Leafs Looking to Rebound Quickly

With the end of the 2009-10 NHL regular season, a last place finish in the Eastern Conference (29th overall) and fewest points recorded since 1997-98 was the sad reality for the Toronto Maple Leafs. Wrapping up a fifth straight season missing playoffs, all could not appear more hopeless for the team at the center of the hockey universe.

Determined to turn the team around by adding more depth and offensive power to the team, Burke’s actions throughout the offseason prove his intent for the Leafs to be in contention for a playoff spot in 2010-11.

After the Leafs organization had welcomed right-winger Phil Kessel, a 30-plus scorer in the league, veteran goalie Jean-Sebastien Giguere, and defender/recently named team captain, Dion Phaneuf, there seemed to be a glimmer of playoff hope in the minds and hearts of Leafs-nation fans. Having one of the hardest shots in the league and seen as a threat being a big-open ice hitter, Phaneuf has also improved the team’s power play and is the prototypical Burke player.

Regardless of the new additions and what seemed like a new force of life injected into the Leafs mid-season, it was yet another disappointing finish to the season – a sign that certain changes needed to be made, and with urgency.

The offseason for the Leafs organization has been active with numerous transactions taking place as Burke has been acquiring players that he thinks can play an indispensable role in determining the success of the team and improving on building a strong foundation that seems to be lacking.

The 2010 NHL Entry Draft was not a very busy scene for the Toronto Maple Leafs this year, having given up first and second round picks to the Boston Bruins in exchange for Kessel, and a first round pick in the 2011 Draft. However, the Leafs organization was able to get a hold of seven players that Burke seemed to be pleased with in welcoming as new additions.

Among the acquired players in the draft is left-winger Bradley Ross of the WHL Portland Winterhawks, who was a 13th pick in the second round and 43rd overall. Throughout the 2009-10 season playing in the WHL Ross posted 27 goals and 41 assists in 71 games, who’s physical, gritty style of play has been compared to that of former Leafs agitator, Tie Domi. Ross spent most of the season playing on a line with 2010 prospects Ryan Johansen (No. 10 ranked), and Nino Neiderreiter (No. 12 ranked).

In the unrestricted free agent market, Colby Armstrong of the Atlanta Thrashers was recently signed to a three-year $9 million contract with the Leafs, who initially entered the league as a first round pick of the Pittsburgh Penguins. Armstrong’s on-ice reputation is that he is a gritty, physical player which yet again indicates the need for more physicality and toughness that mirrors Burke’s favored style of game. Armstrong scored 15 goals in the 2009-10 season playing with the Thrashers.

Kris Versteeg of the Chicago Blackhawks (and this year’s Stanley Cup Champions), has been acquired in a trade that sent Viktor Stalberg, Philippe Paradis and Chris DiDomenico to Chicago. A top-six forward in his rookie season, Versteeg scored 22 goals in 2008-09 and is expected to see increased ice-time in Toronto, scoring 20 goals for the second straight season. Versteeg also proves effective in contributing to the team’s penalty kill as he demonstrated in Chicago- another area needing improvement with the Leafs.

The two forwards acquired by Toronto will, without a doubt, make the Leafs appear more threatening up front and strengthen the team’s goal-scoring depth.

In addition to the list of free agents picked up by the Leafs, unrestricted free agent defenseman, Brett Lebda of the Detroit Red Wings signed to a two-year $2.9 million contract, and is hoping to get more ice time with the team, confident that he can play an influential role by adding depth on the blue line.

Investing in two unrestricted free agent forwards and one defenseman, Burke has recently signed two unrestricted free agent forwards, Mike Zigomanis and Joey Crabb, as well as defenseman Danny Richmond. All players have career NHL level experience whose skill is expected to add versatility and depth to the Leafs.

Restricted free agent, Nikolai Kulemin has been given a two-year $4.7 million contract extension with the team in addition with John Mitchell being re-signed as an un-restricted free agent to a one-year contract. Restricted free agent, Christian Hanson has also been resigned with the Leafs, and although he had a disappointing year finishing with only two goals that he managed to score the final game of the season, he has potential to play a physical, checking role on the ice at 6-foot-4, 228 pounds.

With all the speculation surrounding defenseman, Tomas Kaberle, the countdown is on with just days remaining until his no-trade clause kicks in on August 15th. As the deadline date nears, it is believed that better offers will be coming Burke’s way for the Leafs’ best puck-moving defenseman. There is also the possibility for Kaberle to be re-signed with the Leafs organization, but it is reported that Burke is hoping to land a scoring forward who can be a valuable asset in upgrading the Leafs’ offense.

Numerous trades in the NHL, like Kaberle’s, have been put on hold for some time now due to the Ilya Kovalchuk saga, whose deal is still in the process of being completed. If Kovalchuk’s deal does not come through, he goes back to free-agent status which could impact the offers for Kaberle, and possibly determine whether or not he is shipped out of Toronto.

The latest news on top prospect, Nazem Kadri, reveals that he has been spending the off-season gaining muscle mass; he has reportedly gained 10 pounds since the end of the season. The need for forward talent calls upon Kadri to make the transition from the Ontario Hockey League, in hopes of bringing a scoring forward to the lineup.

After being called up for a home game with the Leafs, Kadri was sent back to the Juniors where he finished with a 93 point, 35-goal season, posting 21 points in 12 playoff games with the London Knights. He is one of the many youngsters who show offensive promise and also demonstrate physical toughness.

With the 2010 Rookie Tournament taking place in September, the Leafs’ young prospects will have the chance to prove their skill and show off their playing style, with the hopes of earning a spot on the roster in October.

Among young Leafs players showing promise and making ‘big league’ progress are Tyler Bozak, Luke Schenn, and Carl Gunnarsson, whose game had shown noticeable improvement in the second half of the season. Bozak gelled well playing on the same line with Kessel, showing good chemistry with making passes and setting up Kessel for scoring opportunities. Schenn is expected to improve this season and has demonstrated the ability to form good chemistry with Phaneuf, playing more physically and also making an impact offensively when playing alongside the Leafs’ captain. Gunnarsson is expected to get increased ice-time as well, and his fast-improving outlet passes should help the team move the puck up the ice.

Rebuilding the team on the shoulders of such young talent is crucial for the Leafs if they want positive changes to be made and new depth and variety introduced to the team.

With the 2010-11 NHL season just a few short months away, the new additions as well as returning players will have their highly anticipated start to the season with what is hopefully, an improved chemistry and enhanced offensive force. The upcoming season will be an indication of just how successful Burke’s moves are in guiding the Toronto Maple Leafs on the road to becoming an enhanced team, with intentions of being in playoff contention.

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