STATE OF THE UNION
If GM Brian Burke, entering his first full season at the helm of the Toronto Maple Leafs, has his way, nobody will want to play his team this season.
In Burke's vision, his team will be too tough and too truculent to allow other teams to look forward to meeting the Maple Leafs, a feeling that has been all too common for the past four years.
Burke took the job in early November, replacing interim GM Cliff Fletcher, with a mandate to reverse Toronto's on-ice fortunes.
Toronto, once the epicenter of hockey, has missed the playoffs the past four seasons, including last season's 81-point debacle. Nobody knows if the near-term future holds a playoff berth for the Leafs, but Burke promises that his team will give its all to return the Original Six franchise to its former glory.
"Our goal is to make the playoffs next year; we're going to have to make some changes to do it. We're going to be a different team," Burke said this summer. "I like a lot of hitting. I like a lot of fighting. We have a passive group. All year long, when a trainer was on the ice -- it was always our trainer -- that really bothered me.
"It will be a more hostile group in the fall."
Hostility was one of the primary traits of the Anaheim club he managed to the 2007 Stanley Cup. The Ducks used a massive and talented blue line corps, some big, grinding forwards and a willingness to hit in all three zones -- and intimidate an opponent when necessary -- to claim the franchise's first title.
Now, Burke plans to use the same formula as he moves forward with his rebuilding plan in Toronto.
"We're going to be a different team. I like a lot of hitting. I like a lot of fighting. We have a passive group. All year long, when a trainer was on the ice -- it was always our trainer -- that really bothered me." -- Maple Leafs GM Brian Burke
Burke's commitment to being bigger -- and more belligerent -- is reflected in the moves he has made since the season ended.
He has signed a pair of physical, shutdown defensemen in former Canadien Mike Komisarek and Francois Beauchemin, who helped Burke's Ducks win the Cup two years ago. He also imported rugged defender Garnett Exelby from Atlanta, sending Pavel Kubina to the Thrashers.
On the first day of free agency, Burke signed the tough-as-nails Colton Orr away from the New York Rangers to bolster his forwards' toughness and dissuade opponents from taking liberties with his skill players.
Burke also addressed his goaltending deficiency by inking Swedish goalie Jonas Gustavsson, the most sought-after European goalie on the market. Gustavsson, 6-foot-3, 192 pounds, is nicknamed "The Monster" and should fit right in with Burke's summer theme.
Burke also continued his theme of adding size and snarl in the 2009 Entry Draft. After taking smallish sniper Nazem Kadri in the first round, Burke used his final six picks to take North American skaters with the potential to battle in the trenches in the next couple of years.
"If you are going to play the way we are going to play, I think you need some pick-and shovel men and I think we are looking for that type of player here," Burke said.
Burke's rebuilding program will not be finished this season, but he has spent eight months now working at a furious pace and the plan is starting to come into focus, which has Toronto fans eagerly anticipating the arrival of the 2009-10 season.
Toronto's pipeline of prospects has been in disrepair for a few years now, but the effort is now being invested to get the pump primed again.
Four years of finishing out of the Stanley Cup Playoffs has helped Toronto somewhat restock an otherwise barren cupboard that has only produced the occasional NHL player in the past few years. Defenseman Luke Schenn, selected in the first round in 2008, made the jump immediately to the NHL. Other recent pipeline products include Jiri Tlusty, Anton Stralman and John Mitchell.
Here is a look at the five biggest prospects on the horizon for the Maple Leafs:
Dmitry Vorobiev -- The two-way Russian defenseman was taken in the 2004 Entry Draft, but has remained in Russia. He recently signed a two-year deal with Dynamo Moscow and his arrival in North America is a ways off.
Mikhail Stefanovich -- A high-scoring Belarusian who has played his past two seasons in the Quebec Major Hockey League, Stefanovich, 19, was signed to an entry-level contract this summer.
Jimmy Hayes -- Toronto's second-round pick in 2008, Hayes is the type of big, rangy forward that Burke craves for his team. He had just eight goals for Boston College last season, but is still growing into his body.
Viktor Stalberg -- The Swedish native had a season to remember in 2008-09 with the University of Vermont, being named as a finalist for the Hobey Baker Award as a junior. He finished the season with 24 goals and a team-leading 46 points before signing his first pro contract this spring.
Tyler Bozak -- Signed as a collegiate free agent this summer, Bozak was the object of affection for at least 20 NHL teams. He played just 19 games for the University of Denver in 2008-09 because of a knee injury, but averaged better than a point per game. A natural center, he will likely start season in AHL, but could crack Maple Leafs' roster.
Burke knows what he likes in a player, and judging from his 2009 Entry Draft selections it is a combination of teachable size and North American bloodlines that most intrigue the Toronto general manager.
Burke selected seven North Americans. Amazingly, all but one also was 6-foot or taller and all but first-rounder Nazem Kadri, selected at No. 7, tipped the scales at 190 pounds or more.
According to Burke, those themes were planned, not accidental by-products of the selection process.
"Obviously I have been preaching (size)," Burke said. "I don't think any of these players will make us bigger immediately. But I think it shows our commitment to size and toughness.
"This won't address our immediate need for size and toughness -- we'll do that later in the summer -- but I think people should read into it that we are not just talking the talk about this. We intend to be bigger and cruder."
Here, then, is a quick look at the seven selections the Maples Leafs made in Montreal this June:
Nazem Kadri -- Selected at No. 7, Kadri makes up for a lack of bulk -- he carries just 167 pounds on his 6-foot frame -- with pure offensive instincts. He had 78 points last season with London and added another 21 in 14 playoff games. Kadri has already been signed to an entry-level deal by the Leafs.
Kenny Ryan -- A 6-4, 203-pound bruising right wing, Ryan played this past season with the United States National Team Developmental Program, scoring 27 goals. The Franklin Park, Mich., native, taken at No. 50, grew up in a football family and plays hockey with that mindset.
Jesse Blacker -- The 6-1 defenseman, taken with Toronto's second pick in the second round, already has a winning pedigree after serving as a vital cog on the blue line for a Windsor Spitfire team that claimed the Memorial Cup this spring. He is a smooth skater who had 21 points this past season.
Jamie Devane -- A hulking (6-4, 212 pounds) right wing who played for Plymouth in the Ontario Hockey League, Devane was taken at No. 68. Devane had 92 penalty minutes in his first season in the OHL.
Eric Knodel -- A project coming out of the Metropolitan Junior Hockey League, Knodel was selected because his 6-6, 216-pound frame presents an intriguing host of possibilities.
Jerry D'Amigo -- Another member of the USNTDP, D'Amigo will play at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute this fall. He had 13 points in 7 U-18 World Championship games to help the U.S. team win gold.
Barron Smith -- The last of Toronto's picks, the 6-4 Smith is a raw defenseman with NHL bloodlines. He is the son of Steve Smith, who played 15 years as a defenseman in the NHL.