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New Leafs will be much tougher this season

by Shawn P. Roarke
Toronto Maple Leafs General Manage Brian Burke promised to remake his team's roster when he took the job on Nov. 29, 2008. He has delivered on that promise in a major way this summer, remaking the Leafs with moves both big and small.
But has all the remodeling put the Leafs any closer to returning to the Stanley Cup Playoffs, a destination not visited by Toronto since a first-round loss in 2004?
Unfortunately, for Leaf fans that answer won't come until the spring.
What we do know is the Leafs are a far different team -- both in personnel and philosophy -- than the one that began a 2008-09 campaign that would finish with a disappointing 34-35-13 record and a 12th place finish in the Eastern Conference.
Burke has given no-nonsense coach Ron Wilson the tools to build a bellicose, puck-hunting team like the one Burke built in Anaheim, a club that not only played to rave reviews, but won a Stanley Cup. The Leafs may not win as much this season as their fans would like, but it is a foregone conclusion that this team plans to make opponents pay for everything they earn on the ice. Because, while the revolving door has been spinning wildly at the Air Canada Centre with players arriving and departing on a seemingly weekly basis, one thing unites almost all of the players that have walked in the door -- a willingness to stand up for themselves and their teammates.

Burke has repeatedly promised to deliver truculence and those imported so far seem keen on delivering it.

While the Maple Leafs have certainly retooled their forwards -- especially with the deal to obtain 36-goal scorer Phil Kessel from the Boston Bruins -- Toronto also maintained the core of a unit that scored a respectable 250 goals last season.

In fact, five of the top six scorers from last season return this year, led by Jason Blake, who had a team-high 63 points, two better than Alexei Ponikarovsky. Matt Stajan (55 points), Mikhail Grabovski (48 points) and Niklas Hagman (22 goals, 42 points) are also back.

Now, that group is bolstered by Kessel, the sniping wing plucked from the Bruins with a bold trade engineered by Burke to obtain the unsigned restricted free agent. Burke parted with two first-round picks and a second-round pick to get Kessel, but now has the game-breaking talent Toronto has lacked for far too long.

"When you trade one first-round pick there's a risk, let alone two," Burke said in announcing the deal. "This whole job is a high-wire act without a net. We're betting on Phil; taking a chance. That's how it works."

And, make no mistake; there are risks inherent in obtaining a 30-plus goal scorer who just turned 22. First, Kessel won't return from off-season shoulder surgery until mid-November. Also, his character has been questioned openly in Boston since the trade was announced last week. Finally, the Maple Leafs don't have a center of the same caliber as Boston's Marc Savard, the man who got Kessel the puck all of last season.

Yet, Burke believes all of those issues will be answered by the singular talents of his newest acquisition. In fact, it can be argued that Burke has staked his reputation, at least in Toronto, on this very move.

"Phil has already accomplished quite a bit for a young man his age," Burke argues. "We think his 36 goals from last year is really a platform, not a peak. He has gotten dramatically better each year."

Now Burke may have the scoring he wants in his top-six forwards, but he knows he has the grit he wants from his lower lines. The GM has made no secret of the fact that he is following the blueprint he used to lead the Ducks to the Promised Land.

Up front, that means a pair of lines that can score, complemented by a gritty, defense-first line and a line that puts the fear of Conn Smythe and Old Time Hockey into the opposition.

If you think it was a coincidence that Burke's first move of the summer signing period was to bring in former Ranger tough guy Colton Orr -- who had just 5 points, but 193 penalty minutes -- you haven't been paying much attention to Burke's ways.

In fact, Blake and Grabovski are the only forwards under 6-foot among the group that should start the season for this team

Toronto also signed a pair of college free agents to bolster their attack. Christian Hanson got his feet wet at the end of last season after a stellar career at the University of Notre Dame. Tyler Bozak, meanwhile, played the past two seasons at the University of Denver. Big things are expected from Bozak, who had a strong start to this year's training camp. And, Toronto also brought Rickard Wallin out of Sweden, believing he is ready to be an impact player in North America.

Pavel Kubina was the team's top defenseman last season, but he was moved this summer to Atlanta for defenseman Garnet Exelby and forward Tim Stapleton. Care to guess at Exelby's biggest strength? That's right, he is best known for a willingness to play the hard man in his own end.

Plus, Burke signed François Beauchemin as an unrestricted free agent. Beauchemin provided a fair bit of offense while with the Anaheim Ducks, his former team, but he also was not reticent about banging bodies.

Toronto's other splashy free-agent signing was former Montreal Canadian Mike Komisarek. The 6-foot-4, 243-pound Komisarek did not turn heads with his offensive prowess. Rather, it was his ability to play the role of shut-down defenseman while punishing opposing forwards -- ask Boston's Milan Lucic -- for the Canadiens in last year's run to the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
"Mike Komisarek is everything I thought he was as a player," Burke said this summer after inviting the defenseman to Team USA's Olympic Orientation Camp. Burke is also serving as the GM of Team USA for the 2010 Winter Olympics. "For a big man, he's got good feet, a good first pass and obviously there is not much hitting here (at camp), but he does that well, blocks shots.

"Certain elements of his game would not be apparent in a camp like this but I guess what impresses me the most and excites me the most is the leadership role he has taken here. He has been very vocal and active with the younger players and that is impressive. Obviously, on our club in Toronto, that is something that has value."

Komisarek will be especially crucial in tutoring Luke Schenn, the man-child Burke thinks will be he Maple Leafs franchise defenseman for the better part of the next two decades. More than one team has taken an impressive run at Schenn in trade talks, but Burke refuses to even entertain the notion. Last season, the 19-year-old Schenn showed hints of his potential as a raw rookie. He played In 70 games, managing 14 points and 71 penalty minutes.

Toronto also has vets Jeff Finger, the club's big free-agent signing last season, and Thomas Kaberle in the mix, as well as Mike Van Ryn and Ian White.

Undoubtedly, there is where Toronto's season will be decided.

While it can be argued that major upgrades have been fashioned up front and on the blue line, the goaltending picture remains fuzzy, at best.

Vesa Toskala is the incumbent, but the Finnish goalie is fighting to return from off-season hip surgery, which is never a plus for a goalie. Plus, Toskala was inconsistent last season far more often that Toronto would like to see. Toskala was one of four goalies Toronto used in 2008-09 and he was the best of the lot, winning 22 games. But he also played to an unimpressive 3.26 goals-against average and a .891 save percentage. Those numbers just won't get it done this year.

So, what did Burke do to address the situation?

First, he cleaned house, dispatching the other three goalies that appeared for the Leafs last season. Martin Gerber was traded at the end of last season. Curtis Joseph was allowed to walk off into the sunset this summer and, in the most surprising move, youngster Justin Pogge was shipped off to Anaheim. Pogge was considered Toronto's goalie of the future from the moment he was selected in the 2004 Entry Draft, but clearly the new management team was not as impressed with the youngster.

But, it also seems the new management has its own goalie of the future in Swedish import Jonas Gustavsson. The Swede is known as "The Monster" because of his gangly 6-3 frame. But, the nickname could also apply to Gustavsson's 2008-09 season back in Sweden. In 42 regular-season games, Gustavsson posted a 1.92 GAA and .932 save percentage. He was even better in the SEL postseason, posting a 1.03 GAA and .961 save percentage in 13 games.

Gustavsson got a late start to the exhibition season because of a minor heart scare at the start of camp, which made the off-season signing of Islanders backup extraordinaire Joey MacDonald look like a very smart move indeed.

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