On Rebuilding - Part 4, The Toronto Maple Leafs

Kent Wilson
July 05 2012 10:48AM

 

 

(RexLibris continues his series on rebuilding this week with the Toronto Maple Leafs. Parts 1 through 3 can be found here, here and here.)

By: RexLibris

What are the common perceptions surrounding the Leafs and their recent rebuilding efforts? Okay, let’s be more specific, what are the common perceptions surrounding the Leafs rebuilding efforts that can be repeated in polite company? Here are a few that I would propose:

  • “The Maple Leafs tried to do a short cut because ownership and fans are impatient and Brian Burke believes that he is smarter than everybody else”
  • “Draft Schmaft” ©1997 and 2010
  • “Toronto always trades away their first round picks trying to land marquee players to feed their ego and then when they do retain draft picks they always screw it up”
  • “They spent years buying their way out of their problems so that when that was taken away from them (via the salary cap) they were exposed for what they really were, a piss-poor run NHL team”
  • “The Leafs couldn’t afford to stay in the bottom of the league and gather up draft picks like other teams, the fans are too demanding”

A Winding, Yet Circular Road

These are all approximations of the common refrains surrounding the Leafs recent rebuild. Some of them from Leafs fans, others from fans in the ROC (Rest of Canada). The Maple Leafs, since 2008, provide a very interesting, and not altogether easy, case study for a team trying to rebuild without doing many of the things that are typically associate with a rebuilding team.

If we are going to start with a forensic examination of the Maple Leafs’ rebuild, then there are a few significant dates to keep in mind. For our purposes we shall start with October 5th, 2005: the first game of the “New NHL” following the lockout. I’ll begin by looking at some of the moves that the Leafs made in the seasons prior to the lockout to get an idea of the type of team they were and the direction of management during this period.

From September 4th, 2002 to March 8th 2006 the Leafs, first under General Manager Pat Quinn then followed by John Ferguson Jr., the club made eighteen player trades. In all but three, the Leafs were either trading away a player or a draft pick in exchange for a roster-ready asset. The players that the Leafs acquired were Brad Leeb, Owen Nolan (ret. 2012), Phil Housley (ret. 2009), Doug Gilmour (ret. 2003), Glen Wesley (ret. 2008), Drake Berehowsky (ret. 2006), Ron Francis (ret. 2004), Brian Leetch (ret. 2006), Jeff O’Neill (ret. 2008), and Luke Richardson (ret. 2008), most of whom were on the proverbial back-nine of their NHL careers. The Leafs were an aging team filled to the brim with declining veterans more notable for past achievements than their current abilities to perform.

On the eve of the lockout the Leafs roster had only nine players on it under the age of 30 while ten of the active players had been born before 1970. The average age of the team was 31.7 years old. In those eighteen trades the Leafs sent away eleven draft picks, only one of which was in the first round, a 21st overall choice which was used to select Mark Stuart. So the price wasn’t an exorbitant nor obvious mortgaging of the future. However, the loss of eleven draft selections over the course of a four year period would come back to haunt the team, along with their traditionally poor drafting record.

Prior to the lockout the Leafs had made the playoffs twelve times in the previous fourteen years, and six consecutive years leading up to 2005. Since the lockout they have not made the post-season once. Coincidence? If you are not a conspiracy-theorist Leafs fan, then probably. Otherwise you are likely to just see this as a symptom of a larger problem: Blue and White Disease.

Directly preceding the lockout, the Leafs had gone two consecutive years without a first round pick. From those two draft years, center John Mitchell is currently the most accomplished NHL player with 222 games played and 71 points. Only three other players of the thirteen selected have played in the NHL: Robbie Earl managed 47 games, Jeremy Williams got into 32 games, while the franchise’s star goaltending prospect at the time, Justin Pogge, has played 7 games (all of them with the Leafs in the 2008-2009 season).

The Ownership group of the Toronto Maple Leafs has been a lightning rod for fans and media alike since the days of Harold Ballard in the 1980s. By 2005 the Leafs were owned by a collection of business interests including the Ontario Teacher’s Pension Plan and CTVGlobemedia, while Larry Tanenbaum held a position as non-executive chairman. In 2008 CTV sold half of its MLSE interests to Tanenbaum. This was the ownership situation when the Leafs entered their rebuilding efforts in 2008, split between a provincial pension fund, a media conglomerate, and the aforementioned Tanenbaum.

