I apologize for the clichéd, recycled opening to this article. Believe me, I enjoy writing that type of statement as much as you enjoy reading it.
The deficiencies of the current Leafs roster have been analyzed and dissected to the point of near-insanity. I will spare you all the futile exercise of reviewing the fact that Brian Burke has identified a No. 1 centerman and an upgrade in net as his primary goals, along with getting bigger and tougher as secondary objectives.
Oops. Well, I gave it my best shot.
For the second time already, I apologize!
To depart from the regurgitation of topics that have been discussed ad nauseum by every journalist, blogger and Twitter-based rumour monger in the world, I would like to present to you exactly what Burke can do to best improve his hockey club over the offseason.
No, I'm not going to suggest he stand pat and that the current team will magically make a run at the Stanley Cup next spring. That would be ridiculous. I'm not in the habit of inciting rage among B/R's many readers intentionally just to pad my author stats. Sorry, pet peeve of mine. Integrity is the name of my game.
However, the idea of standing pat to improve the hockey team doesn't seem entirely unwise. There would certainly be some distinct, long-term advantages of making no moves for the rest of the summer.
Namely, there are some very young, talented pieces in place right now that would almost certainly have to be included as major components to a deal for a No. 1 center or an established starting goaltender.
Are there superstars within the Leafs' prospect pool? Outside of Morgan Rielly, one could make the argument that there are no bona fide superstars on the way for the franchise as of this current date. But does that mean that young players like Nazem Kadri, Joe Colborne, Carter Ashton, Jesse Blacker and Jerry D'Amigo are expendable?
These players have been developing in the junior ranks and in the American Hockey League for the last several years. Each player is at a different stage of their development, and some are closer to being NHL ready than others. Burke has been extremely patient in allowing each of these players to develop at an appropriate pace in an appropriate league.
Why now, when these players seem to be so close to being able to make an impact at the NHL level, would Burke depart from the investment he has made in bringing these players along the right way?
I think the answer is simple: He won't.
Keeping these types of players in the fold is going to be key to the long-term success of Burke's franchise. Might he even be around to witness them contribute to the club one day, the way he envisions them being able to? Perhaps not. But I think that more than anything else, Burke is a man of integrity and pride. I don't think he will fall into the trap of Leafs GMs of the past by giving up the future for aging players.
Burke does have the depth in terms of roster players and prospects to do some wheeling and dealing, don't get me wrong.
However, what Burke can do to most effectively help his team this offseason is not to trade away his prospects, but make room for them on the NHL roster.
Burke must pare down his bloated, under-performing NHL roster. Simply put, it is the most straightforward, obvious and effective way to improve the team.
To illustrate this, there are currently 13 forwards on the Leafs on one-way deals for 12 roster positions. There is also the addition of 25-year-old Leo Komarov, who has seven, yes, seven years of pro hockey under his belt. There would have to be some lineup shuffling, and two men would be in the press box every night, but sure, Carlyle could make that work.
The problem is that players who are deserving of a chance to play in the NHL for a long stretch will simply not get the opportunity.
For players like Colborne and Kadri, who seem maddeningly close to cracking the Toronto Maple Leafs lineup, that opportunity may not come this year. I find this situation unacceptable.
Burke has to find a way to clear at least two roster spots in my opinion. If he can clear more than that, that would be great. But clearing these spots cannot be done if it means giving up the young players that would be ready to step in to fill those holes.
For example, trading the likes of Tim Connolly, Matthew Lombardi, Clarke MacArthur and/or Tyler Bozak makes no sense if you have to include the likes of Kadri, Colborne, D'Amigo and Ashton along with them in order to entice another team to take on their contracts.
Burke's best move this offseason will be to clear a minimum of two roster spots, regardless of how poor the return is.
Those who would may argue with that need look no further than the success of the 2011-12 Ottawa Senators for exactly why I am right on this.
Players like Bobby Butler, Colin Greening, Jim O'Brien, Kaspars Daugavins, Erik Condra, Jared Cowen and Stephane Da Costa all played significant minutes in the previous year's AHL Calder Cup final run and all played critical roles in the surprise success of the Senators' NHL season.
That's seven roster spots taken by Senators prospects. And look at the names. Do you see any superstars in that group? Absolutely not. The point is, they were hungry. They all had fire in their bellies, a lot to prove, and a lot to lose by getting sent down.
As I said, I don't want seven spots cleared for young Marlies players, I want two. This should not be difficult for Burke to pull off.
The good news is, even if Burke isn't able to clear much room this year, the amount of expiring contracts for next season will allow for the natural progression of the younger players into the NHL lineup.
For that reason, Plan B for Burke—if he is unable to create the room this season by trading some of his veterans—is to stand pat as I discussed earlier. Seriously, I'm not proposing this to instigate B/R's readership! It's just logical in this case. Trading half of your quality players for a single solution, like a No. 1 center, is not going to have as significant a long-term, cumulative effect as if Burke were to keep his young players in the fold and integrate them next year.
Burke's biggest need is not a No. 1 centerman, nor is it a No. 1 goalie.
It is to create roster space.
Thanks for reading!
You can follow me on Twitter at @Jason_Ham.
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