Since Brian Burke has been at helm, the Toronto Maple Leafs organization has restocked its prospect cupboard and have instilled hope in a fanbase desperate to win.
Leafs fans have witnessed both highs and lows during the 2009-10 season and, although they must watch helplessly as the Boston Bruins select either one of Tyler Seguin or Taylor Hall, there is now legitimate reason to believe the Stanley Cup drought could come to an end.
When? Who knows, but Burke is taking it one step at a time—and, somehow, avoiding the traditional five-year rebuilding plan in the process. And what, pray tell—always wanted to use that in an article, isn’t it such a sophisticated word?—will be that next step? Well, no one but Burke can dissect his hockey mind, but here’s what I think needs to be included to a team in dire need of hockey post-April. Veterans.
The typical Leafs cynic would refer to the old days when the franchise would include nothing but veterans come July 1. But make no mistake, it could be the difference between 15th and 8th place in a league which decides its playoff contenders by mere points—and who the hell wants to see the Bruins snag another top-five pick anyway?
Taking a glance at the Leafs’ top-six, they have the likes of Phil Kessel, Mikhail Grabovski, Tyler Bozak, Viktor Stalberg, Nikolai Kulemin and, uh, Luca Caputi? Pick a name out of the hat. It could even be Nazem Kadri, who knows? Nevertheless, that top-six is relatively weak—to be put it nicely—when compared to other teams around the league.
Yes, the Leafs are rebuilding. But if they can develop even three legitimate top-six forwards, besides Kessel, it would be considered a godsend. What’s concerning for me is that these players are basically left to fend for themselves. There is no veteran to teach them the ropes and learn from their mistakes. They’re essentially like rich kids being thrown into the wild to learn basic survivals skills.
I’m not suggesting the Leafs should clog the top offensive lines with veterans and stagnate the development of the youth. But acquiring at least a veteran or two can have a considerable impact on a team that has displayed a fragile psyche at times. Here are some of the free agents I think could help:
Paul Kariya, LW, 35 Coming off hip surgery, Kariya was looking to get his career back on track. He finished the season with 18 goals and 43 points in 75 games—the lowest points-per-game total of his career.
The Vancouver native may be at the twilight of his career, but, at 35, can still put up a decent amount of points while serving as a veteran presence. Putting up two 100-point seasons, Kariya knows what it takes to survive as a smallish forward in the National Hockey League. He could be a good mentor for offensively minded players such as Kessel, Grabovski or Stalberg.
Ray Whitney, LW, 37 Remarkably, Whitney continues to produce points despite his age. He dropped by nearly 20 points this season but managed a respectable 21 goals and 37 assists. The jury is out as to whether he has enough gas in the tank to play as a top-six forward for another season, but you can bet he’ll be a lucrative option for teams desperate to add some offence come July 1.
I’m undecided on Whitney, but I decided to put him on anyway. His play would help, but he’s not worth the big bucks should he command it.
Tomas Holmstrom, LW, 38 Although he’s getting older, Holmstrom continues to cause havoc in front of the net—something the Leafs have rarely done last season. He’s injury-prone, but has an immediate impact when in the line-up. He produced 25 goals and 45 points in 68 games this season. It’s hard to imagine Holmstrom not donning the Detroit Red Wings sweater, and he probably won’t. But hey, who knows? I can dream.
Beyond that, there are a few other veteran players who could be solid additions, but it’s probably in the Leafs’ best interest to add a veteran to both the bottom-six and top-six positions. Of course, that is only one of the Leafs’ needs this off-season if they wish to end this five-year playoff drought. As always, interested in your thoughts on this strategy. Am I off my rocker, or am I actually sane for once?