The Toronto Maple Leafs Decade Journey: 2010-2011

The free agent class of July 1st, 2010 was not filled with out-of-this-world talent, really it was just Ilya Kovalchuk. Now there were some fans hoping the Maple Leafs could land the Russian superstar, although it didn’t seem that likely. However, there were still some really good quality NHLers hitting the market that weren’t Kovalchuk, and Burke was able to land one of them just a few hours into the free agency period.

Bob Mackenzie was correct, this was exactly the type of player Brian Burke wanted on the Leafs, and at three million a year for three years, it didn’t seem like an overpay, which is common in free agency.

Colby Armstrong was a tough, hard-noised winger who would provide some toughness in the top nine forward group. Ideally, he looked to be a perfect third line winger. Big and strong, he was even able to pot 15 goals last season with the Thrashers, so he did have some offence to his game. Although with the weak forward group up front, it wasn’t crazy to think he could be seeing some time in the top six this upcoming season.

In the next two days, Burke was able to resign two of his RFA’s. The first being John Mitchell, who agreed to a one year, 750k contract. The young centre only scored six goals and 17 assists in 60 games the previous year and was betting on himself to take his game to another level next season. The other RFA was Nikolay Kulemin, who agreed to a two year, 4.7-million-dollar contract. Kulemin had just come off back-to-back 30-point seasons, which were his first in the NHL.

The rest of July saw Burke sign two more depth pieces, Tim Brent (one year, 575k) and Joey Crabb (one year, 525k). It wasn’t until late august that Burke went ahead and made some more roster moves to round out his team. First, on August 27th the Leafs acquired depth defensemen Matt Lashoff from the Tampa Bay Lightning for prospects Alex Berry and Stephano Gillati. Lashoff, a big 6’2 defencemen, spent the majority of last season in the AHL, only suiting up for five NHL games with the Lightning.

The next day was an interesting one, as the Maple Leafs landed 25-year-old UFA Clarke MacArthur. The winger had spent most of his career with the Sabres but spent the end of the previous season with the Thrashers. MacArthur had never topped 20 goals in an NHL season yet but did have 30+ points in both the last two seasons. The contract was one year at 1.1-million-dollars contract, so the risk was very low. Yet another player to help round out the forward group.

So, looking back on the off-season, Burke had to be pleased with the additions he made. No, he didn’t acquire the big first line centre every team wishes they had, but that was never really likely from the get-go. He kept his defence core the same, which he stated he felt very comfortable in doing. He was able to provide his forward group with some more solid wingers who can play in the top nine, as Leafs nation was very excited to see what Versteeg, Armstrong and MacArthur would bring to the group.

Finally, after a long season, September rolled around and hockey was back. Well, at least pre-season hockey was starting. Which for many NHLers, this is just a way to warm up for the regular season. For others, such as youngster Nazem Kadri, it was a chance to try to prove to the Maple Leafs management team that he was ready for the NHL.

Kadri went pointless in every single preseason game he played in except one, a game against the Senators in which he scored two goals and one assist. Most fans thought he didn’t look out of place with the big club, but Leafs management wanted to be patient with him. Because of that, Kadri, along with Hanson, Caputi and newly acquired Matt Lashoff were a couple of the last cuts the Maple Leafs made before the season started.

With all the tinkering done, it was time to get down to business. The Maple Leafs were set to open up the new season at home against the Montreal Canadians on October 7th, and the excitement was pretty high. Nobody was expecting a Stanley Cup or anything, but you can’t go much lower than 2nd last in the NHL. Surprisingly this team didn’t look at all like the team that opened up last season. They had a big-time defenceman in Phaneuf, a goaltender that can provide stability in net with Giguere, and a forward group that looks like it might not struggle as much as last year to put the puck in the net thanks to some much needed depth additions.

I could sit here and type out the Maple Leafs opening night roster, but instead you should just watch the first six minutes of the video below.

Player introductions go up until the six-minute mark.

Right away to start this season, everyone could tell this Maple Leafs team was different than the one last year. They were faster and played with more skill and creativity, something that was really lacking from this team last season.

