January 1st, 2010.
It is the first day of a brand-new decade, and the Toronto Maple Leafs are far from happy with where their organization stands. Currently with a record of 14-18-9, GM Brian Burke is starting to realize this team is still extremely far away from being one that can compete for the playoffs.
One of the only bright spots is newly acquired winger Phil Kessel, an elite sniper with loads of potential. Only issue is that to get him, Burke had to surrender his 1st round picks in both the 2010 and 2011 NHL drafts, and a 2nd in 2010. So now the Maple Leafs, on pace to be one of the worst teams in the NHL this season, don’t even have the promise of a high draft pick to look forward to in the spring.
The first month of the new decade provided no signs of things getting better. The Maple Leafs lost 5 of their first 6 games of the month, and only ended up winning 3 games during the entire month. Something had to change, and Burke ended up making huge news on the final day of the month. After a 5-3 loss to Vancouver on Hockey Night in Canada, which was also the Leafs 8th straight loss, Leafs fan were rejuvenated with two big trades the following day.
One of which was with the Anaheim Ducks, Burke’s former team, in which he brought over a goalie he knew very well in Jean Sebastian-Giguere. To acquire him, the Leafs sent back goaltender Vesa Toskola and winger Jason Blake. Toskola played 3 seasons with the Maple Leafs and never once recorded a save percentage higher than .904, and Blake had never lived up to the contract he signed with the Leafs after scoring 40 goals in his last season with the Islanders.
The other trade was the key one, as the Maple Leafs were able to acquire one of the best young defenceman in the NHL in Dion Phaneuf. The Flames dealt Phaneuf, Fredrik Sjostrom and prospect Keith Aulie to the Leafs in exchange for Ian White, Nicklas Hagman, Jamal Mayers and Matt Stajan. The Leafs did give away 4 players from their current roster, but that wasn’t a tough decision to make for Burke, who didn’t see any of those four players as key pieces moving forward. This move also freed up some roster spots for young players to get a bigger role on the team, including young forwards Tyler Bozak and Christian Hanson.
As great as it was for Leafs nation to get a goaltender that they could trust a little more, the excitement was all about Dion Phaneuf. The young defenceman was just entering his prime and already had a 60-point season and a 20-goal season under his belt. The younger fans even knew he was a star because he was on the cover of the NHL 09 video game! For all intents and purposes, it looked like Brian Burke had added a superstar forward and now a superstar defenceman to this team, all in one calendar year.
It didn’t take long for fans to get excited, as these trades provided some more hope around a team that was struggling to generate any wins this season. Giguere would be able to provide some solid goaltending, although his career was getting into the late stages. Phaneuf looked like a perfect fit alongside young stud Luke Schenn as cornerstone pieces on the D-core for the foreseeable future.
Leafs nation got to see it in action just a few days later on a Tuesday night against the Devils. With Phaneuf in the lineup and Giguere in-between the pipes, the team went out and did exactly what Brian Burke had wanted and hoped for with these roster changes.
In front of the home crowd, the Leafs came out with tons of energy. In the first period alone, Phaneuf crushed Zajac into the boards with a big hit, only to have Kulemin get the Leafs on the board with a goal about a minute later. Then only a couple minutes later Phaneuf missed Parise with an open ice hit and immediately gets into a fight with Colin White. Phaneuf, within the first 7 minutes of his first game as a Maple Leaf, already had captured the hearts of leafs nation.
Giguere wasn’t as flashy in his first 10 minutes, but the game was his to have. 60 minutes, 30 shots against, and 30 saves gave Giguere a shutout in his first game with the Leafs, as they won that game 3-0.
As exciting as the newest additions suddenly made them, there was no secret that this team was still far off from being playoff contenders. Reality set back in as the Leafs lost 3 of their next 4 games heading into the Olympic break. Brian Burke knew once the NHL resumed operations after the break, that he would have to start thinking about next season and beyond. There were veteran players that he would have to try to move for picks or younger players, as playoff contenders would be looking to add immediate help for the upcoming post season.
Burke was able to swing three trades around the deadline that moved out veteran players on expiring contracts for picks and prospects. The first one sent away long time Maple Leafs forward Alexei Ponikarovsky to the Penguins for promising young forward Luca Caputi. Caputi played 19 games for the Maple Leafs to end off the season and only recorded 1 goal and 5 assists.
