Is there a team in the league more on the fence than the Toronto Maple Leafs?
If the season started today, it would take more of the same historically bad goaltending for the Leafs to land in the draft lottery or, conversely, exceptional goaltending for them to snake their way into the playoffs. They're occupying hockey's deadspace and that's the last place fans want them to be.
We're told that our prospects are great and in some cases it's true but I promise you, there is no magic bullet. Our system has a lot of guys with NHL-potential but it's low on impact.
With this in mind, there are three courses of action; 1) we can move pieces of the future for the here and the now, making our best efforts to compete while Phil Kessel is still on his sweetheart contract, 2) we can divest ourselves of anything that doesn't look a piece of our core three years down the road, swallow the jagged pill and brace ourselves for more bad hockey, or 3) stay the course and see how things shake out.
One of the league's best goalies is available and can likely be had at a discount. Goaltenders of Roberto Luongo's calibre rarely change teams unless, for some reason, they are Roberto Luongo. By the time the NHL starts playing meaningful hockey games again, it's likely that Roberto Luongo will have been traded for the third time in his career. I struggle to think of a star-calibre goalie who's been shipped with such regularity.
By adding Luongo, the consensus seems to be that the Leafs will compete for the playoffs in the Eastern Conference and barring a major injury to one of our key players, I'd agree with that assessment. The cost will almost certainly include futures -- whether that's Joe Colborne, Nazem Kadri, or our 1st Round selection, only Gillis and Burke can know. The question we're then forced to ask is whether there's enough of a foundation in place to start moving out these kinds of assets or whether we're better off taking our lumps.
Acquiring Luongo and fast-tracking this team into competitiveness also serves as a carrot to a strong upcoming UFA crop. Losers overpay for free agents in a way that winners don't have to and, more often, never even get the chance to seriously bid.
There are assets here with value and some of them may be on the clock. MacArthur, Lupul, Bozak, and maybe even Connolly depending on his start, are all guys with expiring deals that competitive teams may have an interest in. Burke track record with trading established players for prospects is pretty strong; Gardiner is clearly the gem of the group, Joe Colborne is a player with a chance to have a meaningful impact, Keith Aulie was a good prospect for a while and when it looked like his value was starting to diminish Burke deftly moved him out for Carter Ashton. The only serious whiff on Burke's resume in this regard is Luca Caputi.
Selling will mean more suffering but it's also a fast track to a lottery pick in a year where the prospect pool certainly looks to be deeper than most. What it also means is that you're either dramatically overpaying for free agents or not getting them which is a significant consideration given next year's potential UFA group and the tight constraints many teams will be under with the shrinking cap.
Also of note is the message you're sending to your two best players, Dion Phaneuf and Phil Kessel. These guys are two years away from unrestricted free agency and another two years of futility would leave a bad taste in anyone's mouth.
The Albert Einstein quote about insanity, while tired, is probably apt here and proceeding with business as usual may seem absurd but there is some merit to it -- maybe.
With the injury to Reimer and Scrivens' great season with the Marlies in 2011-12, there's a chance that we have league average goaltending at an affordable rate and a chance that we have historically bad goaltending. Those outcomes may not sound particularly promising but historically bad goaltending lands you in the lottery which isn't such a bad result. Conversely, if Reimer or Scrivens end up being league-average goaltenders then you're probably further ahead with a cheap Reimer than a pricey Luongo.
Staying the course gives you more information with which to make a decision by the time the trade deadline rolls around but it almost certainly takes you out of the running for Roberto Luongo. By choosing to stay rather than buy, you're seriously damaging the team's playoff chances in 2012-13 but the best-case payoff moving forward is arguably higher. Still, that's a risky gamble.
I really don't have one but I sure hope Burke does. What I know for sure is that we can't keep finishing in the 17 - 25 range and expect things to ever get better. What the Leafs need is a direction, up or down, and either way we can't afford to wait another year.