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In Toronto, long-term plan, impatient fan base collide

by Dan Rosen
TORONTO -- A once proud Leafs Nation is growing intolerant.

The dejected residents are chanting for coaches to be fired, using voices that were loud enough to actually work last week. They've gone from renewed hope and excitement after a strong start this season to despair and disgrace. They're another loss or two away from accepting the fact that for a seventh straight spring the ice at Air Canada Centre will melt soon after the regular season wraps up.

The most myopic may have already stuffed their Kessel and Phaneuf and Schenn jerseys deep inside a closet, afraid to wear them in public anymore.

The Maple Leafs are 12th in the Eastern Conference, five points removed from eighth with 15 games to play. They're 2-11-1 in the last 14 games, 1-2 since Randy Carlyle took over as coach, since President and GM Brian Burke admitted the "Fire Wilson" chants caught his attention.


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Burke said at Carlyle's introductory press conference in Montreal over the weekend that as long as the fans buy a ticket they can say whatever they want provided it's not offensive. Well, they're saying a lot these days, but it's all white noise inside the Maple Leafs' executive offices, where time and patience remain commodities even if outside the double-glass doors there is a shortage of both.

"We're making the product better, but it's not all going to show today," Leafs V.P. of Hockey Operations Dave Poulin told earlier this week. "When I was 12, I wanted to be 13. When I was 15, I wanted so badly to drive. I couldn't. I had to wait. Certain things just take time."

How much longer are we talking about? According to Poulin, who carries copies of his three-page depth chart wherever he goes (Page 1 lists the 23-member big club; Page 2 lists the 30 players with AHL contracts; Page 3 lists the 22 unsigned draft picks), the club is closer than it was a year ago and much closer than it was two years ago.

Getting people in Toronto to believe that is a whole different story. To most, it doesn't matter that the Leafs were a playoff team before going into the tank three weeks ago. They aren't right now -- again.

"I talk to my amateur scouts all the time and I say we are research and development. We could be the iPhone eight years ago, but unfortunately today we don't know what the final product is going to be," Poulin said. "When I talk to business people it makes total sense to them because I say I'm research and development, except my product is out there now and it's not a finished product. It is critiqued mildly on a daily basis, but it has actually only been in gestation for a short period of time."

Poulin says the Leafs are now in the third phase of the rebuilding plan that started when Burke took over on Nov. 30, 2008.

They believe they've undone a lot of the wrongs they inherited, including putting Jeff Finger and his albatross of a contract in the AHL for the last two seasons. Darcy Tucker was bought out. Pavel Kubina, Tomas Kaberle, Alexei Ponikarovsky, Matt Stajan, Niklas Hagman, Ian White and Jason Blake and Vesa Toskala were all traded away.
Burke even righted a wrong he created by trading Francois Beauchemin to Anaheim for Joffrey Lupul and Jake Gardiner. Lupul was having a career year until he was lost for maybe the rest of the season on Tuesday with a separated shoulder. Gardiner is one of the top rookies in the NHL.
"You'd love to say we're going to start something three and a half years ago, but you have to undo before you can do," Poulin said. "It's not as simple as saying, 'OK guys, clean slate, let's go.' He had to undo contracts, roster spots, a lot of things. That was a much more complicated piece than you would think."
Phil Kessel
Right Wing - TOR
GOALS: 34 | ASST: 37 | PTS: 71
SOG: 245 | +/-: -2
The Leafs feel they have advanced the product by bringing in Phil Kessel (in exchange for what became Tyler Seguin and prospect Dougie Hamilton), Dion Phaneuf, Lupul, and John-Michael Liles. They've moved into the deep development stages with Luke Schenn, Carl Gunnarsson and Tyler Bozak. They've watched Mikhail Grabovski develop into a top-two center. They're bringing along prospects such as Gardiner and Matt Frattin. They caught lightning in a bottle from James Reimer, and are now waiting to see if it is for real.

"Now we're in a more complex stage, which is exactly what do we need from here?" Poulin said.

That phase includes taking stock of prospects such as 6-foot-6 center Joe Colborne, Nazem Kadri, Jessie Blacker, Nicholas Deschamps, Jerry D'Amigo, Korbinian Holzer and the newly-arrived Carter Ashton.

Save for Holzer, who is 24 years old, they're all between the ages of 20 and 22.

"You're starting to look at birth years and the idea is to grow a like age group," Poulin said. "Yes, there is going to be a sprinkling of older and a sprinkling of younger, but the core group has to be around the same age because they have to be around somewhat the same contract status."

In reality, though, trading some of these prospects this summer or at next year's deadline may be the only way they help the Leafs become a contender by 2013. That could be Burke's next play as he seeks out a powerful center or gets himself involved in the Rick Nash sweepstakes.

