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Let's Talk Leafs Long Term

by Mike Ulmer / Toronto Maple Leafs
In his first press conference as general manager of the Toronto Maple Leafs, Brian Burke outlined his blueprint for his new team.

His vision was of a highly delineated club with about half the team made up of skill players and the rest comprised of committed grinders, penalty killers and assorted specialists.

As far as plans go, it was a great one. The fun, of course, comes with filling the slots.

Going into tonight’s contest against the Montreal Canadiens, the Maple Leafs are 16-18-6, 10 points out of the basement, 25 points away from first.

That is not nearly bad enough but all is not necessarily lost. Last year, the 25th team in the league, the Columbus Blue Jackets, had a 6.2 per cent chance of winning the lottery. They picked sixth and chose Nikita Filatov who began playing for the team this week after scoring eight goals at the World Juniors. The Pittsburgh Penguins faced comparable odds and came up with Sidney Crosby in 2005.

But it takes either exceptional cunning or spectacular ineptitude to build the nucleus of a roster through the draft. As soon as you get someone who will help, your advantage in selecting players slips.

For an idea just what Burke is facing, let’s take a look at the grid for opening night, 2011-2012, two and a half seasons from now.

The Leafs desperately need to get younger. To that end, I have limited the top two lines and top two defensive pairings to players 25 years or younger on opening night. Keep in mind, there will always be room for productive older players. Nik Hagman will be nearly 32, but it’s hard to think his game would not be welcome somewhere on the roster.

On defence: Luke Schenn. He’s a sure bet. A little below Schenn, put Jeff Finger in the depth chart. Anton Stralman has the talent to be a top four defenceman but it’s impossible to accurately predict whether he will make the jump. I like Jonas Frogren’s mean for the third pairing and based on his ever improving play, Ian White might be considered in the mix.

But for top four, we have one guy, Schenn.

At forward: Well, Mikhail Grabovsky is the one sure bet. Nikolai Kulemin is in the minors right now, but he remains a good prospect for second or third-line status. Veteran Nik Antropov would be welcome, but he was a free agent back in 2009 and who knows where he is in 2010.

In net: No sure bests here, although Justin Pogge has a chance.

That’s it. Two sure things, Grabovsky and Schenn out of the top 10 lines and two top defence pairings. Hopefully Pogge will be in goal.

That means, realistically, the Leafs need nine players who can play on the top two lines and three more defencemen who can man the first two pairings.

That means the Leafs must depend on a steady flow of players from the development end, the Marlies. They must gamble draft choices for ready for prime time players (hard to find someone who begrudges the second-rounder Cliff Fletcher gave up to land Grabovsky) or trade.

Free agency, Boston’s signing of Zdeno Chara comes to mind, can be used to kick start the process but free agents are, by definition, slightly older players.

The trade market is daunting. Since Burke has little star quality to give he will get just as much. He has Tomas Kaberle, Pavel Kubina (both on no-trade contracts) even Antropov, Jason Blake, Alexei Ponikarovsky and Vesa Toskala to gain assets down the road.

They say the only time you really lose is when you stand still. Certainly, the losing that would gain a chance at a John Tavares would be a scant price for a potential franchise player. Most mediocre teams are treading water vacillating between the bottom third of the standings and rock bottom. Winning teams, the Red Wings and San Jose Sharks, have an orbit all their own.

That is the company the Leafs are aiming to keep, but when you look at the job ahead, even the most conservative estimates of three or four seasons look downright reckless.

I would be delighted to be proven wrong, but it’s going to take an overhaul of Olympian proportions to restore the Leafs in the long term, never mind just a little way down the road.

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