The fourth line with both Colton Orr and new Leaf Mike Brown was one that came out firing with energy, and the centre of that line, Tim Brent, tipped home the first goal of the season.

Sniper Phil Kessel also scored, and Clarke MacArthur got his first as a Maple Leaf. That goal turned out to be the game winner as the Leafs won the first game of the new campaign 3-2.

Then they beat the Senators 5-1 to start the season off 2-0.

Then the Penguins to go to 3-0.

Then the Rangers. 4-0.

And in typical Leafs Nation fashion, everyone was kind of freaking out about their team starting off with eight out of a possible eight points. That put them in first place in the entire NHL, and even though the season was less than two weeks in, the word playoffs was even being floated around.

Because you know, Leafs fans never overreact right??

There were a lot of reasons why the Maple Leafs got off to such a hot start, but none more obvious than the play of new winger Clarke MacArthur. He tallied five goals and one assist through the first four games and had seemed to find instant chemistry with Grabovski and Kulemin.

This October was a huge upgrade over the start to last season. This team was deeper up front and playing with more confidence. All signs were pointing to Burke’s off-season moves paying off.

November wasn’t so kind to them though. They lost the first five games of the month, moving their losing streak to seven in total. In a move to spark his offence, which had gone cold all of a sudden, Burke promoted top prospect Nazen Kadri to the NHL. Kadri was leading the Marlies with 14 points (five goals and nine assists). Burke did admit he would have liked to give Kadri more time in the AHL to develop, but needed his offensive skill set on the Maple Leafs for a bit.

It didn’t work right away, as the next game was a 5-3 loss to the Vancouver Canucks. Kadri went pointless.

The next game though, it did seem to work, as they were able to put up a five-spot on the Predators for the 5-4 win and end the losing streak. They were even down 4-1 in the second period and were able to score four unanswered goals. Even more importantly, Kadri registered his first career point with an assist on a goal by Kris Versteeg. The very next game, Kadri registered two assists in a 3-1 win against the New Jersey Devils.

All said and done, November wasn’t a fantastic month for the Maple Leaf as they went 3-7-3 in that time. The once hot out of the gate Leafs seemed to have cooled down and their record was showing it. Since starting the season 4-0, Toronto only won four games since and went into December sitting outside a playoff spot and dead-last in the Atlantic Division.

December featured a handful of personal achievements for players on the Maple Leafs. Kessel registered his 200th point, Kaberle his 500th point and Versteeg played in his 200th NHL game.

However, December 20, 2010 would be a very special day for Leafs nation. One that would define a position on this team for many years to come, goaltending.

Oh, it also went down as the night where some Maple Leafs “fan” threw waffles on the ice. But that’s not what this is about.

With Giguere out due to injury, the team was relying on backup goaltender Jonas Gustavsson to get the job done in net. However, in the third period of a game against the Thrashers, Gustavsson had to leave the game because of an injury, and the team turned to their former third round pick in the 2006 NHL draft.

James Reimer.

Reimer finished out that game and later got his first career start on January 1st, 2011 against the Senators and won it 5-1. He stopped 32-33 shots he faced, and never was sent back down to the AHL after that.

Toronto started 2011 off pretty well, first with that win over the Senators but even for the weeks following. They won five out of the first six games to ring in the new year. Including a 4-2 victory over the Sharks on Jan. 11 to give head coach Ron Wilson his 600th career win.

Sadly, this team just couldn’t find any consistency. As soon as their five wins in six games came to an end, they went right back and lost 6 out of seven games to end off January. What did look like a very promising month ended up being a 6-6-1 month, and with February just beginning, it was starting to look like the Maple Leafs would need a miracle to get back into the playoffs this year.

Something about this team had to change, they just weren’t good enough. Burke started off February by signing grinder Mike Brown to a three-year contract extension on February 2nd. Then he really got to work. Needing help up front, Burke knew he would have to likely go back to the idea of moving some defence out.

His first deal was a big one with his former team, the Anaheim Ducks. On February 9, Burke traded away defenceman Francois Beauchemin to the Ducks in return for veteran forward Joffrey Lupul and prospect Jake Gardiner, as well as a conditional pick (fourth round in 2014).