Ownership of the Leafs had been accused of meddling in the affairs of then-GM John Ferguson Jr. The team was said to be run by committee with more emphasis placed on financial returns than the quality of the product on the ice. It is difficult to either prove or disprove these assertions. However, anecdotal evidence would seem to suggest that there is a corporate lethargy and stubborn arrogance to the management structure that has prevented the Leafs from exploiting new opportunities and player resources that have been readily adopted by other NHL franchises. Stubborn arrogance and an unwillingness to adopt new methods? And this is before Brian Burke was on the scene?

Dawning of a New Age

Following the lockout the Leafs appeared to have moderated their approach in trading away draft picks for older players. Only twice since the 2005-2006 season have they dealt away 1st round picks in exchange for a player or players, though both times were disasters in their own respect. The first was a deal in 2007 that sent Vesa Toskala and Mark Bell to Toronto in exchange for a 1st round pick (Lars Eller), a 2nd round pick (Aaron Palushaj) and a 2009 4th round pick (Craig Smith) to San Jose. Bell would eventually leave the NHL following issues with substance abuse and a DUI while Vesa Toskala would become a Youtube sensation. This trade would end up being John Ferguson Jr’s last as Leafs GM.

Enter Brian Burke.

November 29th, 2008. The Toronto Maple Leafs’ rebuild can be directly tied to the time in office of General Manager Brian Burke. His hiring marked a hopeful new beginning for the team and in his introductory press conference he stated that he would rebuild the team by unconventional means, publicly eschewing the route that had been taken by Chicago, Pittsburgh, and Washington.

Burke began his tenure with the assertion that he was going to rebuild the Leafs while maintaining a competitive team on the ice and challenging for the playoffs. He stated that he would accomplish these seemingly mutually-exclusive goals by pursuing free agents, both those in the NHL and undrafted players in Europe and the college ranks, and by trading for immediate team needs. Burke deliberately stated that he was not interested in, and would not pursue, a draft-and-develop approach to rebuilding the team. Specifically that he did not subscribe to a five-year rebuilding plan that would see the team finish at the bottom of the standings (don’t laugh yet, we aren’t at the punchline!) but instead would be aggressive and mine untapped veins of hockey talent in order to add talent while still trying to win immediately.

To that end Burke brought in Tyler Bozak, Christian Hanson and Jonas Gustavsson, all undrafted and highly touted free agents playing in either the college ranks or overseas. Four years later, Bozak has seemingly hit a career plateau as an average to below-average second line center better suited to a third line role amassing 106 points in 192 games. Gustavsson appears to be one poor season away from returning to Europe. Hanson has settled into a career in the AHL, currently with the Washington Capitals’ farm team. During his brief NHL career, 42 games, Hanson managed only 9 points.

Interestingly, Burke has seemed to veer away from the undrafted college free agent ranks of late. Despite an attempt to sign Fabian Brunnstrom when he came over from Europe, there haven’t been as many high-profile college free agents in the Leafs’ sights since that initial foray.

Among Burke’s first order of business, as is often the case of incoming GMs, was to untangle the knot that Ferguson had left in his wake. Burke began by sending away some veteran players in Hall Gill, Wade Belak, and Chad Kilger, netting a 2nd, a 3rd and two 5th round draft picks in return. After a quick purge, Burke went back on a buying binge. He traded up at the draft to take Luke Schenn 5th overall, sending away three draft picks: a 1st round pick (7th overall) and 3rd round pick in that year (2008) and a 2nd round pick in 2009. Later, he traded for Mikhail Grabovski, Ryan Hollweg, Mike Van Ryn, Lee Stempniak, and Brad May all within the first calendar year of his tenure.

The Kessel Deal

The second time the Leafs traded 1st round picks following the lockout was in the Phil Kessel deal that would result in the Bruins drafting a first-line center, a power-forward winger, and a top-pairing defensive prospect; Burke handed Boston enough talent to restock a championship team on the fly. When Brian Burke’s time is over in Toronto, it will most likely be this one deal that will dominate his legacy.

While Kessel has become a focal point for the team, alongside captain Dion Phaneuf, to date he has not proven to be the talent necessary to single-handedly raise the team to the level needed for a playoff position. Kessel has finished 69th, 36th, and 6th, respectively, in the scoring race in his first three seasons with the Leafs. Yet in his best year, this past season where he finished with 82 points, the Leafs fell lower than they had in 2011, finishing 26th overall in the league.

