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JEFF BLAIR

Trio of visiting young stars must make Leafs envious Add to ...

And so the beginning of the third year of Brian Burke's tenure as Toronto Maple Leafs general manager coincides with consecutive games against Steven Stamkos, Taylor Hall and Tyler Seguin.



And with their team crying for a bona fide first line centre, Leafs fans can be forgiven their jealousy. It's going to be difficult to not go all wistful, isn't it?



Because on the two-year anniversary of Burke's ascension to Leafs GM, fans are still being asked to take a whole lot on faith and forget contemplating the tangible. Stuff like the change in dressing-room culture has to be taken on faith - and when a guy like Luke Schenn calls out his team as happened on Saturday, faith is shaken somewhat. A better farm system? Better scouting? The people who are making these assertions have a vested interest in making everybody else believe that is the case. Ron Wilson's coaching? Burke reiterated on Monday that isn't an issue as far as he is concerned and that he doesn't get many e-mails about it. A lot of us do, however, and the tone is the same: poor special teams play, one step forward two steps back in the standings - how does this guy keep his job?



Tangibly, this is about all we know about the 2010-11 Leafs: they seem to have more of a clue defensively; they are demonstrably younger, although other than Schenn, Nazem Kadri and maybe Jonas Gustavsson, it's hard to see their young players being impactful at any time; and they can't score goals.



Trading for Kessel seemed to suggest another move was forthcoming, since it made little sense to add a sniper without having somebody around to set him up. That hasn't happened. Burke must be taken at face value when he says he's tried to add more help, but with teams now seemingly set on locking up good, young players and keeping them out of free agency, opportunities to do so are limited. Never mind good, young players, either: teams such as the Calgary Flames and New Jersey Devils have shown they'll play shorthanded instead of trading if they're brushing up against the cap. Has Burke misread the trend?



"I believe you can still get a crack at a really good free agent in the cap system," Burke said. "But having said, it's not like I'm waiting to July 1 to upgrade. We're trying to do it the old-fashioned way: by trading."



Ah, but that strategy is, by Burke's own admission, fraught with difficulty - what he calls "a trade paralysis in the cap system.



"We aren't the only team that hasn't been able to upgrade, though," Burke said. "I'd feel more concerned if I saw trades happening all around me. But that's not the case."



Perhaps the Leafs have that front-line centre, Burke said. "We're not sure [Kadri]isn't that guy," he added, in which case, he reckons, getting a bigger winger with touch is the way to go.



But that doesn't solve the immediate issues facing this team. Burke is clear: he believes the talent on this team is better than its record indicates. But he said that is not an implicit criticism of his coach, as much as it is a criticism of his players for "not executing." And then he turned the tables slightly:



"It's funny," Burke said, "but when a team struggles in Toronto it's always the coach who gets the blame. Why is that? Why do players get a free ride? I have a theory about it that I'll share with you over a beer some time."



That's exactly the sentiment J.P. Ricciardi expressed as GM with the Blue Jays. He, too, said he'd explain it over a beer. Still waiting - and isn't that the way it usually is in these parts, when you fight the daily fight against joining the grass-is-greener folks.

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