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Toronto Maple Leafs General Manager arrives for a press briefing in Toronto on Friday February 18, 2011 to discuss the trade of defence man Tomas Kaberle to Boston Bruins. (Chris Young)
Toronto Maple Leafs General Manager arrives for a press briefing in Toronto on Friday February 18, 2011 to discuss the trade of defence man Tomas Kaberle to Boston Bruins. (Chris Young)

DAVID SHOALTS

Hope already building for next year for the Leafs Add to ...

Not that it will ease the considerable angst of a fan base headed for its seventh consecutive year out of the NHL playoffs, but the latest noble-but-doomed effort by the Toronto Maple Leafs showed a team headed in the right direction.

Yes, we know that direction for now is the golf course but bear with us.

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If, of course, if the Leafs managed to beat the Detroit Red Wings last Saturday, their 4-3 win Tuesday night over the eighth-place Buffalo Sabres would be real cause for excitement. They are still mathematically alive in the Eastern Conference playoff hunt but sitting five points behind the Sabres with only five games left in the regular season does not leave a lot of room for hope.

Better the fans should turn their gaze to next season (I know, you've heard that enough), where the real hope starts.

Leafs general manager Brian Burke may have as much as $25-million (all currency U.S.) to spend if the salary cap gets to $63-million or so and Tuesday night's win over the Sabres provided the latest evidence where the spending priorities lie.

There are some pending restricted free agents on the roster that Burke has to look after. But only defenceman Luke Schenn will make a sizable dent in the budget. Winger Clarke MacArthur may also cost a couple million and goaltender James Reimer can expect a healthy raise but Carl Gunnarsson and Tyler Bozak will not break the bank. Especially Bozak, whom we'll get to later.

Burke's biggest decisions will be what to do about the Leafs' goaltending and how to land the minimum of two top-line forwards they need.

The goaltending decision is whether to throw your lot in with the youngster Reimer and sign a free-agent veteran to be a stabilizing influence or go after the prize of the free-agent market. No, I haven't forgotten about Jonas Gustavsson but he is now in the position of having to prove himself again.

The prize free agent will be Ilya Bryzgalov of the Phoenix Coyotes. He should be Burke's priority come July 1.

Reimer, 23, is a remarkable story since the Leafs called him up Jan. 23 and he unexpectedly wrestled the No. 1 job away from Jean-Sébastien Giguère. But he showed against the Sabres Tuesday night why it would be dangerous to decide he is ready to be the No. 1 goalie for 82 games. A two-goal lead disappeared in 30 seconds in the second period when Reimer could not make two big saves.

There is no guarantee Bryzgalov is willing to come to Toronto but he does have a good history with Burke from their days with the Anaheim Ducks. And if the Coyotes wind up in Winnipeg, Bryzgalov just might be more inclined to come to Toronto.

The free-agent market looks rather thin when it comes to elite centres, the position the Leafs need to fill the most. Brad Richards's preference seems to be to stay with the Dallas Stars or head for the New York Rangers, with the Leafs not in the picture.

But Burke needs to find someone, either as a free agent or by trade. This is clear every time Bozak steps on the ice to play between Phil Kessel and Joffrey Lupul.

Tuesday night, for example, Kessel set him up twice in front of the net in the first period. Bozak whiffed both times. Kessel is headed for another 30-goal, 60-point season and Bozak has all of 29 points playing beside him. It also didn't help that he took a holding penalty in the last two minutes of the third period, wiping out a Leaf power play and forcing his teammates to fight hard for the last 45 seconds against a Sabres power play.

In the second period, Mikhail Grabovski showed what a good centre can do with Kessel, snapping a centring pass behind Sabres goaltender Ryan Miller to restore the Leafs' lead.

That someone should not be Nazem Kadri at this point, even if he put in another terrific game Tuesday night. Kadri looks much more comfortable this time around playing on the wing, so it's a good place for him to start his first full NHL season.

In 1998, the Leafs came off a season where they finished about the same in the NHL standing as the present edition and with much less talent. They signed Curtis Joseph and became a conference finalist.

The present Leafs do not have a Mats Sundin at centre but with someone in that ballpark they could vault quite a way up the Eastern Conference ladder.

 

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