That said, if there is an area of strength in Brian Burke’s time with the Leafs it is that he has made some (the Kessel deal notwithstanding) astonishingly good trades. The first one being the Phaneuf trade when he was able to acquire two defensemen in Phaneuf and Keith Aulie (and don’t forget Fredrik Sjostrom!) for what amounted to a collection of NHL spare parts in Jamal Mayers, Ian White, Matt Stajan and Niklas Hagman. While Sjostrom is long gone, Aulie was later dealt to Tampa Bay for Carter Ashton while Phaneuf became captain of the Leafs.

Today Matt Stajan is the only remaining Flame from that deal, his presence being somewhat begrudging as were it not for the size and burdensome clauses on his contract he would likely have been dealt away or demoted already.

The second considerable trade that Burke managed to negotiate which, in hindsight, looks like highway robbery, is the deal that sent Francois Beauchemin to Anaheim for Jake Gardiner, Joffrey Lupul, and a conditional 4th round pick in 2013. Gardiner is becoming a highly coveted defensive prospect while Lupul had a renaissance season last year. Beauchemin, on the other hand, has slowly declined into a second-pairing, or lower, defensive defenseman.

Other moves of Burke’s that deserve consideration are his trade of Tomas Kaberle to Boston for Joe Colborne, a 1st round pick (used to select Rickard Rakell), and a 2012 conditional 2nd round pick, as well as the trade of Brett Lebda and Robert Slaney to Nashville for Cody Franson and Matthew Lombardi.

Who Wouldn’t Want to Play for the Leafs?

One part of Burke’s rebuilding-fast-track plan was to lure high-profile free agents to Toronto. To date this hasn’t worked out to his advantage. Originally banking on using Toronto’s vaunted reputation as “Canada’s Team” in order to attract talented players, he has not yet met with success for a number of excuses reasons. According to Burke, some free agents have chosen other teams based on money (Kovalchuk), term (Richards), local familiarity (Sedins), or a desire to join what is considered a stronger team (Hossa).

It hasn’t been for lack of trying, and Burke has been vocal in his criticism of some of these contracts, most recently with the Brad Richards signing in New York, saying that he had no interest in signing a player to a contract that would see him paid into the very twilight of his career.

Weighing the talent that he has added through trade versus free agency, the former is a clear winner. By trade Burke has acquired Dion Phaneuf, Jake Gardiner, Carter Ashton, Joffrey Lupul, John-Michael Liles, and Cody Franson. As free agents the Leafs have signed Colby Armstrong, Brett Lebda, Clarke MacArthur and Tim Connolly amongst a few others. Further to that point, even when acquiring draft picks by trade during his tenure with the Leafs, the June selection process hasn’t yielded the same promising results for Burke and the Leafs that an exchange of players has.

Has Burke made things better?

Burke has eschewed the conventional wisdom on rebuilding an NHL franchise. He hasn’t prioritized the draft or shied away from trying to sign free agents. For all of Burke’s stated bluster, the most significant pieces that he has added to the Leafs organization by way of rebuilding the team have been through trade. Burke’s strengths have always been in acquiring players by these means, even at the draft, as in 1993 when he traded up to select Chris Pronger in Hartford, or to acquire the draft picks for both Henrik and Daniel Sedin. A more recent example is when he traded up to 5th overall in order to select Luke Schenn (although that one didn't work out quite as well). 

His team is heading in the wrong direction, if one could say they were headed in any direction at all. In fact, in spite of his statements that he would not build a team through the draft by finishing at the bottom of the standings year after year, that is in fact where his team has ended up. Unfortunately, in exchange for a single, high-caliber but one-dimensional player, Burke sent away what would become two players who would have compensated the organization for that failure.

The team is now at the end of that same process, but without a significant portion of the reward for the journey. If one were to attempt to forecast the Leafs 2012-2013 season, would anything higher than 10th in the Eastern conference be a reasonable expectation? With so many pending unrestricted free agents is it not also reasonable to conclude that at least some of them won’t finish the season in Toronto? Is there any reason to seriously expect that the team will improve to the point of finishing in eighth place or higher in the Eastern conference next year? And would a first-round exit be enough to convince MLSE to retain Burke as GM?