Lupul was a 27-year-old forward who had been struggling with back injuries for quite some time. When healthy though he had shown the ability to put up points, with 328 points in 421 games so far in his career. He also brought with him some contract security, being signed for another two seasons with an AAV of 4.25 million.

Because Lupul could have an immediate impact on the team, he obviously drew more of the attention from the trade, but it would be foolish not to be excited about the prospect acquired in Jake Gardiner. Gardiner was a former first round pick back in 2008 and was known for being a mobile puck moving defencemen.

Just five days later, Burke was at it again. This time though it was a move built for the future, as the experiment with winger Kris Versteeg wasn’t working. 35 points in 53 games really doesn’t seem that bad, however he was unable to find solid chemistry with Kessel and Bozak on the first line, and Wilson couldn’t afford to split up the Grabovski, Kulemin and MacArthur line, which had become one of the best lines the team has had in a while. So, the Leafs shipped Versteeg to Philadelphia for a first and third round pick in the 2011 draft.

Four days later there was more on the trade front. This time is was the trade all of Leafs nation knew would likely be coming at some point, Tomas Kaberle. The Leafs traded Kaberle to the divisional rival Boston Bruins in exchange for prospect Joe Colborne, a first round pick in 2011 as well as a conditional second round pick.

It was tough for long time Leafs fans to see Kaberle go as he was the longest serving Maple Leaf on the team, but Joe Colborne brought a lot of excitement with him to Toronto. He was a six-foot-five, 21-year-old Centre with skill and strength, the ideal attributes of a possible future number one centre on Burke’s team. He spent two years at the University of Denver and was playing in the AHL, registering 12 goals and 14 assists so far in his AHL career.

So, the Maple Leafs were clearly still in a roster overhaul with a lot of movement happening in just one month. Burke was able to get all his big moves done well before deadline day, with the only deal on that day for the Leafs was them trading away John Mitchell to the Rangers for a seventh-round pick. Yet, in the midst of all the roster movement, the Leafs put up a very good month of February with a record of 8-2-4. A big reason for that was young netminder James Reimer. They ended February with a total of 63 points, which did put them back in the playoff hunt. The chances were slim, but there was a chance and it wasn’t crazy to think that if the Leafs can continue playing in March like they did in February that they might actually make the playoffs.

Between March and early April, the Leafs had 19 games left. They played their hearts out, and on the back of goaltender James Reimer, kept their playoff hopes alive for much longer than most thought was possible. Their record in those 19 games was 9-8-2, but it just wasn’t good enough. The Maple Leafs finished 10th in the eastern conference with 85 points, eight points out of a playoff spot.

Prospect Joe Colborne was also given a taste of the NHL at the end of the season, as he played in the final regular season game and even recorded an assist for his first point in the NHL.

There were a lot of highlights in the final month of the season for the Maple Leafs. Nazem Kadri got his first NHL goal on March 19th, while Defencemen Keith Aulie registered his first goal just under two weeks earlier on March 8th. Prospect Jake Gardiner was also given a three year, 3.35-million-dollar contract extension just shortly over a month after he was acquired.

Although the biggest story of them all continued to be James Reimer. He finished the year 20-10-5 in 35 starts. He recorded three shutouts and had a 2.60 GAA. With Giguere about to hit free agency on July 1st, Leafs fans had a reason to be confident that they would still have a starting calibre goalie in net next year if Giguere were to leave for another team.

Forward Phil Kessel had a very successful second season with the team, getting 64 (32 goals, 32 assists) points while playing in all 82 games this season. More surprisingly though was forward Clarke MacArthur, who broke out with 62 point (21 goals, 41 assists) while playing with Grabovski and Kulemin. Kulemin broke out onto the scene with 30 goals this season, and Grabovski was close but fell one goal short, ending with 29 on the season.

Phaneuf continued to struggle with finding the goal scoring touch he had in Calgary, finishing the season with eight goals and 22 assists. Not bad by any standards, but the once 20-goal, 60-point scorer was expected to put up more points than he had been so far with the Maple Leafs.

