What's the next step in the fast-track rebuild?
The Toronto Maple Leafs are in a state of flux.
The Leafs, losing eight of its last nine games, appear to have little left in the tank and have been cutting its odds of a post-season berth (down to 30 per cent, according to sportsclubstats.com) with each passing game.
It’s easy to forget, however, that the general consensus in the off-season was that the Leafs would likely miss the playoffs for a seventh-straight season. Despite the panic spreading throughout the fan base, the Leafs are three points removed from the playoffs, with two games in hand over the eight-place Winnipeg Jets. Yes, the stats indicate that the Leafs’ chances are below 50 per cent, but a string of wins could change that quickly.
While some believe general manager Brian Burke should sell his assets for draft picks and prospects, such a notion simply doesn’t fit the Leafs’ blueprint. As mentioned above, the Leafs remain in the playoff hunt and throwing in the towel would be unacceptable. And TSN’s Darren Dreger has reported that if the Leafs trade any roster players for draft picks, they’d then swap those for a proven commodity that can bolster the top-six unit.
But with rumours swirling regarding the Leafs’ interest in players such as Rick Nash, Dustin Brown, Derek Roy and Steve Ott, what exactly is Burke’s game plan? He has stated publicly that he does not intend on relinquishing the team’s prospect depth just to squeak into the playoffs and succumb to a first-round exit. But both Nash and Brown are 27 years old and would fit well with the Leafs, who have about a five-year window to realistically compete. So is Burke playing hard-ball and using the media to inflate his players’ value?
It wouldn’t look good if Burke had publicly stated he was looking for external help and was willing to move a package of players and future assets to get it done. It puts him in a vulnerable position and gives him little leverage in trade negotiations. I’m not convinced that Burke is unwilling to move a package of young roster players and/or draft picks and prospects to acquire a top-six forward. As 3 p.m. draws closer, Burke may get desperate and pull the trigger on a deal that could potentially vault the Leafs to the next level. Unrestricted free agency hasn’t been kind to Burke (Colby Armstrong and Mike Komisarek are becoming regulars in the press box) and Brown or Nash would add a net presence the Leafs have lacked for years. So if Burke doesn’t strike now does he attempt to acquire a top-six forward at the NHL Entry Draft or take his chances on July 1? It’s clear the Leafs are still a few pieces away from contending, and its window to compete will probably last another five years. Such was the risk when Burke decided a fast-track rebuild was the appropriate blueprint for the Leafs. Unless he’s willing to start from scratch and sell his assets for draft picks and prospects, the Leafs have to start adding now.
Burke has never committed to a full rebuild, and this is why the team is in the position it’s in. That’s not to say Burke has done a poor job since becoming general manager, because he was given virtually nothing to work with when he arrived. Burke’s tenure, however, will be defined within the next two years if he continues the fast-track rebuild. If not, the Leafs would benefit from stockpiling future assets and building around Phil Kessel, Jake Gardiner, Luke Schenn and James Reimer and then bringing up prospects such as Nazem Kadri and Joe Colborne and playing them in top-six roles. But such an occurrence is unlikely to happen. The Leafs need results now, and if Burke is to keep his job then the playoff-drought has to end relatively soon.
Whether Burke decides to take the next step before tomorrow’s 3 p.m. trade deadline remains to be seen, but one would assume a major acquisition is on the horizon.
You stay classy, TCL.
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