At the same time Burke has managed to acquire some decent talent at key positions for the Leafs future in Joe Colborne, Cody Franson, and Jake Gardiner. Keeping this talent, along with the addition of the players available at the draft positions forfeited in the Kessel deal could have seen the Leafs as one of the more well-stocked teams in the Eastern conference.

The team cannot be said to realistically be any closer to their ultimate goal of winning a Stanley Cup now than they were on November 28th, 2008. The only area of improvement is the addition of some prospect depth within the organization.

Are we there yet?

 

In the four years Brian Burke has been managing the team, with the stated intent every season of being competitive and making the playoffs, they have finished with 81, 74, 85, and 80 points, respectively. The goal differential for a club that Burke was supposedly building from the back end out has been -43, -53, -33, and -33.The team that was supposed to play with truculence and tenacity has tallied a steadily declining 1113, 1071, 985, and 824 penalty minutes over the last four seasons.

The Leafs have, at the end of this season, seven pending unrestricted free agents, all forwards, with Phil Kessel, the franchise keystone and Burke’s crown jewel, set to become an unrestricted free agent at the end of the following season, 2013-2014. The prospect pool for the Leafs has improved significantly over the time that Brian Burke took over, albeit through somewhat non-traditional means - and it could probably be stronger still absent the Kessel deal. Some of the Leafs most highly-rated prospects, with the exception of Nazem Kadri, have come to the club through trade, which is both a compliment to Burke’s ability to trade and a damning statement of the organization’s ability to identify and procure talent at the amateur level.

The past four years have been an era of wasted effort and expenditure for the franchise. I would call it a lost generation, but the Leafs are the only NHL team that uses dendrochronology to measure the time between championships. Burke’s decision to trade for Phil Kessel was borne partly out of a desire to immediately improve his roster and to avoid the long and painful process of losing that often accompanies a rebuilding effort. Had Burke not made that one move in trading for Phil Kessel, the Leafs would today have a potential franchise forward in Tyler Seguin and perhaps a promising and coveted defensive prospect in Doug Hamilton. Stubborn impatience denied the Leafs those talents, and will likely make the Brian Burke era one more in a continuing trend of lost years for Toronto fans.

Conclusion

So let’s look again at our initial statements to see if anything has been altered upon review.

The Maple Leafs tried to do a short cut because ownership and fans are impatient and Brian Burke believes that he is smarter than everybody else” – Hard to argue this point. The franchise has been famously impatient about the success that it feels is a birthright and Burke’s general disdain for criticism and his recent comments on advanced statistics have certainly cemented this view in the public opinion.

“Draft Schmaft” – The Leafs have had middling success at the draft table. Nowhere near as successful as teams like Montreal or Boston but certainly better than the Oilers and Flames have been over the last decade. The fault lies in two parts: a failure to recognize amateur talent at the draft, and a failure to properly prioritize draft picks and the need to develop internally replacement players. In addition, the Leafs draft record could be considered to be falsely inflated as several of their drafted players have gone on to success within other organizations (see Boyes, Brad).

“Toronto always trades away their first round picks trying to land marquee players to feed their ego and then when they do retain draft picks they always screw it up” – Kind of a repetition of above, but to add to the subject, of the teams I have and will examine in this series, the Leafs since 1995 have missed the most 1st round draft picks (six), in 1996, ’97, ’03, ’04, and ’07. They had to trade to get back in to the first round in 2011. The most significant player the Leafs have selected in the first round in that same timeframe was Nik Antropov in 1997.

“They spent years buying their way out of problems so that when that was taken away from them via the salary cap they were exposed for what they really were, a piss-poor run NHL team” – While it is difficult to gather payroll information for the team prior to the lockout, it was well known that the Maple Leafs were consistently among the highest-salaried rosters in the league alongside the Rangers, Devils, Capitals and Red Wings. While it cannot necessarily be proven that the institution of the salary cap has hamstrung the organization’s ability to compete, the coincidental evidence is certainly enough to lend credibility to that conclusion.

“The Leafs couldn’t afford to stay in the bottom of the league and gather up draft picks like other teams, the fans are too demanding” – There is nothing to suggest that the team is being run on anything less than a full-scale NHL budget. The ownership group is wealthy and well-funded, and with the net worth of the franchise at just over half-a-billion dollars, it would seem reasonable to conclude that the team could afford to weather an avowed turn of fortunes. Also, they suck anyway, so why not just be honest about it. It isn’t like the fans have anything else to watch.

