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Brian Burke, the president and general manager of the Toronto Maple Leafs. (CHRIS YOUNG)
Brian Burke, the president and general manager of the Toronto Maple Leafs. (CHRIS YOUNG)

David Shoalts

What's next for Leafs? Add to ...

Now that Brian Burke justly dynamited the Toronto Maple Leafs roster, the question is what's next?

The immediate problem is: Where will the general manager find some offence for the rest of the season? Followed by: Who is next to head out of town (hello, Alexei Ponikarovsky) and who does he keep for next season?

Only those who think this lost season can be saved by an NHL playoff appearance should concern themselves with immediate offence.

The Leafs head into Tuesday night's game against the New Jersey Devils last in the Eastern Conference and 12 points out of the final playoff spot with 26 games left to play. They have 45 points and need at least 85 to even think about the postseason. (Does this look like a team poised to go 20-6 down the stretch?)

However, thinking about offence in the near term is interesting in terms of who is expected to soon produce or find himself elsewhere next season. Leafs head coach Ron Wilson pointed at centres John Mitchell and Rickard Wallin Monday, as two players who need to pick up their production immediately.

The Leafs' top three centres - Tyler Bozak, Mitchell and Wallin - have a total of four goals between them this season. Three weeks ago, the Leafs' new No. 1 centre, Bozak, was playing for the Toronto Marlies farm team.

Then again, if you are looking at next season, Bozak does not look so bad. He is 23, still learning about life in the NHL, and has six points in 10 games.

Bozak will line up between Ponikarovsky and Phil Kessel Tuesday night. Normally, Nikolai Kulemin would play left wing, but you can't help but wonder if Ponikarovsky, who is drawing some interest from other GMs, is being showcased.

In the meantime, it will be a case of addition by subtraction when it comes to offence plus an assumption the recently acquired Dion Phaneuf's presence on defence will goose the power play.

If newcomer Jean-Sébastien Giguère plays goal as expected, the Leafs' modest shooters will benefit from not having to score five goals to even think about winning. Perhaps there will be a few 2-1 or 3-2 wins over the last two months of the season.

In the long term, one theory is Burke - who has given mixed signals on such as proposal - will trade veteran defenceman Tomas Kaberle when his no-movement clause lifts at the end of the season for a scoring forward and/or a first-round draft pick he doesn't have (thanks to the Kessel trade).

This, not to put too fine a point on it, would be madness.

As it stands, Burke has $26.325-million (U.S.) tied up in seven defencemen for next season. He also has about $13-million in cap space next season, and only 14 players under contract. But that is not as bad as it looks.

It is time for Burke to use the much-advertised financial clout at his disposal courtesy of franchise owner Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment Ltd.

For example, defenceman Jeff Finger has two years left on his contract with a cap hit of $3.25-million per year. Burke cannot trade that contract but, unlike former Leafs GM John Ferguson, he does not have to clear major player transactions with MLSE honchos. Finger should go on NHL waivers between now and next season, and then be sent to the minors to get his salary off the cap list.

That would leave the 2010-11 tab for the club's top-six defencemen at a more reasonable $22.825-million. It would also leave Kaberle playing on what should be one of the top three defensive units in the league.

Offensively, the Leafs could be a lot better next season. It is not unreasonable to assume 2009 first-round pick Nazem Kadri will be one of the top three centres. That would leave the Leafs Bozak, Kadri and Mikhail Grabovski leading the way down the middle.

(Grabovski, by the way, needs to show more at both ends of the ice when he comes back in a couple of weeks from a broken wrist. Otherwise, he could be up for the waiver treatment, too.)

Aside from Bozak, other rookies who could help the Leafs offensively next season are Christian Hanson and Viktor Stalberg, who admittedly are having their troubles this season.

If they all make the team and Finger gets dumped, Burke could wind up with $10-million under the cap to spend on eight forwards plus backup goaltender Jonas Gustavsson, who will be a restricted free agent. And that's if he does not make any trades after this season.

It's not an ideal situation, but it does leave him room to sign one or two good offensive forwards.

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