Chris Granicolo, Howl Staff
As Brian Burke’s self-imposed roster freeze commences for the holiday season, the truculent general manager of the Blue and White can sit back and marvel at the progress his team has made so far in the 2011/2012 season. Although no longer at the top of the Eastern Conference, the Leafs are still sitting comfortably in a playoff position in mid-December for the first time in recent memory.
The Buds are not of the belligerent and pugnacious variety that Burke preached when he took the position in November of 2008. Instead, Burke has given coach Ron Wilson 3 forward lines that rely on speed and accountability to get the job done. This shift of focus, opting for a top 9 skilled group of forwards and a bottom 3 of penalty killers and role players is a curious change, as Burke advocated a “top 6 and bottom 6” set of forwards from the get-go.
This doctrinal change has clearly reaped great benefits for the Leafs. Wilson finally has depth on his roster to employ an effective powerplay, sitting nicely at 2nd in the league. As well, organizational depth is apparent at the AHL level with the Leafs farm team. The Marlies have comfortably climbed to first place in their division and second overall in their conference.
With the injury bug hurting the Leafs in November, AHL call-ups Joey Crabb and Joe Colborne filled the void exceptionally well with injuries to key players James Reimer, Clarke MacArthur and Mikhail Grabovski. In his 3 years at the helm of hockey’s most valuable franchise, Burke has implemented a vast regime change that is finally starting to see results.
Rookie Jake Gardiner is getting early consideration for a Calder Trophy nomination, sniper Phil Kessel is the leading all-star vote-getter and second in league scoring, and line-mate Joffrey Lupul has emerged into a top-10 NHL scorer and power-forward. Dion Phaneuf is back to his old hard-hitting and point-producing form that Leaf fans have craved since the bruising captain was acquired from Calgary, while newly acquired Cody Franson has effectively filled the void left behind by the injured Mike Komisarek. All these players were acquired by Burke by trade, and the Leafs have without question gotten the better end of each trade (although the Kessel-Trade pundits would say otherwise).
Critics questioned Burke’s ‘re-build on the fly’ philosophy from the start, arguing for a more traditional re-build of tanking in the standings and acquiring high-draft picks to build a perennial contender (Pittsburgh, Chicago and Edmonton epitomize this philosophy). However, Burke can laugh at his critics now as he has turned spare parts (Francois Beauchemin, Brett Lebda, Matt Stajan) into core building blocks for the franchise to move forward.
Although it is unwise and foolish to predict end of season outcomes, the Leafs are starting to look like the playoff team that this city has craved since the 2003/2004 season. Fans in Toronto are as passionate as they come, and ever-deserving of finally having a team to reach the playoffs and contend. My wish of having a playoff squad during my undergrad is on the cusp of completion, thanks to Burke.