Four years after Brian Burke became GM of the Toronto Maple Leafs, the club appears no closer to becoming a playoff contender.
A lack of depth in goal and on the blueline, combined with a season-ending injury to left winger Joffrey Lupul, brought about a second-half collapse costing the Leafs a shot at making the playoffs for the first time since 2004.
Despite finishing 10th overall in goals-per-game and ninth on the power play, the Leafs had the second-worst goals-against per game (3.16) and the third-worst penalty kill.
To say the denizens of Leafs Nation are running out of patience with Burke’s inability to deliver at least a playoff contender is an under-statement. Some observers wonder how much longer he’ll remain GM.
Given the Leafs’ woes, it’s no surprise they were frequently mentioned in this summer’s trade rumor mill.
Burke made a significant trade during the June draft weekend, shipping defenseman Luke Schenn to the Philadelphia Flyers for left winger James van Riemsdyk. He also added checking-line depth at center by inking free agent Jay McClement.
None of his moves, however, addressed his club’s need for an experienced starting goalie, a true shut-down defenseman and a first-line center.
The lack of available scoring centers in this summer’s trade and free agent market forced the club to consider other options.
There has been talk of van Riemsdyk being moved to center. Nazem Kadri, who has made notable improvement of late with the Marlies, can also play center, but it’s believed if he makes the club, it’ll be on right wing.
Burke had serious interest in right winger Shane Doan (didn’t everybody?) prior to his re-signing with Phoenix in September, making what TSN’s Darren Dreger called “a strong pitch” for him.
It was also rumored earlier in the summer the Leafs had interest in Bobby Ryan of the Anaheim Ducks.
Tyler Bozak centered the Leafs first line last season, but is not first-line material. He has also been mentioned as trade bait for Vancouver Canucks goaltender Roberto Luongo, who’s been linked to the Maple Leafs in trade rumors throughout the off-season.
Even the ongoing NHL lockout couldn’t kill media speculation out of Toronto and Vancouver claiming the Leafs and Canucks had a deal in place to ship Luongo to the Leafs as soon as the lockout ends.
Burke recently denied those reports, telling Sportsnet there was “no deal in place” for Luongo or any other player. GMs can’t publicly talk about acquiring a player under contract from a rival club, so Burke’s comments did little to stop the “Luongo-to-Toronto” speculation, especially when Canucks scouts were spotted in early November following the Leafs AHL farm team.
The Leafs GM also reportedly had interest in Los Angeles Kings backup goalie Jonathan Bernier earlier in the summer, though of course he denied that as well.
Bernier would be more affordable than Luongo, but the latter has considerably more experience. Despite an uneven playoff record, many observers consider Luongo the better choice to provide the stability the Leafs need between the pipes to end their lengthy post-season absence.
It remains to be seen if Luongo refuses to waive his no-trade clause to go to Toronto. That won’t be determined until the lockout ends and the Canucks evaluate their trade options.
Burke maintained he’s comfortable with young James Reimer as his starting goalie backed up by Ben Scrivens, but media consensus suggests Burke will try to land Luongo for a reasonable price.
Burke did nothing this summer to add depth to his defense, which consists of several quality puck-moving blueliners, but apart from Dion Phaneuf and the oft-injured Mike Komisarek, lacks a physical edge.
That could make it difficult for coach Randy Carlyle, who took over behind the bench in early March, to implement the physical defense style that was his hallmark when he coached the Anaheim Ducks to a Stanley Cup title.
If the lockout ends in time to salvage this season, Burke might have to ship out some salary if he decides to make a significant move or two.
The Leafs have $63.5 million invested in 23 players this season and $41.5 million committed to 13 players the following season.
Depending on where the cap ceiling is under the new CBA (and if teams are allowed to sit over the cap for the first year of the deal), Burke will have to balance his roster needs with his future cap space.
Rumor Roundup appears Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays only on thehockeynews.com. Lyle Richardson has been an NHL commentator since 1998 on his website, spectorshockey.net, and is a contributing writer for Eishockey News and Kukla’s Korner.