It's been a while since fans of the Toronto Maple Leafs have had something to get excited about regarding their team, but as it's been for the past seven seasons with no playoffs, the draft offers the hope that is so often sucked away during the season.
The excitement builds for this club because with Brian Burke in charge, there is never a shortage of rumours to keep the city buzzing—and this offseason is no different. Talk of trades involving the team's two first-round picks (25th and 30th) to bring in proven offensive talent have been ramped up in the past few weeks, and you can bet it won't quiet until the very last minute.
Everyone expects something to happen. Everyone expects Burke to at least try and move the picks at the draft. But what happens if he can't, and is left to use his two picks for future talent?
Well, to start off, it wouldn't be the worst thing to happen.
And second, if Burke were to keep the picks, there are any number of ways he could choose to use them—but if he truly wants this team to succeed both now and in the future, all signs point to focusing almost entirely on offense in the 2011 NHL draft.
If James Reimer is the now and the future, and Jonas Gustavsson is still a work in progress, the Leafs are ripe with talent between the pipes—young talent, at that. If either one of them—never mind both at this point—are able to play well for the club in 2011-12, it would be a huge step in the right direction for the club.
It doesn't hurt that the team has both Jussi Rynnas and Ben Scrivens in the AHL, just itching at their chance to prove they can play at the NHL level.
The Leafs defense is also littered with young talent, and while some of it is yet to be proven, the fact that a young core of Dion Phaneuf, Luke Schenn, Carl Gunnarsson and Keith Aulie showed last season they can be somewhat of a force on the blue line gives reason for optimism for years to come.
The is plenty to look forward to as far as prospects go, as well, with Jesse Blacker, Jake Gardiner and Korbinian Holzer looking to move up to the next level.
This isn't to say that there is nothing the team could do better at those two positions, of course they could, but this is just to say that this summer it needs to be offense first for the Leafs, in both free agency and the draft.
Sure, the club has some possibly outstanding talent in the way of Nazem Kadri and Joe Colbourne, while players like Greg Scott, Marcel Mueller, Jerry D'Amigo and Greg McKegg give a sense of hope for what could be to come.
But there is still room for improvement, as always.
Though the team has two late-round picks, that doesn't mean there will be no talent left for them to pick up. In fact, it looks as if there could be some solid-looking forwards remaining when it's their time to select the next Leafs player.
It starts with Matt Puempel, a left-winger for the Peterborough Petes of the OHL. Puempel is a feisty playmaker with the ability to both score and set up a play. In his past two seasons with the Petes, he's scored 33 and 34 goals. He finished last season with 69 points (34 goals, 35 assists) in 55 games.
The 6'0", 190-pound winger would be an excellent complement to a speedy Leafs top six in a few years.
Zack Phillips of the QMJHL's Saint John Sea Dogs would be another excellent choice for a club looking for that boost up front. Phillips is a 6'0", 180-pound center who potted 38 goals and 95 points last season for Saint Johns.
He is often overlooked since all eyes were usually on Jonathan Huberdeau—expected to go in the top three—who was his teammate and linemate for much of last season. But don't let that fool you, Phillips has some incredible skill and has been compared to Patrick Sharp of the Chicago Blackhawks.
There is no doubt he would look great in Leafs blue and white in the future years, and would give the club another viable option at the center position when the time comes.
Another option at the wing would be Ty Rattie, a right-winger from the Portland Winterhawks who had somewhat of a breakout season this past year. He finished with an impressive 28 goals and 79 points in 67 games, and though the 6'0", 167-pound Rattie is small, he's still got time to grow in both size and skill.
Rattie is already a tremendous passer, and in case you've been living in a cave for the past few years, that's the sort of player the Leafs have been looking for up front.
Boone Jenner is another potential pick for the Leafs, and this 6'1", 194-pound center already has some size to go along with his skill up front. As a member of the Oshawa Generals last season, Jenner potted 25 goals and 66 points through 63 games and it doesn't hurt that he's got a physical side to his game as well—something Burke does not shy away from when looking for players.
All four of those players are projected to fall within the 25-30 range in the first round, and if the Leafs were able to snag even one, if not two of them, it would be tremendous considering they started this season without a first-round pick at all.
Just a few days remain before the draft takes place, and knowing how things work in Toronto, that leaves plenty of room for rumours to begin swirling of more trades. But until then, and once the draft begins, it should be an offensive-minded approach from the Leafs brass.
This summer has all the opportunity they need to solidify not only the top six now, but well into the future as well. And doing both is something this club has often found to be difficult in the past.
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