Lacing Up with Ash and Stoosh - 12.07.08
Lacing Up is a weekly column taken from an email conversation between Ashley Gallant and CJ. “Stoosh” Jiuliante. Stoosh is a former Faceoff Factor staff writer and a long-time hockey fan.
Stoosh and I have decided to start The Great ‘Lacing Up’ Experiment. We have lined up several guest writers who will join us for the next several weeks and offer their own opinions on the topic of the week.
This week, we are pleased to have FF writer Alex Kirshner join us at the mini-roundtable to talk about Toronto’s newest GM.
Ash: I have been bombarded with “Brian Burke for Leafs GM” propaganda ever since John Ferguson Jr. was kicked out of Toronto last winter. Burke was identified as being the best person for the job, and everyone watching was told how ‘amazing’ he would be as President and GM.
Well, Burkie now has his dream job. Fans look at him and think that they will have a Stanley Cup parade in just a few short years. After all, Brian Burke is the best thing in hockey since, well, Lord Stanley.
Maple Leafs Sports and Entertainment said from the get-go that they wanted a proven winner instead of a rookie GM. Sure, Burke has a shiny Stanley Cup ring on his finger, but is he the kind of guy who can and will turn this franchise around? Will he live up to the hype? And just what do you think he will do to this team?
Kirsh: Well, I think this is one of the least surprising hires in the history of the NHL. Ever since last season, even while Burke and MLSE denied the rumors, there has been a sense of inevitability involving Burke’s eventual addition to the front office of the Toronto Maple Leafs. I get the sense that the Leafs and Burke feel that they are a match made in heaven, a la Ken Holland in Detroit or Lou Lamoriello in New Jersey. Both parties seem to think that they are perfectly suited for each other with no negatives involved at all.
And I don’t get it.
Burke is the kid of man who will want to win immediately—He won’t allow the Leafs to gradually rebuild in the same way that Cliff Fletcher had been beginning to efficiently do. I won’t be shocked by any means if Burke has shipped out half of his team by the trade deadline. He is so intent on cleaning house that he might give up some key pieces like Kaberle, Kubina, and Antropov for massive underpayment. He will be so set on leaving his mark on this franchise that he’ll make some pretty outlandish moves, I’d be willing to wager.
The Leafs have a sold young core in place, largely thanks to Fletcher. Talented players like Schenn, Grabovkski, Kulemin, Hagman, Stralman, even Stajan are not bad building blocks by an means. I get the worst feeling that Burke will decimate that core one way or another, either because of his well documented dislike for Europeans, or simply his desire to have his own players on his own team.
It’s up to Burke to prove me wrong, but I don’t see his style as fitting to that team in any way, and I think the results will show.
Ash: Burke will want to put his stamp on this team, and he will want to do so quickly. He is already talking to Dave Nonis, and I think you’ll see Nonis follow Burke to Toronto by the week’s end.
As for what he will do to the roster, Burke said something interesting today on TSN’s Off The Record. When asked whether he was going to aim for a last place finish or whether he was going to try to win a few games this season, he said quite simply that he didn’t know. He stated that teams that neither do well nor poorly (see Toronto the last several seasons) will get nowhere fast. You either have to do well or finish in the basement of the standings if you have any hope of getting close to the Cup in the foreseeable future.
If Burke can somehow manage to get his hands on a few good players this season, and if the team plays incredibly well in the next two weeks, then maybe Burke will give the playoffs a shot. I honestly don’t see this happening; the Leafs may trade a few players to pick up some draft picks (they only have 5 next year and 5 in 2010), but they won’t be in the market for superstar players. They will make sure that they finish in the basement – with support from the fans – and try to draft Tavares next summer.
There’s something else that Burke will pick up next summer: half of Anaheim’s players. Most of the players he leaves behind are UFAs or RFAs on July 1, including all of Anaheim’s defencemen except for Chris Pronger.
Kirsh: That’s a very good point that Burke makes. Just looking at the NHL the past couple of years before the lockout, teams like the Penguins, for example, finished at the very bottom of the league and came away with studs like Fleury, Whitney, Malkin, Crosby, and Staal. Teams like the Boston Bruins finished in the middle of the pack during those years and wound up with Mark Stuart, Matt Lashoff, Hannu Toivonen, and Phil Kessel, all an echelon down from what the Pens wound up with.
If Burke does so choose to get rid of Kaberle, Kubina, and Antropov, I feel he’d be best suited searching for first round picks in return, as all three players would likely net first rounders. With the incredibly deep draft class next year, that might be the best way to rebuild. Could you imagine the Leafs with four first round picks!? It would be unfair. Teams that would be looking to buy at the deadline would probably only produce low first round picks, but in this draft, there will still be high end talent available.
It may not sound politically correct, but I think Burke’s best option is to TANK TANK TANK for the rest of this season.
He doesn’t need to rush into trades right away, but if he could pick up some quality prospects and first round picks, he would not only add more picks to his repetoir at next year’s draft, but he’d also contribute to a possible top two or three pick, a pick that would get him Hedman, Tavares, or Duchene.
A firesale is the only way to go for the Leafs. Burke just better be careful that he doesn’t get ripped off.