Joffery Lupul, who was considered a bit of a “salary dump” in the Beauchemin trade played very well down the final stretch with the Leafs. He scored nine goals and nine assists in 28 games and showed no sign of recent back injuries slowing him down. Even more importantly he found instant chemistry with Tyler Bozak and Phil Kessel on the team’s top line, something they failed to find with Versteeg.

Lastly, Nazem Kadri found himself in 29 games with the club this season and showed some of that offence that has Leafs fans so excited with 12 points in those games.

As for off-season moves, the team was relatively quiet after the season ended, besides the odd minor contract handed out. The only two that were of real importance was signing Greg Mckegg and Matt Frattin to contract extensions.

Then Burke started really getting to work. He signed the breakout sensation that was James Reimer to a three year, 5.4-million-dollar contract on June 9th. The deal all but signalled the end of Giguere’s time in Toronto and that they were ready to completely give the reigns to Reimer. Then just five days later signed young defenceman Carl Gunnarsson to a two year, 2.65-million-dollar contract.

Throughout all this time, the Boston Bruins, with Tomas Kaberle and Tyler Seguin helping lead the charge, were on their way to the Stanley Cup finals. In the Finals they defeated the Vancouver Canucks in seven games to win their sixth Stanley Cup in franchise history. It was a tough scene for Leafs fans to watch, but at the same time you likely did have to feel a little happy for Kaberle, who after many years of playing his heart out in Toronto finally got his name engraved in the cup.

After the cup was awarded, the off-season was now in full force, and the draft was right around the corner. Before the first round got underway, the Maple Leafs traded away a second-round pick (the conditional pick from Boston in the Kaberle trade) to the Colorado Avalanche in exchange for defensemen John-Michael Liles. Assistant general manager Dave Nonis said after the trade that Liles was going to essentially take the role that Kaberle previously had.

Then at the actual draft table Friday night, it was a very different position from the previous year. This year the Maple Leafs had two first round picks, as last year they had none. The first-round picks weren’t theirs though, as they had the 25th pick (Philadelphia) and the 30th pick (Boston). However, when it was time for pick #22, there was a player Burke had his eye on, and got aggressive as he traded the 30th and 39th overall picks to the Ducks to jump up to the 22nd overall selection.

With that pick, the Maple Leafs selected RW Tyler Biggs, a 6’2, 210 lbs forward who projected to be a top six power forward, which was a player the Leafs were in desperate need of. He was also the captain of the United States National U-18 team.

With the 25th overall pick they looked to defence, as they selected Stuart Percy from the Mississauga Steelheads. The defenceman posted strong numbers this past season with four goals and 29 assists. The Maple Leafs were the team he grew up cheering for which was pretty awesome as well.

The rest of the draft picks for the Leafs went as followed:

86: Josh Leivo
100: Tom Nilsson
130: Tony Cameranesi
152: David Broll
173: Dennis Robertson
190: Garret Sparks
203: Max Everson

The draft seemed like a big success, not only drafting two players in the first round, but also acquiring a solid puck moving defencemen in Liles.

Then of course was the week or so to prepare for free agency which was fast approaching. In the week leading up to free agency, the Maple Leafs resigned Luca Caputi (one year, 525k), Jay Rosehill (one year, 600k) and Ben Scrivens (one year, 600k).

The Leafs had some UFA’s that were going to hit the market, Giguere being the biggest name and him leaving wouldn’t come as a huge surprise. Depth players like Tim Brent, Joey Crabb and Fredrik Sjostrom were also all about to become unrestricted free agents.

Then there were the restricted free agents. Tyler Bozak, Clarke MacArthur and Luke Schenn were all RFA’s without a contract, but still property of the Maple Leafs.

So, Burke was about to be faced with the challenge of trying to upgrade his team via free agency and trades while still saving enough money to negotiate new contracts for three key players.

Overall, this team was on the upswing. The fans had seen progress, a lot of it in fact. The Maple Leafs were no longer basement dwellers, they could compete night in and night out. They had a promising goaltender that could become a star in the future. There were lots to be excited about with this team.

Fans knew that turning around this team was going to take some time, and they saw massive progress made in 2010-2011. Now, the Maple Leafs management team had to make sure they could continue that upwards trajectory next season, and maybe find a way to get back into the playoffs.

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