Monday, March 22, 2010

Burke Promised Change in Toronto and he has Delivered...

Wait until next season - four words no sports fan ever wants to hear. For the fans of the Toronto Maple Leafs, it is understandable that they are sick of hearing these words, but the team is proving that they will be a competitive squad when they hit the ice next year. After a well-documented, poor start to the season, that saw the Leafs drop their first eight games, they have emerged as one of the NHL’s hottest teams as the NHL season wraps up.

Brian Burke promised a change of culture in the locker room and he has certainly delivered. With most of last season’s roster playing for other teams in the league, the youngsters Burke has acquired via free agency and the trade route finally have the ice-time to display their skills and develop some chemistry. Most notable among the new additions are hard-hitting defenceman Dion Phaneuf and NCAA standout, Tyler Bozak.

When the Leafs GM called a press conference on a quiet Sunday morning to announce a trade in late January, no one expected the news that Phaneuf, once considered a franchise player in Calgary, was on his way to Toronto. In a blockbuster trade, rarely seen in today’s salary cap era, Burke brought in a player that instantly made his defence one of the best in the Eastern Conference. When Mike Komisarek returns next season from shoulder surgery, the Leafs will have Phaneuf, Beauchemin, Komisarek, Schenn, Gunnarsson and possibly Tomas Kaberle on the blue line. A formidable group of D-men, especially with The Monster - Jonas Gustavsson and JS Giguere sharing the duties in goal and bringing much needed stability to the goaltending position.

Phaneuf has made an immediate impact on Luke Schenn since his arrival. Mired in the “sophomore slump”, Schenn’s play of late has been similar to his outstanding rookie year. In 69 games this season, Schenn has four goals, 12 assists and is finally on the plus side at plus two. Gunnarsson, a native of Orebro Sweden and a seventh round pick in 2007 (194th overall), has appeared out of nowhere as a legitimate NHL defenceman, scoring two goals and nine assists in 33 games while being a plus 11 on what was once a last place team. The sign of a “great” player is the fact that he makes others around him better and that is the case with Phaneuf’s arrival; he has made those around him better. Next season, do not be surprised to see a “C” on Phaneuf’s sweater.

Of course, every discussion this season about the Leafs involves the two first-round draft picks sent to the Boston Bruins for Phil Kessel. While it is a bold move, one that could prove to be costly, the points that Kessel is racking up may ease the burden for Leafs fans. I recently finished reading Brian McFarlane’s book, 100 Years of Hockey, which covers every decade of hockey from the humble beginnings until the end of the 1989 season. In the book, he makes predictions about the junior players expected to emerge as all-stars in the 1990’s. All the players mentioned accomplished nothing or very little in the NHL, except for Eric Lindros. Of course, Philadelphia may have had second thoughts about their “star” when the Colorado Avalanche won the 1996 Stanley Cup with several of Philadelphia’s draft picks and players. While the price paid for Kessel was steep, as Burke said at the time, he knew what he was getting in Kessel. A draft pick, even a top-five pick, does not always become a legitimate NHL star.

Now that Kessel has been joined on the top line by Tyler Bozak, he is on pace to match or exceed his goal total from Boston last season and the pair of forwards could be a formidable duo for years to come. Last season in Boston, Kessel had 36 goals and 24 assists in 70 games. This season, through 60 games, he has 28 goals and 23 assists. Bozak, since his arrival in the NHL, has accumulated 7 goals and 14 assists in 27 games. After an early case of nerves and learning on the job as he made his way through the difficult NHL schedule, the former University of Denver star has been a perfect fit on the top line with Kessel. Signed as an undrafted free agent, as Burke often states, finding a player like Bozak is like finding a wallet on the street. Joined by Nikolai Kulemin to round out the trio, and the Leafs are proving they are on the rise in the Eastern Conference and perhaps even to the top of the NHL.

As much as I hate to say it and Leafs fans hate to hear it, the words “wait until next year” finally have some meaning in Toronto. It is not an empty promise from a GM hoping to sell next year’s season ticket packages, it is a legitimate promise; one that Toronto fans can take to heart. When April 2011 rolls around, the Air Canada Centre will not be a darkened cavern, closed for the season; it will be the focal point of the hockey world and another feather in the cap of Brian Burke.

Photo of two former Flames - Dion Phaneuf and Wayne Primeau, by Dinur on Flickr.

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