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Getting To The Playoffs Is The First Step

by Mike Ulmer / Toronto Maple Leafs
RELATED: Kadri Named OHL Player Of The Week | Leafs Sign Brayden Irwin

RELATED VIDEO: Burke Talks Phaneuf |
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The Toronto Maple Leafs are going to make the playoffs next season.

At least, that’s the buzz. Damien Cox in the Toronto Star has already made his prediction. Same goes for Steve Milton, a gifted journo with the Hamilton Spectator.

Nice and all, but not enough.

Kids, look it up. There was a time earlier this decade when making the playoffs just constituted a good start for the Toronto Maple Leafs.

Not that I disagree with the guys in the press box. The Eastern Conference isn’t teeming with great teams and, more importantly, the Leafs have been improved mightily over the season.

So many good things in a lost campaign. Start with the acquisition of Dion Phaneuf, everyone’s candidate as the future captain of the franchise. Goaltending, a weak spot all season is now a strength thanks to the stabilizing presence of J.S. Giguere. The defence is brutish enough but Carl Gunnarsson’s presence gives the club another capable defender and, in theory at least, means Tomas Kaberle might be bartered for some help up front. Luke Schenn has staged a remarkable recovery and brings with him seemingly limitless horizons.

The forwards are good, but with the exception of Phil Kessel not great. That said, there is no reason the formidable Nikolai Kulemin and centre Tyler Bozak should not turn into anything but excellent players. Junior Nazem Kadri should make the team next year and add more talent and speed up front.

But today’s signing of six-foot-five, 215 pound University of Vermont forward Brayden Irwin is just another indicator of Brian Burke’s big plan.

The days of landing unrestricted NHL free agents who should help immediately, as Burke did in signing Mike Komisarek from Montreal and Francois Beauchemin from Anaheim, seem long gone.

This season’s free agent class is surprisingly shallow. Ilya Kovulchuk is a beguiling dream for all but a few franchises and the Leafs are not among them. Same for the Sharks’ Patrick Marleau. The rest of the pickings - the Habs’ Tomas Plekanec and 35-year-old Pittsburgh defenceman Sergei Gonchar are two of the higher profile ones - have limited curb appeal.

So much for the quick fix of free agency. When the age for unrestricted free agency was phased downward in the last CBA, it was thought the move would spiral salaries and encourage movement. In fact, the players have opted to sign longer-term deals prior to their expiration of their contracts. They are still getting their money but the wave of players re-upping with their teams - witness Marc Savard with the Bruins and Matt Stajan in Calgary-  means clubs looking to poach a free agent are in tough.

The summer of 2011 looks significantly better but some, probably most of these players will not hit the market.

They include Joe Thornton (30 years old, 19 goals, 85 points) Brad Richards (29 years old, 23 goals, 85 points) Simon Gagne (30 years old, 17 goals 39 points) and the player who might be the prize of the class, the Caps’ Alexander Semin (26 years old, 35 goals, 74 points).

Burke has already hit a home run with Bozak and goalie Jonas Gustavsson. He is of course hopeful of hitting another one with Brayden Irwin.

But without a first rounder for two more summers, Burke has few options. They include signing every college and European free agent who understands puck is a noun.

Wholesale trades are about as rare as the signing of unrestricted NHL free agents and while Burke pulled Dion Phaneuf and Jean-Sebastien Giguere out of Calgary and Anaheim, it’s hard to finish what he started with more deals.

Brian Burke is a creative guy who has done more in less than two seasons on the job than any Leaf fan could have envisioned.

Thanks to him, the Maple Leafs should be, will be, a playoff team.

But the playoffs aren’t his mandate. A return to the elite isn’t his mandate. We all know what his mandate is.

And so if the first moves were difficult to orchestrate, what will come later will be murderous.  Climbing back into the playoffs, by comparison, will look easy.
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