Over the past couple of days, I've spent more time than ever on Cap Geek and Hockey's Future. I find that whenever I write about the Maple Leafs' rebuild or do any praising of Brian Burke, I'm always talking about the acquisition of assets and when I go over these sites, it's plain to see that the club is much better off than it was when Burke inherited the team. As it turns out, years of trading away first rounders for past-their-prime role players or shaky goaltenders isn't a viable longterm strategy.
Things are starting to look up as it pertains to the state of the franchise. The roster, as it currently exists, is comprised entirely of NHL-level talent. There's no line of Hanson-Bozak-Stalberg, fresh off of seasons in the NCAA. There's no pressure for Kadri-like rookies who need pro-level experience to step into the lineup immediately. Even Joe Colborne, who was drafted in 2008, is likely to get some more AHL seasoning before stepping into the NHL. This wouldn't have been the case a few short years ago.
Nowhere is this more evident than on defense where our opening day roster should be something to the effect of Aulie-Phaneuf, Schenn-Liles, Gunnarsson-Franson, with Komisarek in the pressbox. This means that both Jesse Blacker and Jake Gardiner (who impressed in prospect camp this summer) will both play heavy AHL minutes and get strong tutelage from Marlies coach Dallas Eakins.
Forwards Greg McKegg and Jerry D'Amigo will start the season with the Marlies alongside Colborne, while Brad Ross is expected to play one more season in the CHL.
There's no rush to see this year's first rounders Tyler Biggs or Stuart Percy in the NHL.
All of that is really just a convoluted way of saying "we have depth". Looking at all this depth, I think this roster is due for one more fairly significant turnover.
Each year, Burke has made some major moves to pickup pieces he likes. His first major acquisition was Phil Kessel and whether you like the deal, hate the deal, or haven't yet made up your mind, Phil Kessel is a player with three consecutive 30 goal seasons at the age of 23.
The next big move was for Dion Phaneuf and Keith Aulie. Matt Stajan, Ian White, Niklas Hagman and Jamal Mayers were all classified as depth guys on this team. Hagman and White were both considered to have a little bit of extra potential and were positive trade value guys to be sure while Stajan and Mayers were spare parts.
Last season saw some NHL calibre players out and futures in. Kaberle, Versteeg, and Beauchemin became Gardiner, Colborne, Biggs, and Percy. To some extent, Colborne and Gardiner were a gamble. Both guys had fallen on the depth charts as Ryan Spooner became Boston's goldenboy among forward prospects and Jake Gardiner was surpassed in Anaheim's organization by Wisconsin teammate Justin Schultz. Since the trades, each has begun to show the kind of game that saw them drafted 16th and 17th overall respectively.
If you look at our system, there are a lot of names who have worked out quite well. Jesse Blacker, Jake Gardiner, Joe Colborne, Greg McKegg and Nazem Kadri aren't far away from being fulltime NHL'ers. This means we have a bit of a logjam of skaters and there's likely to be a shakeup over the next year.
Likely candidates to move seem to be Mikhail Grabovski who is an unrestricted free agent at the end of the season. He's been one of my favorite Leafs of the Burke-era, don't get me wrong, but he was a Fletcher acquisition and not a Burke one and with Bozak and Connolly both under contract for two years and Colborne poised to make the leap to the NHL, it seems Grabbo's days as a Leaf may be numbered. He's simply too good to be a third line center.
Nazem Kadri has been a bit of an enigma since being drafted. He's performed very well at the CHL and AHL levels but has been a mixed-bag at the NHL level so far. Even given his inconsistent play, you'd think that he projects as a guy that will play the wing on one of the top two lines a year from now. This means that one of Lupul, Kulemin or MacArthur would need to be moved elsewhere. I sincerely hope that Kulemin stays as I feel that he's probably our best all-around forward. Having said that, the rumours of Philly's interest in Kulemin mean that the rest of league has noticed his strong play as well and he likely has the most trade value of the three.
J-M Liles will be an interesting guy to keep an eye on as the season unfolds. He was acquired for a 2nd round pick which may mean that Burke has an interest in keeping him around as more than just a one year stop-gap. If that's the case, then Komisarek, Gardiner, Aulie, Franson, Gunnarsson, and Blacker will be fighting over 3 defense slots. Komisarek's deal is likely one we're stuck with, and is certainly not one that would have any trade value, but each of the remaining players would certainly carry value that would put them in the range of where Ian White was at the time he was dealt.
From a GM standpoint, this season will be about creating space in the roster for the prospects that were acquired last year. I expect that Burke will try to package some of the existing roster players for an upgrade at one position (likely center) thereby freeing up roster spots and hopefully adding a piece to our top-six forwards. A package of Grabovski, MacArthur and Gunnarsson for example would carry considerably more value than the package which brought Phaneuf to Toronto. If you can find a team that is looking to divest themselves of a large longterm deal and entice them with the calibre of young-but-established NHL talent we could offer then a large deal isn't out of the question.
I'm going to do it one more time before I stop bringing it up; Paul Stastny would be a great fit. If Colorado wanted to get out from the length of his deal and ensure that Matt Duchene gets his reps as a number one center, the Leafs would be a good trade partner. Grabovski, MacArthur, Kulemin and all the Leafs' young defensemen are on reasonable, short-term contracts and this may well appeal to a team on a budget like the Avs. Colorado also dealt their first round pick to the Washington Capitals which provides a little added impetus to ensure that the team doesn't flounder into one of the lottery positions come draft time. If they could add significant depth and get out from the length of Stastny's deal, without adding much in the way of salary then there might be a deal to be made.
Whether it's Stastny or anyone else, the Leafs now have the depth on their roster as well as in their system to start fishing for some high-end players. More than that, it's almost imperative that Burke move some bodies to start making space for the blossoming prospects. This year is shaping up to be the most important of Burke's tenure as GM and if all goes well, it may be the final phase of his rebuild.
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