What The Future Holds...

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On the heels of a disheartening loss against the last-place Carolina Hurricanes, it could now be concluded that the Toronto Maple Leafs will not be participating in the playoffs this season.

When the 2009-10 campaign comes to an end, it will mark the fifth-straight season the Leafs have failed to reach the post-season. While fans of the Blue and White should be familiar with this ending, there's something about this season that is particularly infuriating.

Oh, that's right. There's no first-round draft pick to look forward to at the National Hockey League Entry Draft in Los Angeles this summer. But, if there was, "Tank Nation" would be blue in the face knowing their team is currently ranked 28th in the NHL overall standings. With no first-round draft pick to compensate for the Leafs' mediocrity this season, what exactly do Leafs fans have to look forward to?

Well, despite the negative undertones in the paragraphs above, it's not all doom and gloom for Leafs fans.

Since Brian Burke stepped in as General Manager of the Leafs last season, he has been entrusted with the task of building a solid foundation by importing a mix of youth, skill and brawn. In his first off-season with the Buds, Burke restructured the defence corps, added a considerable amount of grit, and managed to lure the most sought-after goaltending prospect outside of the NHL in Jonas Gustavsson to hopefully become the club's future No.1 netminder.

Not bad, but in Leafs Nation, results are expected instantaneously, or else it is deemed a failure (it amazes me how many Leafs fans seem to be turning on Luke Schenn). As soon as Burke pulled the trigger on the deal that brought Phil Kessel to the Leafs in exchange for two first-round draft picks and a second-round draft pick, Burke has been under the microscope. The Leafs' mediocre play this season, combined with Kessel's recent cold-streak, has caused many to question whether Burke is restructuring the Leafs with the right approach.

However, can it really be justified that Burke hasn't lived up to his promises thus far? There are only seven players on the current Leafs roster--Kessel, Gustavsson, Tyler Bozak, Francois Beauchemin, Mike Komisarek, Colton Orr and Garnet Exelby-- that are Burke's acquisitions, and he has yet to adjust the Leafs' offence to his liking, besides the addition of Kessel.

Yes, the Leafs will likely relinquish a lottery pick to the Boston Bruins, but is it really fair to judge the trade when Kessel is only 22 years old? He hasn't even entered his prime and he has already flirted with the 40-goal plateau. That, and players like Stalberg, Bozak and Hanson are just getting their feet wet in terms of NHL experience, so can their impact on the Leafs really be determined just yet? Then there's Gustavsson, who has posted respectable numbers as a rookie goaltender in the NHL. He has shown signs of eventually blossoming into a No.1 goaltender, but his status for the future remains unclear.

At the end of the day, the Leafs' future remains a question mark, but to say they have taken considerable steps towards building a respectable franchise once more is indisputable. The problem is that impatience continues to plague the Leafs' fanbase, and enduring even a short-term period of mediocrity remains out of the question.

Even though the Leafs will not be selecting a first-round draft pick for the next couple of years, it does not mean the future has been sabotaged for one player. Since when do a couple of first-round pick determine whether a team's future is in jeopardy anyway? Obviously, it could be setback, but considering the Leafs acquired Kessel, is it not possible that Burke comes out on top? The first-round is not the only round in the draft. Burke traded two first-round draft picks, not two drafts entirely. The Leafs can still build and maintain a quality core if the scouting is productive, so it's a little premature to criticize Burke this early in his tenure.

Also, let's not forget about the NHL Trade Deadline and the upcoming off-season. The Trade Deadline will give Burke an opportunity to unload players he may not see fit for the future. Matt Stajan, Lee Stempniak, Alexei Ponikarovsky and Vesa Toskala have all been rumoured to possibly be on the move. Although it's unlikely Tomas Kaberle is traded, expect that rumour to pick up heat as the deadline approaches. While the Leafs won't be acquiring any first-round picks for the players mentioned above, aside from Kaberle, second and third-round draft picks are not out of the question for players like Stajan or Ponikarovsky, but perhaps it's a little too early to speculate on their value.

The off-season is when the Leafs will undergo major changes. There are 11 pending unrestricted free agents, and eight restricted free agents. That'll mean a new-look Leafs team heading into the 2010-11 season. It's unlikely that a lot of offensive talent will be imported through free agency, so expect the likes of Bozak, Stalberg, Hanson and Nazim Kadri to serve crucial roles on next year's squad--unlike Stalberg's fourth-line duties this season.

Let's also not forget the fact that players like Nikolai Kulemin, Luke Schenn, Carl Gunnarson, and Mikhail Grabovski continue to adapt to the NHL game and still have potential not yet realized.

There's plenty of room to grow on the Leafs, and fans have only witnessed the early stages of Burke's overall plans. To deny the Leafs GM the benefit of the doubt would be foolish.

Despite the scrutiny Burke has been under since the Kessel trade, I think there's reason to believe we will be able to chant "Go Leafs Go!" with pride once again. It all starts and ends with Burke.

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