Ready, set, gut the Leafs

MIKE ZEISBERGER, SUN MEDIA

, Last Updated: 10:21 AM ET

When Brian Burke celebrates his one-year milestone as Maple Leafs president exactly one week from today, he'd best be checking the candles on his anniversary cake.

Some disgruntled fan might have replaced them with sticks of TNT.

Such has been the level of angst and disgust in this city at the putrid performance of the Leafs, who entered last night's game against the Washington Capitals with just three victories all season.

Then Saint Toskala came to the rescue and made it four.

The same Vesa Toskala who had not won since Feb. 26, beating the Islanders on Long Island.

The same Vesa Toskala who had not posted a home ice victory since Feb. 25, turning aside the New York Rangers.

The same Vesa Toskala, the No. 1 target of Air Canada Centre boo birds, who last night was cheered when he blanked the Caps in the shootout, leading the Leafs to a 2-1 triumph.

He had some help. The Caps first shooter, Eric Fehr, had his stick break in his hands. The next one, Alexander Ovechkin, missed the net.

"It has been a while between wins," Toskala admitted. "We've been playing well but haven't been getting too many breaks. This time the luck finally was on our side.

"I think I've been playing well."

Throughout the Maple Leafs dressing room, Vesa-palooza was running rampant, with Toskala praised for his 31-save performance.

That's fine. He deserves the kudos.

But in the long run, it does not change much.

With Toskala among 11 pending unrestricted free agents on the roster, a housecleaning by Burke is inevitable. In fact, by the time Burke, named team prez on Nov. 29, 2008, reaches his second anniversary at the post one year from now, the lineup will hardly resemble the one last night.

The writing is on the wall for Toskala, who earns $4 million this season. Swedish goalie Jonas Gustavsson, a pending restricted free agent, was brought in to be groomed as the starter, and likely will be re-signed early in the new year.

If he is part of the exodus as expected, Toskala will not be alone.

Of the forwards who dressed against the Caps, only five -- Jason Blake, Phil Kessel, Niklas Hagman, Mikhail Grabovski and Colton Orr -- are under contract for next season. Two others -- John Mitchell and Nikolai Kulemin -- will be RFA and likely will receive offers from Toronto before the summer, as will defenceman Ian White.

After that, all bets are off.

With the screws tightening for Burke to make a move, trade discussions have already been held, with Matt Stajan reportedly a target.

Stajan's a stand-up guy who has shown modest chemistry with Kessel. Having said that, he never has consistently proved to management that he can be a full-time first or second-liner.

A rare survivor of the John Ferguson era, Stajan, a Mississauga native, might be better served with a change of scenery. That was the same logic used when two of his buddies, Carlo Colaiacovo and Alex Steen, were traded to the St. Louis Blues for Lee Stempniak a year ago.

The Stempniak experiment has not worked out. With just 16 goals in 82 games as a Leaf, Stempniak, a pending UFA, would seem as good as gone, just like Toskala, defenceman Garnet Exelby and blue liner Mike Van Ryn. The status of role players Wayne Primeau and Jamal Mayers would seem to be in doubt too.

On the other hand, the Leafs would like to retain Alex Ponikarovsky, one of the pending UFAs.

As for Blake, locked in for a cap hit of $4.5 million US for each of the next two seasons, his two goals in 21 game performance certainly is grounds for a buyout, although that could be very pricey.

Happy pending anniversary, Mr. Burke. Let's see how this franchise facelift goes.

MIKE.ZEISBERGER@SUNMEDIA.CA


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