Season Three of The Burke Years has Officially Ended
The Leafs closed up shop yesterday for another season, with excellent media coverage that might have seemed a little over the top in any other market, but not here inside the Blue and white Bubble that is Toronto. Several players addressed the media, including Kulemin and Grabovski, James Reimer, Luke Schenn, Dion Phaneuf, Timmy Brent, Clarke MacArthur and Phil Kessel. Coach Wilson spoke, but Brian Burke was not available to the media today. He will hold a press conference later in the week, some sources saying as early as tomorrow.
No fewer than five Leafs (possibly 6) will play in the World Championships at month's end including Schenn, Reimer, Phaneuf, Kulemin and Grabovski, for their respective national teams. Kessel was invited to play for the U.S. squad, but declined, citing the need for down time as the reason. Some read into this that he is lacking in motivation, while others feel he may be masking a physical ailment. Clarke MacArthur is 'on the bubble' regarding the WC's, and may be invited to attend.
You have to love Reimer's attitude today when asked of his possible role in repping his country. With Cam Ward the likely starter, Reimer said that the chance to learn from another great goalie was something he looks forward to. So refreshing to hear this kind of positivity coming from the Leafs dressing room...
MacArthur's comments regarding his desire to return, and play for a team he believes in apparently overruling the greed impulse associated with a new contract speak volumes of his character. Those are the guys you want in your room. His endorsement of Wilson's coaching abilities indicates that the perception from the media could be somewhat skewed. He added that once everyone bought in to the coach's system, they started rolling. Let's hope thay start 'buying in' where special teams is concerned...
Coach Wilson opined today that he believes the team he'll return to coach next season is a couple pieces away from being complete enough to contend. That's a brave statement to make, but there are reasons for optimism. Like a guy they call Optimus, and a room full of guys that are growing together, that really care about one another. I disagree, but who am I...when injuries can lead to weeks of failure and missed points, a couple pieces may not be enough to cover the shortfall.
Regarding talk of an extension for Wilson, I could care less, really. He earned the right to complete his contract, which has another season on it. If he gets re-upped and summarily soils the bed linen, it's MLSE's money when and if he gets canned. The significance of this coming season is not lost on Brian Burke, either. He knows he needs to produce results, and if it's his neck or Wilson's, we know who wins that one.
In closing I'd like to run down my top six, in terms of guys that impressed, vs. those who...well...maybe not so much. Here goes:
- James Reimer
He's the real deal. Perfect mentality, huge frame, strong as a horse when battling in the paint, and the uncanny ability to bounce back after a bad goal or outing. He's the guy you want going forward, but he'll need to prove he can handle the bigger workload, something he hasn't faced to date.
- Mikhail Grabovski
The renaissance man himself. Grabo re-invented his entire game, and became the most reliable forward on the team. He's one of the most dedicated players this organization has seen in years.
- Nik Kulemin
Kuley took a major step forward this year in points, without losing his knack for 2 way play. He's a beast in the making, and as he exploits his ability to hit more, he'll blossom into a complete power player in all zones.
- Luke Schenn
What a remarkable comeback season for Luke, who led in hits and blocks by D all year. What we didn't expect was the kind of offense he showed in spurts. There'll be no regression for Luke, who will prove to be worthy of a letter sooner than later.
- Dion Phaneuf
The team captain really laid claim to his team when Kaberle was dealt. He showed a return to form, and began playing a complete game featuring well-timed monster hits, deft passes and booming point shots, as well as valiant rushes to create scoring opps. Dion proved the skeptics wrong, and as he matures, he's going to become a great leader in all areas of the game.
Now, for the flip-side...
- Bret Lebda
Demonstrating the positional awareness of a beer leaguer, this soon-to-be ex-Leaf was a disaster every time he laced them up. While he had decent puck-rushing abilities, he was often oblivious to where his partner was, and wandered out of position in the defensive zone without so much as a second thought. Nothing personal, but if he is never to be heard from again, I'm not gonna tear up.
- Tyler Bozak
Yeah, he's good on draws. And he has an active stick, and can create turnovers with aplomb, but his ability to finish is under-developed. It's probably a mental thing, maybe a sophomore jinx. His opportunities were there, but he didn't grab the bull by the horns. He showed hesitation, and often looked for the perfect pass instead of just bearing down and getting rubber on net. I think there's room to grow here, but in a dramatically different role than 1C.
- J.S. Giguere
Likely through no fault of his own, Giggy wasn't healthy enough to compete all season. He admitted last week that he's been banged up all season, and will require surgery in the off season. To his credit, he's an amazing teammate and mentor. He may be able to coach someday when he retires, but if he can't get healthy, that may come sooner than later.
- Mike Komisarek
Although he infuriated us all with his inability to whack the rubber thing with the stick-thing in a predictable trajectory, he showed an improvement in his physical game. The trend needs to continue. Why he couldn't grab the brass ring with the absence of Beauchemin and Kaberle is a mystery.
- Phil Kessel
Nice to see him win the team scoring race. And I'm glad that he has been able to expand his repertoire to include something more than dancing in to the top of the dot and shooting. He began fighting through opposition, and even started passing to linemates. I'd go so far as to say there's chemistry in the making with Joffrey Lupul. Still, we need him to stay mentally engaged, avoid the negative body language he often defaults to when slumping, and find it within himself to snap out of scoring slumps. He's got the goods, no question, and as he matures, he'll respond well to the challenges of becoming a total player.
There's lots of work to do over the break to get ready to compete for a playoff spot next year, starting with making decisions regarding draft picks and trade options. Signings won't amount to much unless Richards was only joking about Toronto, so Burke and his team will need to make good use of the key assets collected from the Kaba, Steeger and Beauch deals. That amounts to 2 firsts, and a couple potentially great prospects. There are attractive options at where the Leafs will be picking on draft day, if nothing can be done to shore up the top 6 via trade. Names I like are Dan Catenacci, Boone Jenner (Burke would need to package the picks to jump up for a shot at him), and Jamie Oleksiak (same thing), who slot into the late teens category, with the exception of Catenacci, who projects to be an early second rounder at this point. Catneacci is a speedy little player, with heart, hands and a nose for the net. Favourable comparisons have been made to Mike Camalleri. For me, you can add a guy named Marty to the list of comparables. Booner Jenner is a character-first type of 2 way centre who plays a very complete game featuring high end skills and a physical edge as well. Future captain candidate for whatever team he goes to, by all accounts. Jamie Oleksiak is a Zdeno Chara type of defender, in both size and sandpaper. Standing at 6'7, he has the raw goods to become one of those physically dominating two way defenders, if he can grow into that giant frame and get his skating where he needs it to be. Decent hands, to boot.
There are other options, of course, but these are my top three realistic acquisitions. Of those three, Jenner is the guy I want to see at the podium donning the Blue and White, due to his complete game, his work ethic, and excellent attitude. Thanks to James Reimer, Clarke MacArthur, and Colby Armstrong, among others, we have seen the impact of improved attitudes in the dressing room first-hand.