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Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Are the 2009-10 Toronto Maple Leafs back?

A couple of weeks ago when I praised Toronto's 4-0-1 start, a couple of fans told me that the Maple Leafs would fall back to earth hard because they were getting surprising offense from third- and fourth-line players who wouldn't be able to sustain it.

Well, the Leafs are in 29th place in offense (tied with Nashville who has a game-in-hand on TO) with just 31 goals scored this season (New Jersey has a league-worst 25 goals), and were just shutout by Dan Ellis and the Tampa Bay Lightning last night. It was the fourth whitewash of the Blue and White in 14 games this season, and doesn't bode well for them as the season goes on.

Right now, that draft pick they owe Boston is seventh overall and the closer it gets to five, the more of a chance the Bruins are going to have to land a high-end talent again. It goes without saying that this is a disaster from Toronto's perspective and is made worse by the fact that Phil Kessel has no points in the last six games for the Leafs. He's obviously going to get it cranked up again at some point, but this is a guy whose overall game has been lacking. Bottom line: If the Thrill isn't scoring, he isn't helping. In fact, sometimes, he's even hurting your team. The idea that Toronto fans have to endure his mediocrity while looking at the $5 million-plus their team is paying him while the Bruins came away with Tyler Seguin, Jared Knight and possibly someone like David Musil or Ryan Murphy has got to hurt. The way things are headed south, even Adam Larsson, Sean Couturier, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and Gabriel Landeskog are in play right now for Boston, which seemed like a pipe dream just a few short weeks ago. Brian Burke is in a bind-- when your team is lousy, nobody wants your roster players, so you have to be willing to give up good prospects and/or draft picks. But, the Leafs can't really afford to do that. Burke will do something. He's the aggressive sort who won't sit still while his season swirls down the drain, but he's either going to move some of his better veteran assets for rebuilding pieces to re-stock later, or he'll have to give up prime future assets to get better this year. It's a vicious prospect for the Leafs and their fans, who have little to look forward to at a time when any one of the 2011 draft's big names would have given them some hope.

Back in 2004, the Bruins surrendered their first- and second-round picks to the Washington Capitals for Sergei Gonchar. Those picks turned into Jeff Schultz (27th) and Mikhail Yunkov (62nd). It didn't matter as much to Bruins fans because the trade happened late in a season in which Boston was going for it. (And the irony here is that they ended up with a core player late in the 2nd round that year in David Krejci.) That's a huge departure from what the Leafs are going through right now. And it underscores the principle of holding onto your picks in this day and age of salary cap and building through the draft. Back in the pre-cap days, a team willing to spend could cover up draft mistakes through free agency. Now, GMs must be very careful about surrendering those assets that provide them with the salary offsets to those core players and bigger cap hits on their roster. The bill eventually comes due when the entry level contracts are up (as Tampa will soon see with Steven Stamkos), but not having the high picks has a crushing effect on a team's flexibility and the morale of its fans.

Its a cautionary tale for any GM who seeks a quick fix via a one-dimensional, albeit highly skilled player like Kessel. He's a complementary player, not a core guy you build a team around. The Leafs are finally starting to realize this after the club has managed just 35 wins out of 96 total games since Kessel joined them.


  1. Just to put the goal scoring in a different perspective Kirk, the Leafs have played 42 periods of hockey. They have been shutout in 14 of those periods or 1/3 of them. Also, a lot of the goals came in those first 5 games which makes the stat even worse.

    Kessel isn't looking frustrated out there, he's looking downright disinterested. Like he doesn't care, ever since the "thank you Kessel" reception in Boston.

    Burke says Wilson's job is safe. It looks more like his days are numbered. If the Leafs lose to Florida tonight, something is going to give sooner rather than later.

  2. Maybe the Bruins should offer Ryder and Toronto's 2011 #1 back to Toronto for Kessel. :)

    I'm as big a Kessel fan as there was in Bruin nation, and I thought the trade was a bad deal at the time. I didn't expect the Bruins to get one of the top two prospects in the draft (or even close to that), though.

    It seems clear now that Seguin has the potential to be both a better player and a better fit in Boston then Kessel was. I'm not sure if he has Kessel's pure scoring ability, but otherwise Seguin is better - much more on ice awareness and hockey sense.

    Kessel also looks like the kind of player who will only thrive in the "right" situation, i.e. not the kind of guy who a team can be built around. He was one of the top even strength scorers in the league during his last year in Boston, he produced in the playoffs despite a separated shoulder, and yet given more ice time and responsibility on the lousy TOR team, he's fallen flat.