Optimism in Leaf land
While there is no shortage of people who absolutely detest the Toronto Maple Leafs, even the most diehard Leaf-hater will admit that 2009 was one of their best off-seasons.
The Leafs have gone from a joke franchise with a roster that couldn’t challenge for an AHL championship to a legitimate team with some serious weapons and a great front office.
They may not be Stanley Cup contenders yet, but they will definitely be more competitive and should be relevant in the playoff picture at the end of the upcoming year.
The key to the Leafs’ success has been the addition of general manager Brian Burke. Burke is a man who knows how to win and knows how to build a team.
His arrival brought not only his winning experience but also a culture of accountability, which is something the Leafs have lacked for years.
Burke started off by saying goodbye to players who were doing nothing but taking up cap space. Wasted roster spots like Dominic Moore, Nik Antropov, Pavel Kubina and Justin Pogge are all gone.
After he finished moving some of the team’s dead weight, Burke set about rebuilding the Leafs, starting at the blue line. His main goal was to add some toughness to a team that sorely needed it.
In order to accomplish this, Burke traded for Garnett Exelby, a man known for his big hits, and signed both Mike Komisarek and Francois Beauchemin as free agents, two players who can physically shut down almost any forward in the league.
Add in Luke Schenn and Tomas Kaberle and you could argue that the Leafs now have one of the best defensive units in the NHL and will be a much more physical team.
In order to improve their offence, the Leafs traded their 2010 and 2011 first round draft picks plus a 2010 2nd round pick for 21-year-old center Phil Kessel.
Last year, Kessel led the Bruins in scoring with 36 goals in only 70 games.
While he is currently injured and probably won’t return until November, he is still a solid addition to a team sorely lacking in star power.
Burke also addressed the lack of offence through the draft as the Leafs selected Nazem Kadri, a talented forward from the London Knights who they are hoping can step in and produce at some point this season.
Lastly, there was the problem with goaltending. Ever since the salary cap was introduced, the Leafs have had sub-par goaltending. In an attempt to fix this issue, Burke signed highly touted Swedish goalie Jonas Gustavsson. At just 24 years old, Gustavsson could be the long-term solution to the Leafs goalie woes.
All of these moves make this off-season one of the most impressive in recent memory. The Leafs as an organization have solved many problems and can finally move forward.