In Summary

The Leafs have been a misguided organization for several generations now, often looking covetously at the fortune and talent of other teams without taking note of how those teams were assembled. They are a marketing, and arguably still a cultural, behemoth in Canada, yet management and ownership appears to have failed to realize that this does not translate automatically into a more successful product.

Brian Burke was brought in as a management version of all the previous free agents who had not brought success to the team. Burke was given a large degree of autonomy by ownership, and yet he seemed to fall prey to many of the same faults that had dogged the organization prior to his arrival. He has made some poor decisions that were spurred by this flawed logic and an eagerness to reach the end result that has, to date, failed. When the first five years of Brian Burke’s time in Toronto have come to a close, the team may find itself in more or less the same position from which it began in 2009.

For Further reading: Leafs Abomination by Dave Feschuk and Michael Grange.

39d8109299a9795cb3b41a4e9b49d501
Former Nations Overlord. Current Fn contributor and curmudgeon For questions, complaints, criticisms, etc contact Kent @ kent.wilson@gmail. Follow him on Twitter here.
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#1 JF
July 05 2012, 10:57AM
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"To that end Burke brought in Tyler Bozak, Christian Hanson and Jonas Gustavsson"

I think you're intellectually obligated to also mention Stalberg.

"Interestingly, Burke has seemed to veer away from the undrafted college free agent ranks of late."

Ahem... Spencer Abbott

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#2 Worldslave77
July 05 2012, 11:34AM
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It was actually Cliff Fletcher, not Burke, who traded up for Luke Schenn and traded for Grabosvski

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#3 JF
July 05 2012, 12:18PM
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Burke's biggest problem is his own hubris.

I mean if you believe there's even a slight chance you get to draft Seguin you don't trade your pick (to say nothing of two) and certainly not in the offseason to acquire a restricted free agent... but it was easily apparent at the time that burke didn't even consider it a remote possibility. Kessel is a good player... but not that good.

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#4 RexLibris
July 05 2012, 12:29PM
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@JF

Unlike Feaster I have never made any public claims of "intellectual honesty". ;-)

I overlooked Stalberg, my mistake. And apparently misread the dates on Fletcher's tenure. Two for two. Can we make it a hat trick? I'm going to go through and make sure I didn't misspell Kessel or claim that Dougie Hamilton plays the wing.

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#5 RexLibris
July 05 2012, 12:34PM
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I would argue that Burke honestly believed that the team he was putting together would finish, at worst, just outside the playoffs. I think his most significant long-term miscalculation was in offering that much (as opposed to an offer sheet, which he would have been both loathe and hypocritical to submit) for a winger.

Kessel is a fine player but he is not the kind of player, nor does he play the position, around which one can build a team.

Either way, it is a significant blunder and both it and the Penner offer sheet seem to have scared GMs off of trying to poach, even by relatively honest means, other teams' RFAs.

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#6 shutout
July 05 2012, 01:50PM
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"Burke began his tenure with the assertion that he was going to rebuild the Leafs while maintaining a competitive team on the ice and challenging for the playoffs. He stated that he would accomplish these seemingly mutually-exclusive goals by pursuing free agents, both those in the NHL and undrafted players in Europe and the college ranks, and by trading for immediate team needs. Burke deliberately stated that he was not interested in, and would not pursue, a draft-and-develop approach to rebuilding the team. Specifically that he did not subscribe to a five-year rebuilding plan that would see the team finish at the bottom of the standings (don’t laugh yet, we aren’t at the punchline!) but instead would be aggressive and mine untapped veins of hockey talent in order to add talent while still trying to win immediately."

Take this statement and change Burke to Feaster and Leafs to Flames and you have almost exactly captured what the team in Calgary is attempting to do. Use trickery and slight of hand to make the fan base believe there is hope for the future. There are no more hidden reservors of talent and it is a pretty small percentage of players that go undrafted that make it to the NHL.

The Flames are about four years behind the Leafs and I would not be surprised if Feaster does not try to short cut the rebuild process as well with draft picks.

The problem that Burke had with the Kessel trade is that he did not leverage all of his resources at once and basically sold the two first round picks when the team was hitting bottom. Had they moved Sundin and Kaberle for NHL ready prospects they would have been in a more competative situation.

