I started writing this article one week ago today, only to pause and take a deep breath. I read opinions and rumours and then listened to the radio and heard that basically anything was possible in the media.
The Brian Burke regime and I have been on the same page for the most part. Nothing personal, Matt Stajan, but I was glad to see you go.
So this week has passed, and my breaking point has arrived. I'm ready for some answers!
Like the rest of Leaf Nation, I'd love to steal Rick Nash or Ryan Getzlaf, but in reality the timing may not allow Burke to use a Rumplestiltskin-type agreement to land either.
The next two days will require a few very important decisions which will ultimately be the key to the Leafs and Burke's future in Toronto. I'm not calling for Burke's job, far from it. The goal this year may be to reach the playoffs, but in reality Burke's job is to see the bigger picture: Leading this young roster to a point where they make waves and a run in said playoffs.
Can this core do it? I'd love to say yes, but it seems unlikely. Key pieces are still needed before the Toronto Maple Leafs win a Stanley Cup.
So what needs to happen in the next two days to rekindle a playoff frenzy in the centre of the hockey universe? And how can Burke make sure, at the same time, that any trades don't stunt the growth of the team on the slow upswing of its development?
1. Trade Mikhail Grabovski
Grabovski has been a solid contributor as a Leaf, but make no mistake, at $2.9 million per season he's a good value. Burke, think with your wallet and head not your heart. If the Leafs sign him for $5 million per season no matter what term the deal is for, his ceiling for production would need to jump significantly.
At 29 years old, signing this small, perimeter second-line centre would scream average is acceptable. For my money I like Tyler Bozak as our second-line centre for now and the future.
CBC reported on Hockey Night's intermission segment that at least one team has offered a first-round pick for Grabby.
2. Trade Jonas Gustavsson
Whether James Reimer is the man going forward or not, he's signed, and keeping both the Monster and Optimus Reim seems like an obvious flaw. Get some value and move on.
CBC also reported a number of teams still see upside in the Monster, believing that his poor performance is coaching-based.
3. Find a Goalie—Not an Old Goalie!
Rumblings of Evgeni Nabokov (36 years old), Dwayne Roloson (42 years old) and Nikolai Khabibulin (39 years old) scare me a lot. Sure, they maybe a decent band-aid, but to add one of them means you ride them during the last quarter of the schedule this year. Then what?
Even if it means Ron Wilson will be fired for missing the playoffs, we need a real plan that starts now. Long term, Roloson will retire at season's end, the Bulin-wall has a large contract already for 2013 which holds up other moves and Nabokov will need to be re-signed, which I don't want but is the least horrible of the three senior options.
Really, any of these players would be a short-term solution for a team this young, and the Leafs would find themselves in the same position again next February. Pay the price and go get Jonathan Bernier or Jaroslav Halak.
In both cases the Leafs will have their No. 1 tender, and Reimer can fill the job as the No. 2 for years ahead. This won't be cheap, but both can steal games instead of being the NHL equivalent of Trent Dilfer in the NFL—manage the game, just don't lose it for the team. Francois Allaire may not be able to continue as the goalie coach if we land either or not, as he's starting to lose his believers.
4. Focus on Finding a Legit No. 1 Centre by October
If Burke can swing it by Monday at 3:00 pm, fantastic! Saving the $5 million per season on Grabovski allows Burke to make a very large bid towards Zach Parise.
The center doesn't have to be Parise; a trade for Getzlaf would work just fine, but signing Parise would save trading assets, since he will be an unrestricted free agent.
5. Find a Top-Six Power Forward
Just like the centre need, Burke has been chasing a top-six power forward since the day they announced his hire in Toronto. Burying Mike Komisarek with the Marlies and bringing up Korbinian Holzer will free up enough money to target a Dustin Brown, Scott Hartnell or a Wayne Simmonds.
At least one of steps Nos. 3, 4 or 5 needs to be done by Monday to spark the run for the 2012 playoffs.
Put players in situations where they can succeed. Ice time and roles should match their individual skill set. If you don't have a player that can do the job, find someone who can, —don't accept anything else. Success breeds confidence. Confidence is contagious and creates a winning culture.
Burke has done well collecting assets, but for the Leafs to take the next step: Some of those assets have to be used to balance the roster. This young team has many positives, but weeks like the last two show that the team is missing something.
The Leafs can't hit the panic button or become complete sellers looking to rebuild with a fire sale. Burke has set up flexibility using contract terms better then most GMs, and he is not afraid to pull the trigger to get what he wants.
These are my five necessary steps for my Leafs. As a fan, it's fun to play GM. I became a Leaf fan early in my childhood during the Ballard era and survived the John Ferguson Jr. mess, so after writing this article I would like to make it very clear: in Burke I trust!
Go, Leafs, Go!