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Burke On The Look Out For A Top Centre

by Mike Ulmer / Toronto Maple Leafs

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Brian Burke isn’t kidding anyone.

The Leafs need a number one centre.

That was the message in his season-ending press conference at Air Canada Centre.

They need one so Phil Kessel can score 40-plus, even 50 goals.

They need one to ease a leaky penalty kill and power play.

They need one to exploit opposing teams who assign their top checkers to stop Mikhail Grabovski, Clarke MacArthur and Nikolai Kulemin.

They need one to win tough draws when the game is on the line.

“Our top priority is a centre,” Burke said. “No question about it.”

While Tyler Bozak scored 15 goals, his minus 29 was the worst on the team and Kessel’s abundant talent suggests that with a top-line centre he would be substantially more productive.

Burke lauded Bozak’s maturation as a penalty killer and his overall demeanour and added you can’t blame a player for being misassigned. 

“If we have Tyler Bozak in the number one hole and he isn’t a fit for the one hole, that’s my fault, that’s not Tyler’s fault.”

That said, if Bozak is indeed misassigned, the situation is untenable.

“If he’s playing the one hole and he’s not the same level as the two wingers  it means they’re  not getting the pucks, not getting the scoring chances.”

Which is where Kessel comes in.  Always streaky, Kessel needed someone to deliver some gimmes.

“We have challenged Phil that he has to be more consistent.  This is a guy who should be a 45-50 goals scorer,” Burke said.

What the Leafs have is two-thirds of a top line and only one potential free agent, Dallas’ Brad Richards, who meets the criteria.

Burke has long held that a trade would accomplish the same end but the number of serviceable young players is prohibitive. A look around the league at young centremen rumoured to be in play pretty well ends with Colorado’s Paul Stastny and Florida’s Stephen Weiss. The Senators are struggling under Jason Spezza’s massive contract but Spezza’s salary and often tepid play virtually guarantees he will not play in Toronto.

Burke, meanwhile, said he expects more from Joffrey Lupul who scored nine goals in 28 Leaf games and was still working his way back into shape after missing a year due to a back injury and infection.

“I thought Lupul played really well for us,” he said. “What you guys saw was a guy who plodded more than he does when he is at his top form. He got caught from behind and that doesn’t happen when he is full stride. It’s nice to have a forward who is six-foot two.”

It took one player, Matt Frattin, a single game to make an impact.

“It’s only a snapshot but this guy pancaked a guy. He weighs 207 pounds. He’s a power forward and he looked comfortable on the puck. He had one really good scoring chance.  I believe players almost automatically need time in the American League but some players don’t. The Sedins never played a game in the American League. Neither did Trevor Linden."

While he deferred on commenting on J.S. Giguere’s future with the club pending groin surgery, Burke re-affirmed his faith in Jonas Gustavsson who was limited to only 23 games because of injury and the strong play of James Reimer.

“I think he is a legitimate NHL goaltender and he needs to be given a chance to see that,” he said.

He is also sticking with coach Ron Wilson and added that while there was no need to extend his deal with one season left, there could be conversations in the summer.
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