With the Leafs currently sitting six points out of a playoff berth, a lot of suppressed excitement is beginning to bubble to the surface in Toronto. Leafs Nation has been deprived of playoff hockey since May of 2004, when the final team of the free spending, no-cap era made a second round exit after losing out to the Philadelphia Flyers. The introduction of the salary cap after a season of no hockey seems to have benefited the league overall, bridging the competitive gap between teams and levelling the playing field in financial terms. The Leafs however have had difficulty transitioning from their previous strategy, which was to trade away future picks and prospects for overpaid veterans with the hope of building a team strong enough to propel them to a Stanley Cup. John Ferguson Jr., the Leaf’s game in the post-lock out era did not help matters much, overpaying the infamous Muskoka Five and making critical errors that included trading Tukka Rask for Andrew Raycroft. Although it is easy to point fingers at John Ferguson Jr., it is relatively well known that his hands were tied by senior MLSE executives. Their reluctance to discuss transactions involving Sundin backfired, and resulted in Sundin walking away and the Leafs having nothing to show for one of the best players in their history.
After the highly publicized hiring of Brian Burke, Leafs nation collectively exhaled as a media-proclaimed hockey-genius, who had just won a championship with the Anaheim Ducks, was here to save the day. However, things seemed to take a turn for the worse. After acquiring veteran defencemen Mike Komisarek and Francois Beauchemin, an injured Kessel for two first-round draft picks, the Leafs went on to complete one of their worst seasons in recent memory. Boston picked up the highly touted Seguin as a result of the Leafs’ dismal season and Toronto was unable to find any consolation in the disaster of 2009-2010, although significant house-cleaning took place in January of 2010 when the Leafs acquired J.S. Giguere, Dion Phaneuf and prospect Keith Aulie and got rid of numerous players that were not going to take the Leafs to the promised land.
The 2010-2011 season started off on an optimistic note, with the Leafs winning their first
four games. Unfortunately, due to lack of team depth, a proper centre for the skilled Phil Kessel and poor goaltending, eerily similar inconsistencies displayed in previous seasons recurred and it quickly became obvious that the Leafs were once again in troubled waters. As the prospect of the Leafs qualifying for the playoffs became dimmer, Brian Burke made a critical decision with respect to the organization’s direction: he decided that an accelerated re-build was not going to work and that he could no longer cut corners. A proper rebuild, where high level draft picks are accumulated and young prospects are developed was in effect enacted when Burke moved recently acquired Versteeg to Philly, Leaf’s veteran Kaberle to Boston and Beauchemin to Anaheim. In return, the Leafs received a brighter future. Prospect Colborne has already lit up the lamp with the Toronto Marlies and the abundance of draft picks for upcoming drafts is starting to erase the overpayment Burke made for Phil Kessel. Joffrey Lupul is doing an alright job of energizing the team and the freed up roster spots are allowing borderline NHLers the opportunity to hone their skills and display their talents at an NHL level.
That being said, I don’t believe the Leafs are far-off from qualifying from the playoffs. In my own humble opinion, I really think that the two main issues facing the Leafs were/are:
1) The lack of quality goaltending
2) The lack of a bonafide centre for Phil Kessel
Interestingly enough, I think that the Leafs may have solved the first issue by allowing the freakishly calm Reimer (only 22 years old) to takeover the starting goaltender job while J.S. Giguere serves a back-up and mentors him and the Monster tries to get his house in order at the AHL level. If Reimer can hold up his efforts (which currently rank among the best in the NHL) and the Leafs continue to rally around their goaltender, the team may be one step away from surging up the standings over the remaining 22 games.
This is where the rumour surrounded Brad Richards comes into play. Brad Richards seems to have been in the league forever (winning the Conn Smythe trophy along with the Stanley Cup in 2004). However, he is only 30 years old and seems to be consistent in the numbers he puts-up. Joe Nieuwendyk, his current GM has made it clear that he is willing to move the star centre if the right offer comes along. If the Leafs were to make a move for Richards, he would provide an instant boost to the lack-lustre Toronto offence and would provide leadership to a young group of forwards. A revitalized Phil Kessel could re-acquire his seemingly dampened scoring touch and the Leafs could make a push for the playoffs. Of course, they are not deep enough of a team to make a run to the Stanley Cup finals, but the added emotional boost to the fan-base along with a tangible feeling of progress (not to mention a less favourable draft pick for the hated Boston Bruins) could serve Leafs nation well. Assuming the Leafs do not give up a lot for Richards (should they make a move), they could continue their rebuilding efforts while providing two lines with instant scoring ability (Kulemin-Grabovski-MacArthur and Lupul-Richards-Kessel). There’s no doubt that the Leafs are in the midst of a rebuild, but some interim excitement could really sweeten the tone in Toronto, assuming the price is not too high.
Ogi is a graduate of Humber College’s Sport Management program. He is the founder of Blago Blogger Sports.