It may have taken Brian Burke longer than he would have liked to start his makeover in Toronto, but once the fiery general manager of the Maple Leafs got going there's been no stopping him.
Tuesday's signing of Jonas Gustavsson not only means the Leafs win the free-agent goalie sweepstakes for the 24-year-old who was the best at his position not playing in the NHL, but also it rounds out a vastly changed and potentially greatly improved back end for Toronto.
Starting in goal, assuming a Finn (Vesa Toskala(notes)) and a Swede (Gustavsson) can get along in the same crease, the Leafs have a solid 1-2 punch that should make fans quickly forget about Andrew Raycroft(notes), Curtis Joseph(notes) and the unfulfilled potential of Justin Pogge(notes).
The Leafs have yet to see the best of Toskala, the 32-year-old product of San Jose's goaltending depth. The Leafs have had little in front of him during his two seasons, and Toskala battled injury for much of last year before succumbing to season-ending groin surgery. With a better defense and a rookie who figures to get his share of work as a backup, the only concern for Toskala is keeping his injury from turning into a chronic problem.
Gustavsson doesn't figure to just waltz into the NHL and enjoy instant success. He'll need to get used to the different angles on the smaller North American ice surface, and the fact players shoot harder and more consistently in the NHL. There's the matter of getting to know his defense, too, as well as the league and playing in a fishbowl that is Toronto. Yes, Gustavsson will have a lot on his plate.
Just the same, here's a hot, young prospect who turned down overtures from Dallas, Colorado and San Jose to play for a team that has missed out on the postseason for a franchise-high four straight springs. Anyone who thought the Sharks had an edge because Joe Thornton's(notes) brother, John Thornton, worked as a partner with Gustavsson's agent was dead wrong.
Half the rebuilding process is convincing free agents that your team is worth helping, and Burke has done a good job of establishing that notion.
While the goaltending is taking shape, Burke's best work is on the blue line where the Leafs are not only better on paper, but also starting to resemble the kind of team that Burke wants – tough to play against, gritty and talented.
One trade and two free-agent signings later (since July 1), and Toronto's top five on defense looks like this: Mike Komisarek(notes), Tomas Kaberle(notes), Luke Schenn(notes), Garnet Exelby(notes) and Francois Beauchemin(notes). That doesn't include Ian White(notes), Jeff Finger(notes) or Mike Van Ryn(notes), who could or could not be part of a much-improved mix.
There's no question defense, or lack of it, has been the Leafs' No. 1 problem since the end of the lockout. Not enough speed, not enough dirt, not enough offensive upside. Any way you slice it, the Leafs have been woeful on the blue line. It's hard to say that Toronto doesn't have the look of a playoff team on defense now, and that's saying something.
Because Komisarek played in Montreal everyone knows what he can do, and he'll have no problem switching from one over-scrutinized market to another. Beauchemin just needs to stay healthy. He's a 29-year-old who has played in the long shadow cast by Scott Niedermayer(notes) and Chris Pronger(notes) the last few years in Anaheim, but he's ready to step out on his own.
Schenn doesn't look any worse for wear considering all that was asked of him during his rookie season. But the real sleeper here is Exelby, the 27-year-old who labored the first six years of his under-publicized career in Atlanta. Exelby has the third-line, pesky-winger mentality, and he doesn't back down from anyone. Think Denis Gauthier(notes) who does a better job of avoiding injury and doesn't have a suspension wrap sheet.
Burke will turn his attention to the front line now where the Leafs do not look like a playoff team. They look, in fact, as weak as anyone in hockey at forward and that's got to be a major concern. That surplus on defense – White, Finger and possibly the offensive-minded Kaberle – might fetch something, but nothing in the way of top-six help.
The other real interesting sidelight with the Maple Leafs is how the working relationship between Burke and coach Ron Wilson plays out. The two are best friends dating back to their college days at Providence. Burke and Wilson probably exchanged emails or phone calls on a near-daily basis since the two can remember.
But this is the first time they're working in such high-profile alignment on an NHL team. And the two don't really see the game the same way. While Burke never shies away from a brawl, Wilson is ideologically opposed to fighting in the NHL. Who is to say what is right and wrong? Both can spell out passionately convincing arguments why their approach is the best one, but only one will fly on this team.
In the end we know who will win this tug-o-war, so the question is weather a compromise can be reached. Certainly the Leafs know fighting will get them only so far, and they've seen what passive hockey gets you. Ultimately Toronto wants to be a difficult team to play against, as opposed to the wide open, entertaining yet second-tier outfit they were last year.
Burke is putting them on the right track, for sure. But his work is also far from done.
- Brian Burke
- Jonas Gustavsson
- Maple Leafs