Leafs Require Clear Direction

With news of Brian Burke’s dismissal fully digested, the watchful gaze of the hockey world turn on newly-appointed general manager Dave Nonis and the direction of the Toronto Maple Leafs.

Since his hiring in 2008, Burke had opted for a fast-track rebuild in an attempt to stockpile prospects and draft picks while competing for the playoffs every season. Evidently, his plan was foiled by missing the post-season four years in a row, and the Leafs don’t have an elite batch of prospects to show for it.

I’d be amiss, however, not to acknowledge the decent core and (to a lesser extent) prospect pool Burke has managed to assemble.

Nazem Kadri, Morgan Rielly and Jake Gardiner (although with one season under his belt, he’s no longer a prospect) highlight the youth that could play significant roles in the future, with players like Matt Frattin and Stuart Percy likely to serve as depth players. Phil Kessel, Dion Phaneuf, Mikhail Grabovski and potentially Joffrey Lupul and James van Riemsdyk provide the Leafs with a decent core to build around.

With players like Phaneuf, Kessel and Grabovski in their mid to late-twenties, however, the Leafs are at a critical stage. Nonis declared in his press conference that the Leafs would not do a complete rebuild and instead add pieces to build upon the current core, but not at the expense of youth. Until he executes a few moves, it’s difficult to determine a clear depiction on his vision of the Leafs. While Burke was adamant on the Leafs not making the playoffs just to get decimated in the first round, Nonis may have a different view.

The potential acquisition of Roberto Luongo could be the trade that defines the Nonis era. Upon goalie coach Francois Allaire’s departure this summer, he stated that the Leafs would be a playoff team if they were to add a proven goaltender between the pipes. Well, Nonis now has that opportunity with Burke out the door, but he should tread carefully.

If Nonis is true to his word, the Leafs won’t relinquish young assets for Luongo, and for the sake of the team’s future, hopefully that’s the truth. A goaltender of Luongo’s caliber would no doubt increase the Leafs’ chances at a playoff berth, mostly due to the fact that he’d be able to cover for the spotty defense. But trading any of Rielly, Kadri or Gardiner would likely prove to be a colossal mistake. The Leafs don’t have the luxury of relinquishing young assets to become a contender, nor have they addressed their many needs (number-one center, number-two defenseman, number-one goaltender, etc.) to make a deep playoff run.

It is this dreaded middle ground that the Leafs continue to follow, mostly due to the Kessel trade. If Burke’s four years at the helm proved anything, it’s that a fast-track rebuild simply doesn’t work. Leafs fans have endured years of sub-par teams so I’m not sure why it’s such a wild suggestion that they endure a complete rebuild. Pertaining to Luongo, the Canucks have little leverage so it’s unlikely the Leafs will have to pay a considerable price in the form of prospects and/or draft picks.

But alas, this is the state of the Leafs. While adding to the current core may ultimately prove futile, at least it's a clear direction as opposed to wandering without an identity.

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