The biggest part of the failed rebuild for Toronto that you did not touch on was lack of a franchise goaltender. While there might have been options available the Leafs always overpaid for at best average solutions. They have not tried to get somebody that had some star potential. An average rebuilding team with below average goaltending means bottom results. That wont change for the Leafs this year either unless they can get Luongo.

Last thought is that if they get Luongo they are in the playoffs this year. And even without Luongo the Leafs are going to make it back into the playoffs before the Flames do again.

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#7 Nick
July 05 2012, 02:07PM
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In the Kaberle trade, the 1st round pick that the Leafs got was traded along with a 2nd round pick to acquire Tyler Biggs, not Rickard Rackell

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#8 cLyde
July 05 2012, 02:15PM
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This is a similar rebuild to that of the Flames and it looks like we will be getting the same results. Now, if we can just trade JBo and Backlund for Briere, we would be set.

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#9 everton fc
July 05 2012, 02:22PM
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My opinion: Burke's the problem with the Leafs. Murray's been criticized to the point of getting the axe in Ottawa, but he'd have a better chance at resurrecting the Leafs than Burke.

So would Glen Sather.

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#10 Baalzamon
July 05 2012, 04:33PM
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@Nick

yup. Biggs. Waste of a 1st rounder. The Flames got an equivalent player in the 4th round of the previous draft (Bill Arnold).

@everton fc

At least Burke is better than Howson... and Fletcher (I remain derisive of Fletcher, and am waiting for him to trade Parise for Gomez).

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#11 RKD
July 05 2012, 04:52PM
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Some of the failures are: not having a legitimate #1 goalie, Phaneuf, Kessel, and Lupul are not enough to carry the whole team to the playoffs. I do like the acquisition to get Van Reimsdyk.

The Leafs keep developing Nazem Kadri for what seems like an eternity, he was drafted like three years ago or so. I think he should be plenty ready by now.

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#12 RexLibris
July 05 2012, 04:59PM
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@Nick

And we have a Hat Trick! Go Team Me! Three errors in an article. Kent is going to make me wear Lanny MacDonald Flames thermal underwear in July as punishment.

When going through and plotting the trade history the site I was using only lists who was eventually drafting with the pick in question. Apparently I failed to read through and follow the extra history of that pick. My fault, but thanks for catching it.

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#13 Rocky
July 05 2012, 06:26PM
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RexLibris,

Some very astute points in your essay.

Note that Fletcher acquired Grabovski from MTL.

The conditional 2nd round draft pick acquired in the Kaberle to Boston deal was sent to Colorado in exchange for Liles.

Stalberg was drafted by JFJ.

Also to RKD,

Are you a TML scout? Kadri put up 40 points in the AHL this year. How can you say that he is ready for the NHL? I am betting that it was you who convinced Ron Wilson that Luke Schenn was ready for the NHL when he was only 18.

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#14 ChinookArch
July 05 2012, 09:38PM
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Good work Rex!

I know it's beyond your scope here, but Ron " the smartest man in hockey" Wilson was doing a very bad job as a a coach in TO, while Burke was trying to do his magic. It's hard to measure, but good coaching may have given the Leafs a few more wins per season. In a similar vein, albeit more generous to Wilson, the old saying goes, show me a good coach, I'll show you a good goalie. TO has been plagued with bad goaltending for years, which has helped their cause.

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#15 RKD
July 05 2012, 10:37PM
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Rocky wrote:

RexLibris,

Some very astute points in your essay.

Note that Fletcher acquired Grabovski from MTL.

The conditional 2nd round draft pick acquired in the Kaberle to Boston deal was sent to Colorado in exchange for Liles.

Stalberg was drafted by JFJ.

Also to RKD,

Are you a TML scout? Kadri put up 40 points in the AHL this year. How can you say that he is ready for the NHL? I am betting that it was you who convinced Ron Wilson that Luke Schenn was ready for the NHL when he was only 18.

Of course not, not everything is about point production. When he was called up, he was helping the team out with goals, winning games with shootout goals. Kadri is better than Schenn and I think it's only a matter of time before he proves it in the NHL.

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#16 RexLibris
July 05 2012, 11:09PM
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@ChinookArch

You are right that Toronto has had goaltending issues more or less since Potvin left. And I do hold to the old saying of Scotty Bowman's that if you want to be a good coach, have good players. However, Toronto's goaltending issues (aside from the occasional Toskala incident, wasn't he a Flames retread too?) are partially a symptom of a larger issue.

