TORONTO - The smartest guy in the room chose his words carefully on Monday.
ďItís our goal and our intention to participate in the playoffs,Ē said Maple Leafs general manager Brian Burke, who preceded that statement with, ďIf you noticed, weíve avoided any bold proclamations.Ē
Yes, we did notice.
We did notice that you didnít stick your neck out.
And thatís fine. It is, after all, only Year 3 of your big rebuilding plan.
Youíre still bringing in players who want to win, as opposed to some of the people here when you arrived two years ago who apparently didnít want to win as badly ó or so you alluded to on Monday ó although it behooves us to think that there arenít any NHL players or executives out there who donít want to win desperately.
Last season, you made noise about making the playoffs, and the Leafs finished dead-last in the Eastern Conference and second last overall in the NHL. So I guess itís natural that you arenít making any bold predictions this year.
Instead, Leafs fans should be content in the knowledge that itís the organizationís ďintentionĒ and ďgoalĒ to make the playoffs.
So strike up the band and unwrap the cheese.
Personally, I believe Burke has been given a pretty easy ride in these parts since taking over two years ago.
Heís very smart and very intimidating.
But the party is over.
This is Year 3 of the great rebuild and this is the season that the Leafs have to prove, once and for all, that it is a franchise on the rise and not just a young team that isnít particularly good.
Frankly, it could go either way.
There are a lot of Ďifsí on this club. A lot has to fall into place for this franchise to develop into a consistent playoff contender.
To his credit, Burke hasnít been afraid to make bold moves since arriving (i.e. giving up the farm for Phil Kessel). But whether the majority of them are any good remain to be seen.
Is this a team really on the rise? It is if ó and only if:
n Kessel proves that he was worth Tyler Seguin ó who will likely start the season with the Boston Bruins ó Jared Knight, a first-round pick next year and $27 million US.
n Jonas Gustavsson or Jussi Rynnas develop into front line NHL goaltenders, because itís a good bet that 33-year-old Jean-Sebastien Giguere wonít be in his prime when the Leafs are ready to go deep into the playoffs.
n Defenceman Dion Phaneuf proves to be worth the hype and that his apparent leadership qualities are team-building and not team-dividing, and that heís not quite so reckless on the ice positionally and that his decision-making with the puck improves.
n That Nikolai Kulemin plays up to his talent on a regular basis, on not just in flashes. The same for Mikhail Grabovski, whom the Leafs will lean on heavily this season to provide some second-line offence. Without it, the Leafs will have a heckuva time scoring goals.
n That the free agent market continues to yield decent players (Tyler Bozak) as the Leafs donít have much in the way of high draft picks.
n The club vastly improves its special teams. Itís power plays and penalty kill units were at, or near, the bottom of the NHL last season.
n That first round draft pick from a year ago, Nazem Kadri, who will start the season with the Toronto Marlies, proves to be the real deal.
ďIf I could back to the draft and (get) the microphone again, Iíd take Nazem Kadri again,Ē said Burke, who, of course, made a similar statement about his Kessel trade.
Burke insisted on Monday, after being asked about the rookie forward twice, that he is not disappointed with the way Kadri performed in camp.
ďNo. Heís 19 ... 19 years old,Ē the GM said. ďHe did the off season part of it. We asked him to gain weight and get stronger and he did that part. He had some trouble with the speed of the game and he has to pick up his pace. (But) you can see the game in Ottawa what this young manís capable of once he figures it out.Ē
But thatís the big question, isnít it? Will he figure it out?
Truth be told, the Leafs were hoping that Kadri was good enough at camp to make the team this year. But he wasnít. And in the end, promise means nothing.
And thatís why the smartest man in the room isnít making any bold proclamations. But he does have good intentions.