Mission impossible?

STEVE SIMMONS,SUN MEDIA

, Last Updated: 9:25 AM ET

When Paul Holmgren took over the down and out Philadelphia Flyers at least he had Mike Richards, Jeff Carter and Simon Gagne to build around.

When George McPhee began the process of starting over with the Washington Capitals, he could point to the drafting of Alexander Ovechkin as the starting point toward success.

When the Pittsburgh Penguins began to blossom, the future came primarily from the selections of Evgeni Malkin and Sidney Crosby in the drafts of 2004 and 2005.

This is Brian Burke's problem. There are no Ryan Getzlafs and Corey Perrys awaiting him as there were in Anaheim. There are no Carters, Richards, Malkins or Crosbys on the way.

There is a stay-at-home defenceman in Luke Schenn.

And that is it.

There was a certain and sad symbolism in a pair of Leafs transactions yesterday. Brought in to be a Leaf is the ancient Brad May, who as Tiger Williams might say is about as done as dinner. He'll go hard into a corner. He'll fight on occasion. He may even play the part of leader to a dressing room full of those who won't be here much longer, but in a 60-minute game, the acquisition of a six-minute hockey player with three goals during the past three seasons is mostly insignificant.

The other transaction was not. It saw Nikolai Kulemin sent to the minors. Kulemin, at 22, represented hope. In a cupboard of prospects that was all but bare, he offered some reason to believe. Then he started playing for the Leafs and reality took over.

Kulemin was born 14 days before Malkin, one year earlier than Crosby and one year later than Getzlaf and Carter. The Leafs forward is no different than another John Ferguson Jr. choice, Jiri Tlusty, who may one day play full time in the National Hockey League -- he will not star.

In fairness, Burke's rebuilding of the Maple Leafs may be more difficult and more lengthy than the rebuilds we have seen in Philadelphia, Boston, Washington or Pittsburgh.

The Penguins and the Capitals wound up being worst in the right seasons. It bought them Crosby and Ovechkin and a future. The Bruins began their rebuild with the free-agent signings of Marc Savard and Zdeno Chara. It should be noted on the same day, the Leafs signed Pavel Kubina and Hal Gill.

Sure, the Bruins benefited from one horrible year by selecting the quarterback's son, Phil Kessel, but they did their best drafting in the second round, in three different years, adding Milan Lucic, Patrice Bergeron and David Krejci. In those same rounds, the Leafs chose Kulemin instead of Lucic. Another year, they selected a defenceman named John Doherty. And in the season in which Boston selected Bergeron, the Leafs had neither a first or second-round draft pick.

Which brings us back to the troubles facing Burke.

Right now, the Leafs aren't lousy enough to get him a lottery pick and aren't deep enough with draft picks for him to stockpile prospects.

Another truth: If you actually study how bad teams become good teams in the NHL, you quickly realize how few draft picks actually make a difference. The Flyers have only one player on their team from their past five drafts. The Capitals have four, but three are stars in Ovechkin, defenceman Mike Green and centre Nicklas Backstrom. The Bruins use only one first-round starter from the past six drafts.

And that leaves Burke with what?

In no man's land. You can't get better without getting worse. And unlike the four models of rebuilding evident in today's NHL, the Flyers were lucky and smart; the Bruins used free agency to change everything and the Capitals and Penguins drafted in the top five eight different times in a relatively short time.

Schenn was the Leafs' first top-five pick in 19 years.

He's a keeper along with Mikhail Grabovski and Niklas Hagman. After that, all bets are off.

Burke should be able to find new addresses for Nik Antropov, Tomas Kaberle, Vesa Toskala, Pavel Kubina, Lee Stempniak, Alexei Ponikarovsky and Matt Stajan over time. You can't trade Jason Blake without some kind of contract magic on somebody's part. The rest of the roster is mostly interchangeable. And the kids, Tlusty and Kulemin, aren't necessarily all right.

The enormity of the work ahead for Burke is unfathomable. "These are baby steps," Ron Wilson called them yesterday. And until the baby is walking comfortably, expect all kinds of hollering, all kinds of tears.


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