The Leafs seem to be really good at getting one good player. Then it is almost like some sort of myopathy sets in and they lose focus on the larger picture. They had Sundin but could never fill out a roster around him. They have Kessel and appear to be rehashing the same storylines. It is partially a reflection of below average drafting and an almost pathological impatience with developing players.

Also, it would have taken a lot more than a few more wins in either 2010 or 2011 for the Leafs to climb the standings. As much as the middle of the league is a dogfight, the cellar is usually very, very low. For comparison, the Oilers in 2010, finishing 30th, were twelve points back of the Leafs in 29th. That is a significant hurdle for a team that poor. Four more wins would only have moved the Leafs from 29th to 28th overall.

This may be why solving the Leafs is so troublesome. There isn't just one issue, but rather a series of them. Fans want a one-shot fix, but it may take much more than that.

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#17 Ze
July 06 2012, 08:07AM
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Stalberg was actually a Leafs Pick

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#18 RexLibris
July 06 2012, 10:49AM
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@JF

Spencer Abbott hasn't been brought in with anything near the same hype that Bozak and Hanson were.

All NHL teams pursue college free agents, but Burke's lack of bombast with regards to the expectations of impact I think speaks to a more humbled approach.

I'm not criticizing the act, but rather the implementation. College free agents are almost always depth signings. Burke sold Bozak as a first line center, and Wilson played him as such. The responsibility for Bozak's failure to succeed at that level rests partially on their shoulders as well.

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#19 RexLibris
July 06 2012, 10:54AM
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@Rocky

I tried to focus more on Burke's time, having to skip over a great deal of the JFJ and Fletcher regimes.

That Grabovski deal stood out to me when I was reviewing the team's history. A very fortuitous steal. Not Ryan McDonogh luck, but pretty darn good.

Moving out Kaberle for Liles is easily a long-term upgrade. If he's slotted into a 2nd or 3rd pairing with plenty of powerplay time Liles is a difference-maker, in my opinion. He seems to play a little larger than his frame would suggest at times, too, if I recall correctly.

I saw a lot of him during his time with the Avalanche.

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#20 RexLibris
July 06 2012, 10:59AM
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@shutout

Only a Flames fan could go there. I certainly drew comparisons between the two in my mind, but drawing similarities between Toronto and Calgary can be fatal. ;-)

For what it's worth I think Burke is an overall better GM than Feaster, but is also hampered by a more glaring weakness: his own ego. When Feaster messes up it looks like Babchuk or Sarich. When Burke messes up it looks like the Kessel trade.

There are quite a few similarities between the two organizations though: impatient fans and management, a reluctance to build things from the ground up, a seemingly endless search for that one magical player that will solve everything without a serious discussion about the true extent of the challenges ahead, and sometimes a failure to appreciate the full measure of effort that other franchises have put in to overcome those challenges.

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#21 Baalzamon
July 06 2012, 11:33AM
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@RexLibris

"When Burke messes up it looks like the Kessel trade."

to be fair, awesome prospects for the Bruins aside, the Leafs did get a 30 goal scorer in that trade. I think Connolly was a bigger failure, myself. Certainly Bozak was as well.

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#22 Ron Moore
July 06 2012, 11:37AM
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Wow so many errors... A few points to make note: Kessel has/ had out preformed Segiun in everyway. I doubt Segiun will be as much as a game breaker Kessel is. Not too many 23-24 ppg players out there and as for the other two picks, we'll have to wait until they play in the league a bit before we anoint them as you already have, like you dumb comment on a wasted pick in Biggs. Your comment regarding Grabo and mcD... really? How does one justify a comment like that other than if he's a Leaf he isn't as good.

To sum it up, your article was bad from start to finish. Didn't mind reading it since it did make me laugh as I read it...wait was this meant to be funny? If so, great job!

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#23 RexLibris
July 06 2012, 11:56AM
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@Baalzamon

Agreed. Kessel is a terrific goal scorer. My issue with the trade at the time was that the Leafs didn't have any of the other necessary pieces on their roster for that move to make sense in the long term.

Calgary fans know this better than perhaps any other hockey market, a terrific and consistent winger cannot singlehandedly lead a team to victory. It takes that player plus a great deal of other high-performance pieces to win a championship (that's my benchmark).

If the Leafs had been able to add a player of Kessel's abilities four years earlier, when Sundin was still performing well, and been able to find some decent goaltending then the trade would look far better, even if it did mean handing over a talent like Seguin.

