‘Critical summer’ for Leafs

LANCE HORNBY, Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 11:05 PM ET

TORONTO - The free desserts came out for the media on the last official day of the Maple Leafs season, but Brian Burke was not eating humble pie.

Sure, a 29th-place finish surprised, disappointed and angered the general manager, but in Wednesday’s annual post-mortem of the season, he made no apologies for his “blueprint” he said hasn’t failed in three previous NHL stops. And though uttering the ‘P’ word got him in trouble with fans and media last year, he’s already throwing it around again, with a few “ifs” included.

“We feel this group could have made the playoffs if we had them all year,” Burke said of the NHL’s youngest roster finishing with a record of 13-10-3 after two huge trades purged the room. “If that group improves 10% in the off-season (a rigorous conditioning program is already in place), we add a player or two and get back (injured) Mike Komisarek for whole year, we believe this group can get in. It’s a critical summer for us, a watershed.”

Actually, the catalyst could be as simple as getting more of the consistent goaltending that has been denied the Leafs since the NHL lockout. It came unglued again in 2009’s last pre-season game, a 7-6 loss to Buffalo that rattled both goalie Vesa Toskala and Burke.

“They lit him up like a Cuban cigar,” Burke recalled. “That’s when the alarm bells went off for me. It became clear we had multiple leaks, not just one.”

But Burke said he didn’t send a mini-van to the Ricoh Coliseum to fetch a group of Marlies as he’d threatened, because they simply weren’t ready. As for his sabre rattling to send millions of dollars in salary to the Marlies, the overpaid Jason Blake being exhibit A, Burke said it could be done only if he was getting back an asset that made such a drastic move worthwhile. That didn’t happen until enough time and salary had eroded to make deals such as the one with Calgary for Dion Phaneuf.

Yet, Burke doesn’t think the losing season means he’s lost ground to the rebuilt teams the Leafs are constantly compared to, Pittsburgh, Washington and Chicago.

“I’m still not interested in a five-year rebuild. Maybe it’s my age (54), maybe it’s because I know it doesn’t have to be five years as (winning the Cup) in Anaheim. I don’t feel impatient at all.

“I’ll put my record up against anyone, putting togther teams with top six and bottom six forwards, big, belligerent, build from the net out.

“Pittsburgh picked a ball out of a drum to get Sidney Crosby. Don’t tell me there was any skill there. When you say ‘Pittsburgh, what a great rebuilding job’, they won a damn lottery. I know, (Anaheim) came in second.

“Every time I see him I say: ‘Sidney, you were this close to being a Duck’.”

Burke’s off-season work has already begun, trying to lock up Jonas Gustavsson and Nikolai Kulemin long-term and seeing if he can recover one of the high picks that the team gave up in the Phil Kessel trade. That’s tied to Burke’s move with Tomas Kaberle, whose no-trade window will be opened this summer.

“We’re going to listen (to offers),” Burke said. “We have already set an internal price and if we don’t get it, we’re keeping him. Tomas has been a top player on our team at a good price and he wants to stay. We’ve told him (a contract extension) is the next possibility and he made it clear he wants to stay.”

For now, Burke is studying every team’s potential salary cap issues, in case someone with a useful player gets in a jam and calls him.

“July 1 will be our draft,” Burke said. “If we haven’t addressed (roster holes) through trade, we’ll look at (a free agent) top-six forward, adding size and secondary toughness. We’re set on the back end and on the blueline.”

But the biggest changes must come from within. Graduating junior centre Nazem Kadri, the club’s top pick in 2009, needs to get bigger. Burke is also talking up junior forward Philippe Paradis who came from Carolina in the Jiri Tlusty deal and Keith Aulie, the 6-foot-6 defenceman, who could end up being as valuable as Phaneuf. Burke said he wouldn’t have made the Calgary deal without Aulie’s inclusion.

“I think fans can see there is cause for hope,” Burke said.

Just when, however, will that hope turn to playoff hockey?

“An excellent question for which I have no answer now,” Burke said. “(To get a Cup), you crawl, you walk, you run and then you sprint. We’re somewhere in the walking stage and we’ll see what we add in the summer.”

lance.hornby@sunmedia.ca


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