Also, Ash, you make a good point about the free agent crop this summer that will include a flock of ducks. All failed attempts at a pun aside, a depth guy like Moen or a versatile center like Morrison could be a nice addition to the Maple Leafs at a low cost. Also, there are a number of quality goal scorers who will be on the market, and we all know Burke is never hesitant to pull the trigger on a move he thinks will make his team better, even if it’s risky.
Stoosh: The good news for Leafs fans seems to be that Burke at least recognizes the need for some sort of a plan that doesn’t constantly involve dealing first and second-round picks for washed-up veterans or higher-profile reclamation projects. And if you think I’m talking about guys like Owen Nolan (who cost them Brad Boyes) and Andrew Raycroft (who cost them Tuukaa Rask), you’d be spot on.
The key to building a winner in this new NHL is to do so through the draft, but even that’s no guarantee. The Penguins and Blackhawks are obvious examples of how it can be done. But what about a team like Columbus? The Blue Jackets have picked in the top 10 every year since their inaugural 2000 Entry Draft, and you could make the case that they’re not much further along now than they were those first few years.
You can look at Columbus’s draft history and argue very convincingly for every player they picked in the first round. They didn’t seem to reach for anyone, with the possible exception of Nikolai Zherdev in 2003 (his issues were well-documented; Thomas Vanek, Milan Michalek, Dion Phaneuf and Andrei Kostitsyn were all still on the board and very worthy of that 4th overall pick). Even Gilbert Brule (6th overall in 2005) wasn’t considered that much of a reach at the time; Brule was considered the best Canadian center in that ’05 draft not named Sidney Crosby.
Everyone points at Pittsburgh, but when you look at the struggles of teams that drafted around them for most of those lean years – Chicago, Washington, Florida, Columbus – and you see a few of those teams struggling still, you realize just how tough it is to put it all together. You realize that not every team is going to undergo a Penguins-like makeover. In fact, the Pens are probably the exception moreso than the rule. Let’s face it…the Pens got incredibly blessed when three of their first round picks – Fleury in 2003, Malkin in 2004 and Crosby in 2005 – turned out to be elite, world-class players at very early ages. Most teams just want to see their first-round picks in the NHL within a couple of years; Crosby and Malkin emerged as two of the ten, maybe even five best players in the league right away.
The Pens are likely an exception. For a team like Toronto that may just be in the early stages of a rebuild, they need to realize that they could just as easily be Florida or Columbus when it comes to draft success, even with those early first-round picks.
Kirsh: You bring up an interesting point about Columbus, Stoosh. I think that team has not only drafted poorly, but they’ve also sold away some of the few draft choices they’ve made that have been most successful out of all those players Columbus has taken in its brief existence. That is an example of a team that, at least in the past, has not been patient with their players, something that has cost them dearly in the standings. Other than Rick Nash, they’ve arguabble screwed up on every high pick they’ve gotten since they’ve been in the league.
In 2003, like you said, Zherdev was taken over Vanek, Carter, Parise, Brown, Richards, Getzlaf, Burns, and all sorts of great players—That was one heck of a draft class! I don’t feel it was the best pick they could’ve made, but even so, there was no need to trade him for the massive underpayment they took this summer when they dealt him to the Rangers for Fedor Tyutin and a bag of pucks.
In 2004, they nabbed an underachieveing winger in Picard who has struggled to get out of the AHL. In 2005, they took Brule while Setoguchi, Kopitar, and Vlasic sat there for the taking. In 2006, they took Brassard with the intention of him being a number one center. That selection of Brassard is looking good, but nothing is etched in stone at this point regarding how it’ll all play out.
This kind of dismal drafting is exactly what Burke needs to avoid if he doesn’t want to be driven out of Toronto after two years. With Hedman or Tavares likely on the horizon, it would be hard for him to falter this early, right?
Ash: You guys make excellent points.
Kirsh, I think you’re right: the Leafs should just TANK TANK TANK this season. Sure, it goes against the integrity of the game, but Burke needs to make some trades to get some good draft picks and/or prospects. Five picks a year is no way to build a brand spankin’ new team. Sometimes you just have to strip it to the bone so that you can start over fresh. Fans would be thrilled if Burke can do this and rebuild a good, competitive team. Then again, they would be thrilled if the Leafs could keep the puck out of their own net.
And Stoosh, you make one heck of an excellent point. Just because Burke can trade away everything, the kitchen sink and his grandmother doesn’t mean that he will draft the next Sidney Crosby.
The draft class of 2009 does seem very deep and talented, but it doesn’t mean that they will all be surefire stars in the NHL.
I’m sure the Ottawa Senators thought that they were getting a superstar in Alexandre Daigle; they could’ve had Mr. Elbow himself, Chris Pronger.
And the Atlanta Thrashers? I bet they were excited to get Patrik Stefan, leaving a bunch of lowly Swedes on the board (guys with last names like Sedin and Zetterberg…real nobodies in hockey).
At this point in time, Burke pretty much has the keys to the franchise and the blessing to do whatever he sees fit. He is literally seen as the saviour for this franchise – the media jokes that he will walk on Lake Ontario to get to the next game in Buffalo.
He will evaluate the team and formulate a plan for the future. Ron Wilson will stay, as will rookie Luke Schenn, but beyond that is anyone’s guess. Maybe he’ll trade everyone else to Anaheim for his former team. Or maybe everyone will be traded for 38 draft picks in 2009 and he will call up a bunch of Marlies to play the balance of the season.