Slow and Steady Wins the Race (GRAPHIC IMAGE WARNING)
The Maple Leafs have agreed to terms with two more of their more industrious pick and shovel men this week; returning to the club are Daryl Boyce and what is left of his nose after nearly tearing it off in a freak accident in which his olfactory appendage became lodged in a camera lens peep hole in the plexiglass at the ACC last spring. The hard working shutdown forward won over his coach and teammates as well as the majority of Leaf Nation with his gutsy, all-in determination and infectious team-first attitude. Alsaskan-born Joey Crabb will also return and compete for a spot among the increasingly crowded bottom six. Crabb adds a dimension to the team that is somewhat similar to what Boyce brings in that he is a positive influence on the bench, he is extremely coachable, and is willing to do all that is asked of him to give his team a chance to win. It's the presence of players like Boyce and Crabb among others which has led to a drastic shift in the Leafs' collective psyche. This is a group that is not content to roll over. It is also a group that is much closer-knit than any we have seen since the days of Dougie Gilmour and Wendel Clarke. Media personalities fortunate enough to interact with the team on the road can attest to the close bond that has developed among Burke's Leafs in contrast to former incarnations of the Blue and White. This group is learning to play, and care, for eachother.
In news nothing to do with the Leafs, speculation of a potential Steven Stamkos defection was laid to rest as the young Lightning superstar signed a five-year deal to remain with the team. With the list of remotely possible offensive upgrades diminishing, the tactics used in Toronto to actuate Burke's re-structured franchise may begin to change course. It is conceivable that the team president may begin to transition to a different role within the organization, making greater use of Dave Nonis and Rick Dudley to handle the managerial tasks while he focuses more on the title of team president. Recent actions during the free agency period, in which his subordinates were entrusted with the task of negotiating with prospective free agents would indicate that this is a real possibility.
Such a strategy would effectively take him off the hot-seat, and buy a little more time to build a winner without concern for his employment as acting GM. And with the current landscape, a little more time may be necessary to see his crop of picks and prospects acquired through various means bear fruit. With no immediate elite help coming, it could be down to waiting for the likes of Kadri, Gardiner, Colborne and Franson to grow into their roles as future leaders. By the time these and other talents have rounded into form, Burke's contract will have nearly expired, and he'll likely look for a new deal minus the GM title, leaving such responsibilities to Nonis and Co. to handle. In the meantime, he might stay the course and look to next year's draft and UFA class for ways to make improvements to both the current, and future crop of players.
This year's group should be more consistent and competitive than the previous one, with the addition of an improved top centreman and two legitimate puck-luggers on the back end. Special teams should realize a quantifiable boost. If Reimer repeats, the team should prove to be able to bank points crucial to post-season opportunity in the early months of the 2011-12 campaign, and the overall improvement could be the difference for a team desperate to make the quantum leap to post-season contention.
Like other teams engineered by Burke in the past, the real results of his efforts may still be several seasons away. I'm sure he'd like to stick around to see those results. In the meantime, its business as usual; creating an organization with a consistent vision from junior-pro to the big show, both on the ice and in the front office.
With the glut of quality blueliners on the books, a depth move for forward help may be forthcoming, but there will be no summertime blockbusters to catapult the team into instant respectability. Slow and steady may be what wins this race...