Despite another late-season surge, the Maple Leafs still missed the playoffs for a club-record sixth consecutive spring and third time under the Brian Burke-Ron Wilson regime.
The late spurt, a mark of 18-7-5 after Feb. 1, created more questions than it solved. Once again, a team given up for dead in December impressed the brass in the final weeks. But in the business of winning in the NHL, teams don't take the better part of three months off before getting serious. Protection from another calamity in 2011-12 must be Burke's priority, no matter who did well on the ice--or behind the bench -- at the end.
Here are 10 questions facing the Leafs heading to the off-season.
WILL BURKE BE BACK?
There is a chance that the trial balloon sale of controlling shares in Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment Ltd. speeds through and new suits will be in charge by autumn. But the next CEO would have his hands full with all the pieces of the MLSEL pie and not likely rush Burke out. If the new person is hired internally, they would have been part of the group that okayed Richard Peddie's hiring of Burke in the first place.
WILL WILSON BE BACK?
The first sign of an uptick in fortunes a few weeks ago, gave Burke the ammo to justify the coach staying put, with an eye to extending him this summer. Wilson pushed most of the right buttons down the stretch. But no other Leafs coach has been allowed back two, let alone three years out of the playoffs and Wilson is now the first of 27 in club annals to win his first three regular season games and not qualify.
WHO WILL BE GONE?
Of the unrestricted free agents, Jean-Sebastien Giguere made $6 million US last season, far too much for a goalie whose health is in question. Facing a limited UFA market, he'd gladly stay a Leaf at a pay cut, but has his pride and Toronto has options with young goalies or a cheap free agent.
Fredrik Sjostrom could exit quietly the way fellow Swede Rickard Wallin did last year, and while Darryl Boyce, Tim Brent and Joey Crabb had career seasons, low-budget third-and fourth-liners are plentiful around the league if salary talks stall.
Of the restricteds, Clarke MacArthur has faded a bit and talks on a new deal went cold. Other RFAs include defencemen Luke Schenn, Carl Gunnarsson and Matt Lashoff, forwards Tyler Bozak and Jay Rosehill and most significant of all, goalie James Reimer.
FREE AGENTS TO PURSUE?
With money saved from Giguere, they could chase Brad Richards, but need help elsewhere than first-and second-line centre. For better or worse, they would come back with Mikhail Grabovski and Tyler Bozak as the 1 and 2 centres. Few projected UFAs around the league are under age 30.
MORE DEAD WOOD?
The Leafs are carrying Jeff Finger's $3.5-million salary, but not if they keep him with the Marlies all year again. Darcy Tucker's buyout runs until 2013-14 at $1 million a season.
Joe Colborne, Jake Gardiner and Tyler Brenner had good reviews at the end. Forward Matt Frattin is up for the Hobey Baker Award and Jerry D'Amigo, Greg McKegg and Brad Ross are all recent draft picks. Some of the hyped players from last summer didn't make a dent, such as Brayden Irwin, Marcel Mueller and Korbinian Holzer. But coach Dallas Eakins still has time to work with them and did a fine job developing Keith Aulie and restoring Nazem Kadri's confidence.
PLAY AT THE WORLDS?
Burke is a big believer in this tourney as a Plan B to playoffs and his own man, David Nonis, is running the show later this month for Team Canada in Slovakia.
Schenn, Aulie, Reimer and maybe Brent would be under consideration, while Kessel and perhaps Crabb would interest Team USA. Belarus (Grabovski) is in Canada's pool. Swedish national vet Jonas Gustavsson could go, as well as Sjostrom and defenceman Carl Gunnarsson. Nikolai Kulemin should've played last year for Russia.
WHERE DO THEY DRAFT?
The order is yet to be determined, as they and the Bruins hold each other's first-rounders. Boston will pick higher, but not second overall as they did last year in the first payment of the Kessel deal. Toronto also owns Philadelphia's first-rounder, but both top choices could be bottom five.
Giguere might get his troublesome groin repaired. Winger Colton Orr resumed skating in recent days after getting nailed in a Jan. 20 fight.
Luca Caputi is coming off sports hernia surgery.
The Leafs are finalizing their exhibition schedule, but aren't likely going far from the ACC or MasterCard Centre. The Leafs rookies will play a tournament with Ottawa, Pittsburgh and Chicago at GM Place in Oshawa starting Sept. 10.
lance. hornby@sunmedia, ca Twitter.com/sunhornby