Leafs look at what they already have

ROB LONGLEY, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 11:36 AM ET

TORONTO - With every passing year, the Canada Day story, hockey style, gets more predictable.

“Free agent frenzy” is becoming something decidedly less, as teams lock up valuable players long term and the options for hungry general managers turn into slim pickings.

Around Toronto, if recent form holds true, Maple Leafs GM Brian Burke will be roundly criticized for not bringing a saviour to town, a piling on that gets more aggressive with each year the franchise-record playoff drought grows. While Burke has been hit-and-miss in free agency since arriving here late in 2008, in some ways his hands have been tied by a limited menu each July 1.

Without letting management and coaching off the hook completely, here’s a novel concept regarding the Leafs roster: How much better would Burke look if he had more overachievers in the lineup than the opposite?

What if Luke Schenn didn’t regress as a defenceman, forcing the coaching staff to dole out third-pairing minutes last season and ultimately make him expendable via last weekend’s trade for Philadelphia power forward James van Riemsdyk?

Or, if Nikolai Kulemin didn’t follow up a career year with one that questioned his ability to be a top-six forward in this league.

Or, if James Reimer would have seized the reins of being handed the reins as the team’s No. 1 goaltender rather than an injury-aided step back in his sophomore season as a big-league starter.

As for past free-agent acquisitions, what if Mike Komisarek had lived up to the potential he showed in Montreal as a big, physical defenceman capable of inflicting pain on the opposition rather than one whose confidence was gradually shot?

Continue down the current roster and there are more examples. For every Joffrey Lupul and Jake Gardiner, who each had sensational breakthrough seasons in 2011-12, there are at least a couple who did not. On a roster not deep in superstars, the need for players to step up is more profound and it is not just from the obvious sources, either. As the Leafs slowly — and it would appear surely — gather and nurture prospects, the future does have a brighter hue. That said, some of those prospects have to see the light of day at the Air Canada Centre soon and produce accordingly.

The poster boy in that group, of course, is 2009 first-rounder Nazem Kadri. Undoubtedly a sublimely skilled forward, he has yet to show it consistently at the NHL level. He’s had ample seasoning in the AHL, however, leading Toronto Marlies coach Dallas Eakins to rather bluntly say last week that the future is in Kadri’s hands now.

Of less profile is centre Joe Colborne, a first-round pick by the Bruins who came here in the Tomas Kaberle trade. Colborne had a mixed season with the Marlies, but given the Leafs’ glaring needs up the middle, there is little room for regression. What Colborne does need to do is pull a Gardiner and have a training camp so stellar that management won’t have a choice but to put him in the opening-night lineup.

Burke and his heavyweight management group isn’t without fault in the team’s struggles, but given what has been available through free agency the past few summers, the options have been limited.

And more and more, it seems, the glamour boys of the annual July 1 crop have little interest in going to a team that can’t make the playoffs and by the admission of the GM is in the midst of a slow and patient rebuild.

“With the salary cap and the new collective bargaining agreement that is coming up, I don’t know what our plans are for filling out our roster,” Burke said during an appearance in Prince Edward Island this week. “Teams are locking all these quality players up now, so the group that is getting to the market is thin, it’s shallow. Free agency starts on July 1, it’s a really thin group.”

It’s not the first time, either. A year ago, Brad Richards and his representatives went through the motions of considering the Leafs, but Burke knew it was never going to be an option and the veteran ended up with the New York Rangers.

This year, the obvious high-end free agents are expected to be New Jersey forward Zach Parise and Nashville defenceman Ryan Suter. Safe to say it’s unlikely either have the Leafs high on their list of possible destinations, given that both are currently with competitive successful teams.

During his P.E.I. appearance, Burke acknowledged that he didn’t anticipate “we are going to be in on either one of them.”

That’s not to say the Leafs won’t be kicking tires and certainly the potential of goaltender Martin Brodeur becoming available is an interesting one. The Schenn-for-van Riemsdyk swap was a minimal-risk transaction that could help the team and Burke’s record as a dealer, anyway, has been solid since he arrived in Toronto.

Don’t count on a blockbuster over the weekend, though, which will immediately shift the responsibility to the group that shows up at training camp.

Those players will be asked to play a more defensively responsible system with less emphasis on forcing the play on the rush. They’ll be asked to be tougher on the puck and to be more dilligent at establishing a presence in front of the opposing net. They will be required to adapt to the no-nonsense ways of coach Randy Carlyle.

And most of all, they will be expected to grow as players both in production and accountability. It is at least as important as whatever work their boss is able to do in the off-season.

CAPPING IT OFF

A look at some of the Leafs’ top cap hits with a thought to the value.

Dion Phaneuf ($6.5 million)

Sure the Leafs would like more offensive production, but the captain eats up huge minutes on a blue line that has had its troubles.

Mikhail Grabovski ($5.5 million)

As biggest cap hit up front, he’s on the clock to have a big, productive year.

Phil Kessel ($5.4 million)

Without the team’s slide, would have hit 40 goals last season. Hard to knock him until he plays with a big-time centre.

Tim Connolly ($4.75 million)

That’s a lot of cash for what you get.

Mike Komisarek ($4.5 million)

Gets a third-chance to prove himself worthy of Burke’s first big FA pickup.

Joffrey Lupul ($4.25 million)

Delivered the best value of any Leaf last season.

James van Riemsdyk ($4.25 million)

Gets a new lease on life and likely big ice-time to follow.

John-Michael Liles ($3.875 million)

Was injured after last year’s big extension.

(Salary info according to capgeek.com)

GOTTA BOUNCE BACK

Four Leafs who struggled to earn their keep in 2011-12

Mikhail Grabovski, 74 GP, 23 G, 28 A, 51 PTS

Suffice to say more was expected of Grabovski, who had 58 points the previous season and based on 29 goals, was expected to challenge 30. Clearly talented and gritty enough, his consistency is the issue.

Nikolai Kulemin, 70 GP, 7 G, 21 A, 28 PTS

Sure, he played 12 fewer games, but a 29-point downturn was one of the major disappointments of the Leafs season. Former coach Ron Wilson steadfastly defended him for his two-way play, but that can’t mask the lack of production.

Tim Connolly, 70 GP, 13 G, 23 A, 36 PTS

Came pretty much as advertised as the consolation prize for not being able to get a front-line centre during last year’s free agency. Predictably, didn’t last long in the No. 1 role for which he was acquired.

James Reimer

Injuries were a complicating factor, but went from a .921 save percentage in his rookie season to .900 and a 2.60 goals-against average to 3.10. As a result, a position that was felt to be a strength last off-season is seen as a weakness this summer.


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