Burke Means Business...Hanson Heads to Washington...Zigomanis Re-ups, and More...
Brian Burke acquired NCAA power forward Christian Hanson late in the spring of 2009. The undrafted 6'4” son of Slapshot's Dave Hanson signed a two-year deal worth a million and a half and spent the majority of those two years with the Marlies. In 42 NHL games, Hanson amassed nine points and 22 penalty minutes.
While many felt the big centre had the goods to crack the roster out of last season's camp, he spent the majority of the year toiling with the Marlies, notching 13 goals and 21 assists in 58 games, and was often one of the most impactful players in the lineup, utilizing both his two-way skills and physicality to full effect.
With the departure of Tim Brent, the door appeared open for Hanson to receive the promotion to the bigs, pending a new deal. While an offer for a two-way extension was tabled, Hanson declined and ultimately found his way to the Washington Capitals, recently inking a one-year deal.
Faceoff ninja Mike Zigomanis put pen to paper on a new two-way deal for two years recently, and could find himself plugging the hole in the bottom six and on the PK; an area Coach Wilson has yet to succeed in improving. Zigomanis' excellence in this area could mean instant and obvious improvement, and nobody championed Zig's cause more than Don Cherry, who was very vocal about this very topic.
Daryl Boyce and the Leafs continue to work towards a new deal and Boyce has made it clear that he would like to continue his career in Blue and White. Boyce is exactly the kind of pick and shovel man that both Burke and Wilson have expressed admiration for, due to his never-quit attitude and high level of motivation. He's no game-breaker, but the likeable P.E.I. native always seems to be actively engaged in the play and he certainly exceeded career projections in terms of upside and overall impact. He may never have seen such an opportunity with a deeper organization, but Burke and Co. Have made it known that they will always find a way to give those players most deserving of the opportunity a shot at cracking the lineup.
With quantifiable improvement to the top six coming in the form of Tim Connolly, as well as the additions of wild-card Matt Lombardi and top-four D candidates Cody Franson and John-Michael Liles, the overall team depth is vastly improved, at least on paper. Connolly is a guy who can quarterback the powerplay, and do time on the penalty kill, as well as filling the need for a puck-distibutor for Phil Kessel, who has miraculously reached 30 goals in consecutive seasons despite the obvious lack of a legitimate number one pivot to dish the puck. If healthy, the slick skating Connolly makes Kessel and Lupul all the more dangerous. Assuming the second line of Kulemin, Grabovski and MacArthur remains intact, the Leafs' top six could be a tough group to try to contain.
It is assumed Tyler Bozak will slide to the three-hole, a role the playmaking centre will likely do very well in. He's a gifted forechecker and is very adept at picking off errant neutral-zone bobbles. What has been missing is the ability to bury his chances. If Wilson can find a good secondary scorer to convert those opportunities, the Leafs' third line could mimmic the more successful third lines in the game such as Tampa, Pittsburgh or Boston, who not only shut down top line opposition, but can contribute with a respectable points total. If the team makes the playoffs, those third lines often make the difference when the Sid Crosby's, the Sedin's and the Stamkos' of the world find themselves double-covered.
Nazem Kadri and Matt Frattin among others will likely battle it out for full-time work on the third line with Bozak and Colby Armstrong, while the fourth line is a little tougher to predict. It is safe to assume that recently re-signed Jay Rosehill and heavyweight enforcer Colton Orr, cleared for duty, will share in the dirty work. If Burke's past is any indication, nobody will inherit those seemingly vacant positions. What is likely to emerge is a logjam of players competing for those final spots, as is the case current situation with the blueline. With Keith Aulie, Dion Phaneuf, Luke Schenn, John-Michael Liles, Carl Gunnarsson, Cody Franson, Mike Komisarek, Matt Lashoff and possibly others like Jeff Finger and Korbinian Holzer battling it out for six jobs, the competition will be fierce, and that is absolutely by design. If cleared for active duty by camp, Matt Lombardi will challenge for a top six job as well, meaning that the days of free passes due to lack of depth are long-gone. Jonas Gustavsson will also need to redeem himself and win back some confidence from his teammates who played with so much more composure when Reimer was between the pipes. While 'Optimus Reim' will likely bear the heavier load this coming season, The Monster, heading into a contract year, will be competing hard to prove to the league at large that he is not Fabian Brunstromm in goal pads. A solid season, even with limited duty, could make or break his tenure in the NHL, and nobody knows it better than him.
The team will require a repeat performance from James Reimer this coming season if they are to finally move the needle and end a long, painful playoff drought that has left bench boss Ron Wilson on the hot-seat going forward. In this, his contract year, the lame-duck aspect of his employment status sends a distinct message to both the coach and Leaf Nation that Burke means business. It is worth noting that while two of the three assistant coaching jobs were recently turned over, in the event that a coaching change is deemed necessary before another season slips out of reach, Wilson's replacement will likely be afforded the luxury of inviting his right-hand-man along for the ride, whether his successor is currently working within the Leafs' system or not. While the implication is subtle, the message is likely not lost on Wilson. If he can't reach his charges in a way that equates to sustained success, Burke will take action, hopefully, before the damage is done. Friendships aside, Burke's mandate is clear: get better, make the playoffs.
Yup, Burke means business...