The other trades involved sending forward Lee Stempniak to Boston for a 4th and a 7th and goaltender Joey Macdonald to New Jersey for a 7th round pick. Macdonald had only played 6 games for the Maple Leafs and had a .892 save percentage in those games. For Lee Stempniak, the trade that sent him to the Bruins was bittersweet for Leafs fans as the Maple Leafs gave up on promising young players Carlo Colaiacovo and Alex Steen to acquire the one time 27 goals scorer. However, Stempniak never found his stride in Toronto, only scoring 25 goals in 123 regular season games. To sum up his time in Toronto, his most memorable moment in was a shootout attempt against the Blue Jackets where he missed the net by about 10 feet.
The rest of the Maple Leafs season was actually a bit surprising, as they won 11 out of their last 20 games, including an exciting 4-3 overtime win against Montreal to end the season off. The focus for the last portion of the season was to really get a hold of where some of the young players in the organization were in their development. Tyler Bozak was one of the players that really stood out, as he recorded 27 points in only 37 games. Young defenceman Carl Gunnarsson also stood out as a nice young stay at home defender, still putting up 15 points in 43 games.
The Maple Leafs finished the season with only 30 wins and 74 points, enough for last in the Eastern Conference and 2nd worst in the entire NHL behind only the Edmonton Oilers. To make matters even worse, they didn’t even have the promise of a top 3 draft pick waiting for them.
Not everything seemed so bad though. Yes, when a team is this bad you expect to be getting a cornerstone player in the draft, but this team looked a lot farther along now than it did at the end of last season. Even though it cost them the high draft pick to acquire him, the Maple Leafs now had an elite goal scorer on this team in Phil Kessel. Kessel, despite missing the first 12 games of the regular season, still put up 30 goals and 55 points.
Dion Phaneuf also was the superstar defenceman they have longed looked for and coming to Toronto in only his mid 20’s, there was still reason to believe he can get even better. It was no secret it was a down year for him, but there was no reason to think he couldn’t return to the type of play he showed in Calgary earlier in his career.
Even with Kessel and Phaneuf joining Luke Schenn as the core of the team (and hopefully young centre Nazem Kadri one day), the Maple Leafs still have a lot of holes to fill to get out of the basement of the NHL. Even with Tyler Bozak looking like a promising young centre, they are not strong enough up front offensively. Their defence on paper looks good, with players such as Phaneuf, Schenn, Kaberle and Beauchemin. Giguere posted a very reasonable .916 save percentage in his 15 games with the Leafs, so starting goaltending shouldn’t be on the top of their priority list. Without doubt, it has to be getting more depth up front behind Kessel.
The off-season started off on a rough note with the Maple Leafs and their fans having to watch the Boston Bruins, who were already a playoff team, get the second overall pick in the draft. It was nice to see them not get to pick #1, but it would have been ideal to have had them fall to #3 so they wouldn’t get one of the two big players entering the draft, Taylor Hall or Tyler Seguin.
Regardless, Brian Burke had work of his own to get to. His first big move was extending young goaltender Jonas Gustavsson to a 2 year, 2.7-million-dollar contract extension. Even though he played in 42 games last season, he only posted a .902 save percentage. This was almost a “prove yourself” contract for him to show that he can take over as the starting goaltender position on this team once Giguere’s contract expires after the end of the 2010-2011 season.
He was also dealing with the fact the Leafs were without a captain and had been since Mats Sundin left a few years ago. Burke asked his head coach Ron Wilson who he would like as the next captain, and he had just a player in mind.
Phaneuf was formally introduced as the franchises 18th captain on June 14th, as Burke said Phaneuf was the only player on the team he thought of as worthy enough to be held at the high standard all Maple Leafs who wear the “C” are held to. Even though the official decision was Wilson’s, Burke had this in mind way back in January when he made the trade.
Also, at the press conference where the organization named Phaneuf captain, the Maple Leafs unveiled new team jerseys for the upcoming season. The new jersey added two white stripes around the bottom along with a classic maple Leafs logo on the shoulder patches. It was a nice break from all the rumours surrounding the team and to celebrate a big moment in the Brian Burke era. However, much work was still to be done.
With no massive pending UFA’s to worry about, Burke was able to set his sights on the NHL entry draft. He was going in without a first or second-round pick, which is just brutal to think about when the NHL is such a “build through the draft” league. They weren’t handicapped though, and there was one player on the Maple Leafs drawing interest from around the league.
