Leafs still a work in progress

Maple Leafs President and General Manager Brian Burke holds a press conference at the Air Canada...

Maple Leafs President and General Manager Brian Burke holds a press conference at the Air Canada Centre in Toronto, Ontario on Feb. 28, 2011. (CRAIG ROBERTSON/QMI Agency)

STEVE SIMMONS, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 2:34 AM ET

This is how dull Trade Deadline day in the NHL was: Brian Burke was almost speechless.

Oh, he talked a little, explained what didn’t happen and why — “it was kind of how we thought it would go” — reiterated that he made his deals of consequence before the deadline, but basically altered nothing from the Maple Leafs big-league roster.

That is a probably a good thing after a relatively conservative and inactive trade deadline day. The biggest name changing locations was Dustin Penner. The most significant pickup may have been defenceman, Rusty Klesla, by Phoenix. Other than that, there was a little of this, a little of that, and a whole lot of blah blah blah.

I know: I was one of the blah blah blahers.

Burke made his noise in previous weeks with three different deals well before the deadline that have proven to be that strange kind of sporting addiction by subtraction. Kris Versteeg, Tomas Kaberle and Francois Beauchemin, two of them being Burke acquisitions, were sent packing, removing 1,402 major league games from the Leafs roster and oddly that has partially resulted in the Leafs making a late, and slightly encouraging playoff run.

This roster remains a work in progress. Even though 17 of the current Leafs have been signed or traded for by Burke in his more than two seasons in Toronto, his vision remains somewhat blurred. This isn’t the team he wants. These may be his players but it’s not HIS team. This isn’t the contender he wants to establish. This is a team with more developing parts than it had a year ago, more opportunities to get better, more options, but still, not enough skill, not enough grit, not enough talent, to be the unit Burke promises it will be.

And still in play between now and the June draft are the first-round picks acquired from Boston and Philadelphia in the Kaberle and Versteeg deals, picks that Burke would a) like to package to move up in the draft or b) use to acquire further players. He would prefer not to use those picks himself, impatience being one of the trademarks of his time in Toronto.

So where exactly are the Leafs right now, after squandering two points away one the weekend? They are in the race. Tenth in the East. Four points behind Carolina and two points behind Buffalo, but the Sabres have two games in hand. The Leafs have 19 games to play. They probably have to win 14 of them to have any shot at the post-season. The Leafs have more answers now than they had at any time in the Burke regime: Just not enough of them.

In goal it looks like the Leafs have found a starter in James Reimer. Yes, he’s just 19 games into his NHL career. Yes, he has shown some weakness of late that didn’t show earlier. But his ability to bounce back after a rough Saturday night and play so well on Sunday was just further indication that Reimer looks to be real.

If the Leafs had goaltending questions before this season, they have fewer of them now. And that’s with not knowing who or what Jonas Gustavsson is.

The defence without Kaberle is lacking on first-pass offence, but not in other ways. What Burke needs, if it’s possible, is better performances from his two highest paid defencemen, captain Dion Phaneuf and Mike Komisarek. The development of Luke Schenn and recently of Keith Aulie and Carl Gunnarsson has been encouraging. This is something to build on.

Up front, the Leafs have three 20-goal scorers at this stage of the season. For the record, Stanley Cup contenders such as Detroit, Vancouver, Boston and Washington, don’t have three 20-goal scorers in their lineup yet. The Mikhail Grabovski, Nikolai Kulemin, Clarke MacArthur line is worth investing further in. Of late, Phil Kessel is looking more that part of star than he has at any time since arriving with the Leafs. It may be this week good, that week bad with Kessel, but the best news is that his game has expanded of late. That, along with the improvement of Joffrey Lupul, is also reason for optimism.

The final quarter of the season will be telling for Burke’s Leafs. The blueprint seems to be taking shape but there is still a long way to go.


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