But the timing and the team into which Kessel was brought just didn't add in my mind.

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#24 RexLibris
July 06 2012, 12:12PM
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@Ron Moore

I've reread the article, albeit quickly, and I can't find any point where I specifically criticize the Tyler Biggs pick. You've got me confused with a commenter. I don't usually come out with strong statements on draft selections this early other than to say that I think prospect A was taken a bit early or prospect B surprisingly dropped.

Time has to be given to properly evaluate the wisdom (luck?) of a draft pick.

With regards to Seguin, he is entering his third year in the league. He and Kessel are playing on entirely different teams and are at notably different phases of their development.

That being said, my preference between the two would be for the winger/center. Call it bias. I was in the draft Seguin camp in 2010.

My references to Hamilton are couched in subtle, but very specific language. I say that Hamilton is "a promising and coveted defensive prospect".

I haven't handed either of these players anything that hasn't already been conceded by multiple scouting and talent evaluation services.

My comment on the Grabovski deal is that it was a great trade for the Leafs. How on earth does that offend? I don't think it ranks compared to exchanging Scott Gomez for Ryan McDonagh, sorry, but still one heck of a deal.

Glad you had a laugh. As long as you read it and took the time in your day to comment then mission accomplished.

I'm assuming you are a Leafs fan, if so and you're in the GTA I hope you stay cool today. I hear it is a scorcher out there.

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#25 DieHard
July 06 2012, 12:22PM
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@RexLibris

Like your work but please provide more LT ish type pictures.

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#26 Baalzamon
July 06 2012, 02:51PM
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@Ron Moore

"like you dumb comment on a wasted pick in Biggs"

that was me, actually. And yes, Biggs was a wasted pick. Look at the players taken before and after him. Not even close. Players like Biggs are routinely available in the 2nd 3rd and 4th rounds.

in fact, Bill Arnold (a Flames 4th rounder in the 2010 draft) had superior stats--across the board--than Biggs in both his draft year and 1st NCAA seasons. He's also a center, where Biggs is a winger.

Am I saying Biggs is a sure bust, or a terrible prospect? Certainly not. But he's definitely not the kind of player you draft in even the late 1st round, particularly not in 2011, which was actually a reasonably deep draft. To use an example from the same draft as Biggs, Seth Ambroz (who is the same size as Biggs, plays the same position, and shoots from the same side) was taken in the 5th round by Columbus. His USHL stats were also better, though NCAA was much worse.

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#27 RexLibris
July 06 2012, 03:50PM
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@DieHard

Man I wish I could. LT (does anyone else feel like they are in a 'Nam movie when they use that nickname?) does some fantastic aesthetic additions to his already solid writing.

I think I might try and do some Iginla Photoshop work for the Flames article. And maybe something special for the Oilers one as well, assuming Kent OKs it. ;-)

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#28 Rocky
July 07 2012, 07:54PM
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Regarding Kessel, he has certainly had a very good start to his career. A couple of All-Star Game selections and a number of 30+ goal seasons. Only time will tell whether Seguin will also be a perennial All-Star.

I agree with Greg Zaun, that you pick up valuable pieces when you can as opposed to seemingly endless waiting for the right time to arrive (i.e. Blue Jays), which in their case may take a decade. To this end we shall see whether or not the Oilers will duplicate the success of the Tampa Bay Rays which required a decade of utter futility.

Finally, I think that people forget that up until January the Leafs were poised to finish in the top 6 in the East and qualify for the playoffs for the first time post lockout. In the very least Burke has assembled some decent talent in the AHL, NCAA & Canadian Major Junior for the first time in a generation. It should also not be forgotten that the Leafs along with were the youngest teams in the NHL this past season.

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#29 RexLibris
July 07 2012, 09:01PM
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@Rocky

I absolutely give credit to Burke at having redone the Leafs prospect pool and made it into something that, for the first time in my memory, has garnered some unbiased attention. It isn't necessarily top-drawer, but it does, in my opinion, have some better prospects than Calgary, Vancouver, and the Jets, for Canadian teams.

My problem lies in that he has done that mostly through trade. Burke's draft record is still less-than-stellar. The Leafs could have one of the most dominant scouting divisions in the NHL by trading on their brand as well as tapping some very deep pockets.

They're continual reluctance or failure to do so has only exacerbated their situation.

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