It may only be nine games into the season, but that has been more than long enough for Toronto Maple Leafs general manager Brian Burke to get an indication of what he has with his team.
Or, more important, what he doesn't.
After a surprising 4-0-0 start, Burke's Leafs have come quickly back to the pack, losing four of their past five games in a 1-3-1 slide in which Toronto has been outscored 12-7.
Goal scoring has been the Leafs' pressing issue, one many foresaw for a team that finished tied for 24th in the category a year ago and didn't add a heavy hitter in free agency.
With several top-six forwards unable to find the back of the net, teams have begun to focus much of their checking attention on Leafs winger Phil Kessel in a bid to snuff out Toronto's top trigger man.
To his credit, Kessel has found the net with impressive regularity, scoring seven goals in his first eight games. But when he came up empty Thursday in a 2-0 loss to the Boston Bruins, there was little backup from the rest of the roster, something coach Ron Wilson noted after the game.
"There were a couple of people missing," Wilson said. "We're not that deep offensively and it kind of showed."
Burke noted Friday the search for more goals is one he has been working on a while, agreeing with his coach that secondary scoring remains one weak spot on the roster.
"We were concerned about our ability to score [in the off-season]and tried to address it," Burke said, a reference to the additions of Kris Versteeg, Clarke MacArthur and Colby Armstrong in the summer.
"We are a bit thin - and these injuries [to Versteeg and Armstrong]highlight that fact - but most teams are. If we can add some scoring, we will."
Three weeks into the season, Burke's willingness to deal - and the fact he has roughly $4-million (U.S.) in cap space - is already well-known around the league. Toronto is one of the few big-spending clubs willing and able to add a significant salary, an advantage its GM will make use of at some point this season.
Scoring forwards in the NHL's rumour mill, meanwhile, include the likes of David Backes of the St. Louis Blues, Jeff Carter of the Philadelphia Flyers and Blake Wheeler of the Bruins, any one of whom could add (to varying degrees) size and skill to the Leafs' top six.
Backes, whose toughness certainly meshes well with Burke's philosophy, will be an unrestricted free agent next July, while Carter and Wheeler are pending restricted free agents on teams that seem to be in a perpetual salary cap crunch.
On that front on his own roster, Burke has several key players to re-sign next summer, with defenceman Luke Schenn's need for a new contract at the top of his priority list. The good news for the Leafs is that, even if they choose to bring back most of the same cast, Toronto projects to again have wiggle room under the cap next season.
Not that buying a goal scorer under the NHL's cap system is ever simple. One only has to look at the Pittsburgh Penguins roster, where a player like Evgeni Malkin has often been saddled with a pair of bargain-basement linemates, to see goals are often the one commodity hard to come by, given all 30 teams are always on the hunt for offensive talent.
And then there's the Bruins, who received a small fortune in futures when they dealt Kessel to the Leafs last September, an indication the cost could again be high to land another young difference maker.
Already having dealt away his first-round pick next June, however, Burke has chosen this path. This, we've been told, is a rebuild on the fly, one of relatively rapid progress and growth.
Using Burke's route, the road to respectability will have to involve at least another gamble or two - including one to land an impact player who can put the puck in the net without dramatically subtracting from the current cast.
It won't be easy, but as is often the case with Burke, it also won't ever be dull.Report Typo/Error