By HOWARD BERGER
MINNEAPOLIS (June 23) – During the final two months of the 2010-11 season, the Toronto Maple Leafs appeared to be progressing better than at any juncture in the post-lockout NHL. Though the Leafs have routinely made up ground in the latter portion of the schedule, their improvement this time looked and felt more legitimate on several grounds… a) the club rocketed into playoff contention well before so-called “garbage time” in other years and prevailed in a number of difficult, pressure games; b) a group of young players took major steps toward becoming solid NHLers, whereas previous uprisings were fronted by veterans on their way out of town, and c) there was stability in goal from night to night for the first time since 2004.
It goes without saying that heads will begin to roll in Leaf land if the latest upswing proves to be another mirage. No more “re-set” buttons are available to coach Ron Wilson, and given the hierarchy of Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment is about to be altered with a new CEO, job security may not abound at any level of the organization. But, I don’t think we were fooled this time. James Reimer, Nikolai Kulemin, Luke Schenn, Mikhail Grabovski, Nazem Kadri and Keith Aulie made impressive strides last season and provided the Leafs an altogether different look. Though Reimer is undoubtedly the key to continued improvement – and goalies can be flash in the pans – my money is on a resumption of what we primarily witnessed between Feb. 15 and Apr. 9 (a 14-7-5 final third of the schedule). While several of the aforementioned – Reimer included – may typically founder at times in their sophomore campaign, the collective maturity of this group bodes well for a marked ascent in the Eastern Conference. Don’t be surprised if many of the hockey forecast magazines pick the Leafs to end their record playoff drought.
JAMES REIMER IS UNDOUBTEDLY THE KEY TO CONTINUED
IMPROVEMENT FOR LEAFS AND HE LOOKS LIKE THE REAL DEAL
At no time in the post-lockout NHL has yours truly felt this way about the Blue & White. General manager Brian Burke may have “stumbled” upon Reimer (pressed into action in early-January because of injuries), but good fortune tends to be earned at this level. Burke has completely revamped the hockey club in the 31 months since he took over from Cliff Fletcher; not every move has been a gem, but two in particular have placed the Leafs on a solid heading: the Aulie-Dion Phaneuf acquisitions from Calgary, and the procurement of Joe Colborne and a first-round pick in the trade with Boston for Tomas Kaberle. These changes have largely simplified the task of returning the Leafs to credible playoff contention and fans of the hockey club should not be sitting on pins and needles during the draft assembly here in Minnesota.
Rather than instigating trade-window offers for Kaberle – as he’s done the past couple of summers (thank God that’s over!) – Burke can now look toward solidifying the few areas of the club that require attention. He doesn’t have to (nor will he) do it all in the next few days here in the Twin Cities, but you can reasonably expect at least two prime additions to the roster before training camp in September. A front-line centre will be pursued via trade while a puck-moving defenseman should be available in free agency come July 1. Ideally, Burke would also add a reliable scoring winger, particularly if he feels Clarke MacArthur – who seems headed for salary arbitration – will not return.
BRIAN BURKE IS BUSILY WORKING THE PHONES HERE IN
MINNEAPOLIS, TRYING TO LAND A NO. 1 CENTRE-MAN
The challenge, of course, in filling these requirements is competing among fellow GMs; half the teams in the league are looking for the same commodities as Burke. But, the Leafs’ boss has a couple of advantages: a) roughly $15 million in cap space after – and assuming – his restricted free agents are signed; they include MacArthur, Schenn and Tyler Bozak. Reimer and defenseman Carl Gunnarsson have already re-upped with the team. And b) Burke’s own drive and temperament. He has been the most proactive GM in the league for much of the past two years and he’ll remain aggressive until his goals are achieved. That guarantees nothing, of course, but it far outweighs the mostly-reactive nature of prior Leaf administrations.
Here in Minnesota, Burke is vigorously trying to land a centre-man via trade. His best options could include Paul Stastny of Colorado and Jeff Carter of Philadelphia. Ironically, Carter would be a Leaf today had Kaberle chosen not to exercise his no-movement clause in February 2008. Fletcher had worked out a gem of a deal with Flyers’ counterpart Paul Holmgren that had Carter and a first-round draft choice headed to Toronto for Kaberle. Since that time, Carter has been somewhat injury prone but is a proven, big-time scorer, with seasons of 29, 46, 33 and 36 goals. He is not, however, a play-maker first (181 career goals; 162 assists). That’s where Stastny would be more appealing. As indicated in this space two days ago, he is among the best, young set-up players in the league, and his $6.6 million salary could be a trifle rich for the Avalanche, who no longer draw capacity crowds to the Pepsi Center and must look after Matt Duchene when he comes off entry-level restriction a year from now.
DOWNTOWN MINNEAPOLIS, WHERE BRIAN BURKE AND LEAFS
CONTINGENT IS STAYING BEFORE FRIDAY’S DRAFT IN ST. PAUL
Pending re-commitment to their current teams, a host of good, mobile defensemen could be on the open market a week tomorrow. They include Kevin Bieksa, Sami Salo and Christian Ehrhoff of Vancouver; Joni Pitkanen of Carolina and James Wisniewski of the Canadiens. While GM of the Canucks, Burke drafted Bieksa in 2001 and the Grimsby ON native would perfectly round out the Leafs big and deep blue line. He has, however, spoken blatantly about his desire to remain with the Western Conference champions. Any of the aforementioned would fit in nicely on the Toronto back end.
Burke holds three of the first 39 draft positions tomorrow night in St. Paul, but doesn’t pick again until No. 86. He has indicated that one of his first-round selections (Nos. 25 and 30) is available as part of a trade package but has also said he wants to make two of the three picks in the top 39. Whatever the case, he certainly has more bullets in his holster than at any previous time as Toronto GM.
It could be an interesting next 48 hours here in the Land of 10,000 Lakes.