Burke hinted that he didn't necessarily have that option at this year's deadline because all the offers he was getting from other general managers were draft picks for his roster players. Poulin said every conversation also included the Leafs' top prospects, but Burke said he turned down trades for 12 of his roster players that could have netted him four first-round draft picks.

"So, you get a first round pick for a guy? That's three years for most of them, so that's three years we wait. And I said no," Burke said last Saturday in Montreal. "We've got a good young group. We have the second youngest team in the NHL. We have good team speed. We think we have put some key blocks in place. So we kept the assets."

The assets, though, still haven't answered several questions dogging the Leafs now.

Is 23-year-old James Reimer the Leafs' goalie of the future?

He didn't make it to Toronto with a pedigree to suggest he was a sure thing, but he jumped onto the scene last season with 20 wins and a .921 save percentage in 37 appearances. He has only 11 wins and a .899 save percentage in 28 appearances this season. He's been the backup to Jonas Gustavsson for the last four games.

"He doesn't have 75 games in the NHL," NHL Network analyst and former Flames GM Craig Button told "Part of playing in the League is not just having the requisite skills to play in the League, you also need to understand the maturity, the experience, understand how people are trying to play against you."

Burke admitted he was offered a first-round pick for Reimer. Button wasn't shocked to learn that.

"If Reimer had a 2.00 goals-against-average, nobody would phone about him because they would know he's not available," Button said. "When other teams start to call when he's struggling, in a perverse way that increases your confidence to say we're on the right track, we can't trade this guy."

So Reimer stayed, but his future in blue and white is still cloudy with Gustavsson getting an opportunity heading into his summer of unrestricted free agency. If Reimer is a Leaf next season, will Gustavsson be as well, or will Burke acquire a veteran to serve as insurance if Reimer stumbles again?

"I think it's still to be determined," Poulin said. "I think we still have to figure out what is left through the end of this year. It's going to be an indicator to us as to where we go."

Is 5-11, 185-pound Mikhail Grabovski a No. 1 center?

Grabovski, who signed a contract extension this week for five years at $5.5 million per, didn't gel with Kessel or Lupul, leaving Bozak to slot in the middle of those two scoring wingers. It works offensively, but when together that line leaves much to be desired on the other side of the red line.

Until Lupul's injury Grabovski had found a good spot on the second line with Clarke MacArthur and lately Matt Frattin, but he's going to be getting first-line money starting next season.

Poulin, who also played center at 5-feet, 11 inches, said size is never mentioned with Grabovski because he is, simply put, a good player. He's arguably the Leafs' best two-way forward and right now is their third leading scorer (47 points in 61 games).

"We're making the product better, but it's not all going to show today. When I was 12, I wanted to be 13. When I was 15, I wanted so badly to drive. I couldn't. I had to wait. Certain things just take time." -- Leafs V.P. of Hockey Operations Dave Poulin
"The competitiveness that he displays and the size that he is proves to us that the little man can compete," Carlyle said. "He has displayed that and he's been rewarded for it. Besides, he's got some offensive flair to him. He's a real solid NHL center iceman."

But he's not big. Burke covets big. He and Carlyle won the Stanley Cup in Anaheim with big.

"There are a lot of teams in the League that would love a big and powerful center," Poulin said.

The Leafs may have to use some of their assets to try to acquire one this summer. If Burke can get his big center, Grabovski can stay on the second line, Bozak can move down to perhaps a more comfortable third-line role and David Steckel can remain in a fourth-line role. It might require some harsh work with Matthew Lombardi and/or Tim Connolly, either buying them out or burying them in the AHL.

"Brian Burke is an active GM. He initiates and is aggressive," Button said. "This isn't a guy that is sitting back thinking his team wouldn't benefit from some improvement."

Is the current defense corps good enough for Carlyle's liking?

Burke said the defense has been rebuilt with Phaneuf, Liles, Gunnarsson, Schenn and Gardiner leading the way. Mike Komisarek is trying to get his game revived under Carlyle, and it's still to be determined how Cody Franson fits into the mix, but he's only 24 years old and is a restricted free agent after the season.

However, it'll only be fair to ask this question once the Leafs have complete comprehension of Carlyle's system.

He wants them to play a more conservative game from the front to back. He wants the forwards to be defensively responsible and he wants the defensemen to hone in on their assignments. Winning 50-50 puck battles, and owning the walls and the space in front of the net are all key elements to Carlyle's defensive system.

"Compete level is going to be the thing that can turn this hockey club around," Carlyle said.

It's going to take patience. It's going to take more time.

It just has to happen before the intolerant start calling for a full-fledged revolt.

"The blueprint is to win a championship," Burke said. "There will be people that say you need to have your head examined when you're talking about having a parade when you're a team fighting to get in the playoffs, but that's the blueprint, that's the goal, that's all I'm interested in."
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