sometimes you just have to take a chance and pass on the comfortable prize and go with the mystery box.