When Brian Burke took over the Maple Leafs, he stated emphatically that he didn't have the patience for a five year rebuild and yet, here we are.
Four years under Ron Wilson and what looks as though it will be a fourth season outside the playoffs, it's safe to say that the 'rebuild on the fly' may have been ill-conceived.
Granted, a lot of things went wrong which have caused the rebuild to fail. After a half-season of solid goaltending from Vesa Toskala, it would have been a stretch to expect him to be the worst goalie in the NHL the following season. Add to this Mike Komisarek's precipitous fall from grace and the inability to find an adequate goaltender to replace Toskala following his abysmal performance and you've got a pretty big handicap to overcome -- and one that was difficult to foresee without the benefit of hindsight. All of this says nothing of the worst-in-the-league penaltykill that we've been forced to endure over the last four years.
For the record, I'm not against the idea of rebuilding on the fly. The Oilers have shown us that even with top-tier entry level deals, it's still possible to flounder for years if your goaltending and defense isn't getting the job done. I'm not the type to advocate selling every player on your roster over the age of 24 -- good players are hard to replace in today's NHL.
The timing of Burke's speed-rebuild would be the thing that I would take umbrage with. There weren't a lot of assets here when he took over the team and that meant that he brought in a bunch of overpaid, below-average free agents to insulate Kessel and to try to keep the Bruins from drafting in the lottery.
When turning over the roster, Burke was able to acquire little more than 2nd round picks and Luca Caputi, early on before finally shipping a package of marginal players for Dion Phaneuf. Ultimately, our entire core from the JFJ era was traded for one roster player and given what that group has done since being shipped out, Burke did well to get that much.
Now, in Burke's fourth season as GM, we've reached the stage where a rebuild on the fly is possible.
What We Need
The last month, as painful as it has been, has laid bare the needs that this team has. It's clear that goaltending is an issue in at least the short and medium term. Also apparent is the need for a reliable defensive defenseman. The Leafs are rife with puck-moving defensemen but what they lack is a guy who can reliably shutdown another team's top offensive unit.
What We Want
In addition to the goaltender and the defenseman, a forward with size who can skate in our top-six would go a long way towards lightening the load on Kessel (and to a lesser extent, Lupul) and would help the team break down the trap in a way that they've been unable to thus far.
What We Have
As much as a lot of Leaf fans and observers have soured on some of the Leafs' prospects lately, there is some cause for hope in our system. There's undeniable depth in our organization and there are guys who have a chance to be impact players at the NHL level.
Despite having not lived up to the unreasonable expectations that have been heaped on him, Nazem Kadri is a player who I expect will have multiple 60+ point seasons in the NHL. Joe Colborne has a chance to develop into a high-50s point center in the league as well. Jake Gardiner is already showing that he's a capable offensive defenseman with a great deal of upside. Both Carter Ashton and Matt Frattin are nearly NHL-ready and can provide the Leafs with cost effective 2/3 line production in the near future.
As things sit today, the Leafs don't have a lot of wiggle room heading into the offseason, particularly in view of the fact that there are significant shortcomings which need to be addressed.
The good news is, as was rightly pointed out on the Leafs' Nation Podcast, only Komisarek's contract is a real problem. The term, the dollars, his play, and the NMC mean that we're likely stuck with him in a Leafs' uniform.
Other guys like Colby Armstrong, Tim Connolly, and Matthew Lombardi, all have expiring deals which can likely be moved to create the cap space to address the team's more urgent needs. Dealing these three players alone would clear $11.25M in cap space and the roles that these three players are currently playing on this team could easily be filled internally at less than a third of their current cost with minimal negative impact on the team's performance.
The Way I Would Do It
If I were to put together my ideal lineup for next season, it would look like this:
F1: Kessel - Bozak - Lupul
F2: Kadri - Grabovski - MacArthur
F3: Kulemin - Colborne - Frattin
F4: Brown - Steckel - Cost Effective PK Winger
D1: Phaneuf - Gunnarsson
D2: X - Gardiner
D3: Liles - Schenn/Franson
As you can see, this roster does not include Lombardi, Connolly, or Armstrong.
For cap purposes, I've assumed that Grabovski got 'Kessel money', Kulemin got 'Armstrong money', Franson got 'Gunnarsson money', and Frattin got 'Bozak money'.
Assuming no changes to the cap and carrying both Franson and Schenn for the time being, the Leafs have nearly $8.6M in cap space with this roster.
As far as filling Y is concerned, I believe that this can be done with relative ease in free agency or by a minor offseason move. My preference would be to see a veteran goalie like Nabokov or Vokoun fill the spot. Both have an established track record of better than league-average goaltending and both are set to become UFAs.
We would all love X to be Suter and depending on the cost of adding a goaltender and which of the two defenders stays between Schenn and Franson, it's possible that we could afford him, if he would be willing to come.
Alternatively, the Leafs could seek to address this position through a trade or with a lesser free agent. I would expect that, at minimum, there would be $4M available for a defensive defenseman which means we could overpay a Bryan Allen-type in free agency, or we could pursue someone who is perceived as overpaid in their current situation. It's also possible that we may be able to move Liles for his more defensive counter-point -- a defenseman who is slightly overpaid, provides almost no offense, but plays a strong defensive game.
The New Holes
In a cap system, addressing certain areas of need seems to open up new holes in your lineup. The lineup I've put together above isn't as strong down the middle as today's lineup. With the Leafs' payroll structure being what it is, it will be extremely difficult for the Leafs to address their need at center externally and in order to add a reliable goaltender and a strong defender, Tim Connolly's nearly $5M salary had to go.
There's also arguably less depth on the wing. I'm not a fan of either of Lombardi or Armstrong but it's difficult to say that, in the event of an injury, a player like Deschamps, Mueller, or Ashton is as strong of a replacement at the NHL-level.
Where I'm Confident
I believe that next season, Nazem Kadri will be a strong candidate for a position on the second line and that his presence there will slot Kulemin into a place where he can provide maximum value to the team. Both MacArthur and Grabovski are good at driving the play and Kadri's creativity in the offensive zone should be a good fit.
Our defensive depth is a strength on this team. While we lack top-4 defensemen (in the absence of adding a player), we have no shortage of third-pairing guys. Holzer has been outstanding with the Marlies this year and Blacker is a strong candidate to be an injury replacement should he be needed.
The Rebuild On The Fly
While all of the above is, of course, easier said than done, I don't think there's anything up there that's a pipedream. Somewhere in our core of players is the makings of a competitive team -- we've even seen it at times this year. With continued strong performances from our better players and with the recognition that we can't continue relying on the same recidivists in net, this team has the chance to be competitive on a go-forward basis.
As bad as things have been for the last month, this group doesn't need an overhaul. What they do need is continued development from their young players and some tweaks at a few key positions.
Brian Burke is one of the most aggressive General Managers in the league and he's given a vote of confidence to the core elements of this group. Given this, if I had to guess, I would imagine that Burke's offseason plan probably looks fairly similar to the one I drew up above. Doubtless he now recognizes the shortcomings of this team and will move to address them in the offseason.
I can wait one more year.