Leafs fix won't be easy or cheap

The Leafs might make a play for Predators defenceman Ryan Suter (left) this summer if he doesn't...

The Leafs might make a play for Predators defenceman Ryan Suter (left) this summer if he doesn't re-sign with Nashville. (REUTERS)

Rob Longley, QMI AGENCY

, Last Updated: 6:07 PM ET

There’s nothing wrong with the Maple Leafs that a No. 1 centre, a legitimate starting goaltender and a shutdown defenceman can’t fix.

Sure, it may sound like some sarcastic piling on the day after players cleaned out their lockers following yet another failed season has them out of the playoffs.

Joke and simplistic evaluation or not, if the Leafs had one of each of those key requirements, chances are much stronger that they would have spent Monday preparing to face the No. 1 or No. 2 seed in the Eastern Conference rather than heading towards an off-season of uncertainty.

Later this week, general manager Brian Burke will address his priorities for what may be the most critical off-season of his career. Burke isn’t likely to reveal all his cards, but if the past is any indication, he’ll be honest and forthright about what is needed to get the Leafs headed in the right direction.

Getting it done in an era where free agency hasn’t exactly been the salvation for the Leafs, is quite another story.

In their heart, the players must know changes will be coming, but will it be a full-scale implosion?

All season, management has lauded the infrastructure it has put in place over the past couple of seasons which suggests the upgrades mentioned above may be a priority but they won’t overpay to do so. It may not be a time for panic, but it is likely a time for change.

“Player personnel decisions are for management to deal with,” Leafs captain Dion Phaneuf said Monday at the Air Canada Centre as the team went through the depressing and regular early spring ritual of cleaning out their lockers. “We definitely believe in the group that we have, but we did not get it done.

“When that happens as a team and as individuals, (management) are going to reevaluate and look at things because we’re in a business that ... we’re here to win. When you don’t have success and don’t make the playoffs, things are going to be re-evaluated.”

Credit Phaneuf for his honesty and recognition that the roster as currently constituted isn’t going to cut it. While there is room for just about every player that makes it back in October to improve the infusion of new blood will be critical.

The challenge that lies ahead for Burke — and presumably with some input from his coach of less than two months, Randy Carlyle — is to fill those holes with something more substantial than in the past.

Here’s a look at four critical areas facing Burke, based on an 80-point season that left them a dozen points out of the eighth and final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference.

CENTRE OF ATTENTION

It has become the easy punching bag of disgruntled Leafs fans, but also the most difficult crater to fill — finding a big-league producer down the middle.

Burke’s inability to land or develop a No. 1 centre since his arrival here has arguably been his most glaring failure.

The biggest cost associated with it has been the inability to truly maximize the value of winger Phil Kessel. The 24-year-old, who admitted on Monday that he finished the season with a bum wrist, led the team and set personal bests in goals (37) and points (82). If Kessel could finish sixth in league scoring without a true No. 1, imagine where he would be with a big-time centre.

There was certainly some improvement in Tyler Bozak’s game in his second season and he showed enough to prove that he will be a legitimate NHL centre some day. But a No. 1? That may depend on how long you have to wait.

How much quicker would Bozak be able to develop, for instance, and would another centre, the enigmatic Mikhail Grabovski, not flourish with proven strength on the top unit?

The irony of the inability to do anything at centre is that Burke can’t really be blamed. Free agency and trade deadline periods since he has been in charge have offered minimal options, as was seen last July when the Leafs overpaid for Tim Connolly. It seems like a career ago that Connolly, who ended the season as a checking winger, entered training camp as the go-to guy down the middle.

Sure, Brad Richards was available and he is certainly a big help in the Rangers’ ascent to the top of the East, but he was never a serious threat to come here.

SHUTDOWN D-MAN

There is a reason why Burke is a huge fan of Flyers defenceman Chris Pronger — and it goes beyond the fact he helped Anaheim win a Stanley Cup.

A true, shutdown defenceman who sets the tone for the team at both ends of the ice is one of the key components of a Burke-built team and it hasn’t emerged here yet. Whether it was Mike Komisarek never getting settled into his role as a big, bruising D-man or Luke Schenn regressing in this his fourth season, Burke is still searching.

Like a big, bruising winger or a first-line centre, such blueliners are rare, obviously. But when you get one, you are set for a while and those around him improve. Phaneuf may have struggled at times, but remember most nights he was logging huge minutes, much of them against the opposition’s top forwards.

The bottom line — and at a combined payroll of $22 million, it’s a steep one — is that based on their 2011-12 campaign, the current group was vastly overpaid given their production.

FIRST AND GOAL

As has been analyzed at length in an earlier piece in this series, the lack of reliable goaltending was a thorn this season.

In retrospect, was too much pressure heaped on Reimer heading into the season? Was his early season concussion too much for the young goaltender and his team to recover from?

To his credit, Reimer acknowledged on Monday that being run over by Brian Gionta in October was “the turning point of the season,” a blow he was unable to truly recover from. The team hung on — and indeed almost thrived — for a couple of months and then the lack of consistent, game-stealing performances in net contributed to the team’s implosion.

The speculation now is that Burke will at least attempt to shop for a veteran netminder in the off-season, one that can offer insurance to Reimer as he fights to regain his way.

Reimer, meanwhile, said he doesn’t believe it’s necessary though he realizes it’s a possibility. “If they choose to go another way, I will deal with that situation.”

WHO’S THE LEADER

The trendy thing in Toronto the final few weeks of the season was to crap all over Dion Phaneuf’s captaincy, a substantial overreaction surrounding a team that gets plenty of it.

That’s not to say there isn’t a need for more veteran leadership, a point that was carefully acknowledged by winger Clarke MacArthur on getaway day.

“With a young team, everyone is looking around the room trying to find something,” MacArthur said. “It’s a lot easier to lose confidence with a younger team. You can get sidetracked a little bit.”

When asked specifically about the benefits of having an older, proven player or two in the lineup, MacArthur said: “I think any team would take a guy like that. I don’t think they’re too easy to come by, but there’s no way that couldn’t be a positive thing in the room.”

The good news is that Burke has hinted he feels the same way, recognition that if the club’s deepest area of strength is in prospects, they will need as much support as possible to flourish in the NHL.

rob.longley@sunmedia.ca

twitter.com/longleysunsport

 


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