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Burke has Leafs reloaded, ready to contend

by Mike G. Morreale
Toronto General Manager Brian Burke was determined to reload on offense this offseason.

Actually, he had no choice since his only major scoring threat in 2009-10 was Phil Kessel, whose 30 goals were 14 more than the next highest scorer -- Nikolai Kulemin. The Leafs stumbled to 25th in the League in 2009-10 by scoring an average of 2.56 goals per game after finishing among the top 11 the previous four seasons. It was an area Burke was determined to improve.

So, one day after obtaining versatile forward Kris Versteeg in a five-player trade with the defending Stanley Cup champion Chicago Blackhawks, Burke continued his upgrade along the forward line on July 1 when he agreed to a multi-year contract with another versatile performer, Colby Armstrong.

Burke has certainly been working hard to give Maple Leafs fans something to shout about since becoming the team's president and GM in November 2008. He strengthened the defense last season with the acquisitions of Mike Komisarek, Dion Phaneuf and Francois Beauchemin and goalie Jean-Sebastien Giguere. Phaneuf, 25, will enter the 2010-11 campaign as the team's eighth captain since George Armstrong was presented its last Stanley Cup in 1967.

After qualifying for the playoffs in each of the six seasons leading up to the 2004-05 work stoppage and advancing to the NHL's final four twice during that span, the Leafs have failed to solidify a spot among the top eight in the Eastern Conference for five straight seasons. In fact, Toronto has occupied the Northeast Division cellar the last three campaigns. But all signs point to a significant improvement in 2010-11.

In order to complete the deal for Versteeg, Burke was forced to trade forwards Viktor Stalberg, Chris DiDomenico and Philippe Paradis. Stalberg, 24, was the only player of that bunch to play for Toronto in 2009-10, notching 9 goals and 14 points in 40 games as a rookie.

DiDomenico had 7 goals in 12 regular-season games and 7 goals in 14 playoff games for Drummondville in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League. Paradis, originally drafted 27th overall by Carolina in the 2009 Entry Draft, had 24 goals in 63 games for Shawinigan of the QMJHL.

There's reason to get excited about Burke's biggest catch this offseason with the acquisition of Versteeg in a trade with the defending Stanley Cup-champion Blackhawks.

Not only has the 24-year-old Versteeg played all three forward positions for the Blackhawks during his time in the Windy City, but he's produced consecutive 20-goal seasons in the process. He'll likely be bounced around the top two lines for coach Ron Wilson and will provide a consistent effort on defense, particularly on the penalty-kill. If the Maple Leafs snap their playoff drought, Versteeg will have undoubtedly played a big role in that.

The Leafs will also welcome former Detroit Red Wings defenseman Brett Lebda this season after the unrestricted free agent signed a two-year contract on July 7. The speedy Lebda has 10 assists and 40 penalty minutes in 62 career playoff games and was a member of Detroit's 2008 Stanley Cup championship team. The Leafs actually have a pretty formidable stable of blueliners now with Lebda, Phaneuf, Komisarek, Beauchemin, Tomas Kaberle, Carl Gunnarsson and Luke Schenn. Burke also made a late August with Tampa Bay deal that added another young defenseman, Matt Lashoff.

German Olympian Marcel Mueller, 22, was also inked to a two-year entry-level deal in July. Mueller, a 6-foot-3 wing, had 24 goals and 32 assists in 53 games for the Cologne Sharks of the German Elite League in 2009-10. He also chipped in 2 assists in four games at the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver.

The other key offseason acquisition might turn out to be left wing Armstrong, who was signed to a three-year contract. Burke cited how impressed he is with Armstrong's ability to check hard and his versatility up front. Armstrong recently played two full seasons with the Atlanta Thrashers, registering a career-high 22 goals in 2008-09. He could be that gritty forward to skate alongside Versteeg. Burke also added former Buffalo and Atlanta forward Clarke MacArthur after the Thrashers walked away from his arbitration award.

Burke, entering his second full season as GM, is doing all he can to turn the Maple Leafs into legitimate contenders once again.

It didn't help that they had to make due without an injured Kessel until November to open the 2009-10 campaign -- which paved the way to a 3-11-6 start. They also lost Komisarek with leg and shoulder injuries that sidelined him for all but 34 games. Goaltending, defense and special teams were downright dreadful, forcing Burke to move quickly when the opportunity arose to acquire Phaneuf and Giguere.

Toronto finished nextsecond to last in the League in goals-against average, and was 30th on both the penalty kill (74.6 percent efficiency) and power-play (14.0 percent).

Goalie Jonas Gustavsson, who battled heart issues last season, still finished a respectable 16-15-10 with a 2.87 GAA and .902 save percentage. Gustavsson, who was actually pulled after the first period in a game against the Montreal Canadiens in December 2009 with a heart murmur, agreed to a two-year extension with the Leafs in April.

Giguere was 6-7-2 with a 2.49 GAA and .916 save percentage in 15 appearances upon his arrival in Toronto in February. He actually recorded back-to-back shutouts in his first two games with Toronto, becoming the first goalie in franchise history to do so.

The expectations will be greater in Toronto with a full season of Giguere, the former Conn Smythe Trophy-winning goalie, between the pipes, and Phaneuf on defense. Additionally, a healthy Kessel at forward and Komisarek along the blue line will only bolster the team's chances of qualifying for the postseason, but the search for a true No. 1 center continues.

Burke is also expecting even greater contributions from Kulemin and another young forward, Tyler Bozak, this season.

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