Long-time Leafs defenceman, Tomas Kaberle.
Kaberle was coming off a decent year with the Maple Leafs, where he registered 7 goals and 42 assists, with 25 of those points coming on the powerplay. The belief was that with Phaneuf and Schenn being the future stars on the back end, followed by quality pieces in Beauchemin and youngster Carl Gunnarsson, Burke might be able to trade from a position of strength to upgrade his forward group.
Burke had also implied that his goal was for the Maple Leafs to be a playoff team. A bold statement following a season where they were 2nd last in the NHL. Yet based off their late season stretch, maybe not as crazy as it sounds.
The statement also gave Leafs Nation the idea that Burke would be very active in both the trade and free agent market to upgrade his team. That would also mean that the Leafs might be looking for NHL ready players in trade returns, not just picks and prospects.
That is exactly what happened, as the Leafs were offered a pick inside the top 10 for defenceman Luke Schenn, a deal that was shot down without much thought from Burke. As for the hours leading up to the draft, the Maple Leafs weren’t able to gain much traction on trade talks. That carried into the first round, as even though the Leafs wanted to try to gain back a first-round pick, in the end they weren’t able to do so. Yet Burke remained optimistic that he would be able to move up into the 2nd round the next day.
Now that they were able to do, as they traded up into the 43rd spot in the draft. With that pick, they drafted winger Brad Ross, a tough nosed, high energy player from the Portland Winterhawks of the WHL. The rest of the picks the Leafs made in the draft went as followed:
Even though it wasn’t a Tomas Kaberle trade, Burke was able to swing a deal with his former franchise the Anaheim Ducks. The Maple Leafs traded away a 5th round pick in this NHL draft for grinder Mike Brown. He would likely play on the teams 4th line, but provides toughness and tenacity in his game, qualities Brian Burke has not been shy about saying he wants to add.
After the draft, it’s time for teams to get ready for the mega-event that is free agency. The big name on this year’s list of players about to hit the open market was Ilya Kovalchuk. With six 40 goal seasons already under his belt and at only 27 years old, he was going to have many suitors lining up for his services. However, there were still many quality players that weren’t named Kovalchuk about to hit the market, and the Leafs had to narrow down on which ones they were going to offer contracts to, and how much money they were willing to spend on them.
The days leading up to July 1st were quiet in action but as usual, they were loud in rumours. The media were guessing what teams will be signing what players, as well as what teams are talking trades. Turns out, the Maple Leafs had found a team to talk trades with, the defending Stanley Cup champion Chicago Blackhawks.
The Blackhawks were facing a cap crunch and had to trade away some expensive contracts. The Leafs were a team looking to get deeper up front, knowing Kessel can’t do it all himself. The Blackhawks had already traded away big defenceman Dustin Byfuglien to the Thrashers, and now they were looking to move even more cap. The trade happened one day before the free agency period opened, and it gave the Maple Leafs a young forward they could add to their top six immediately.
The Maple Leafs traded away F Victor Stalberg, who didn’t have the greatest of seasons but showed flashes of NHL level skill, along with prospects Chris DiDomenico and Phillipe Paradis. In return, the Blackhawks sent F Kris Versteeg and prospect Billy Sweatt.
The key player in the trade was clearly Kris Versteeg, a 24-year-old winger (who can also play Centre) who was a key part of the Blackhawks run to the Stanley Cup this past season. His speed and skill will be a major upgrade to a Maple Leafs forward group that looks very thin behind Phil Kessel. Fans were already penciling in a possible first line of Kessel and Versteeg playing on the wings of young centre Tyler Bozak.
However, it’s only June 30, still a day away from the biggest roster shuffling day of the year. Brian Burke has stated that he thinks his group of defensemen is one of the best in the league. So based off this assumption, it was expected that Burke will try to focus on more help up front in the next little bit, via free agency or trade (remember Kaberle is still a big trade chip that hasn’t moved yet).
Yet Maple Leafs fans don’t seem too disappointed. The team is in a much more optimistic spot right now than they were this time last year and have a GM who has shown he will be aggressive in turning this team around quickly.
For the first time in a while, Leafs nation has hope that this team might be getting a taste of playoff hockey someday soon.