This past weekend, in a nutshell, is why the Leafs hired Brian Burke. When he was hired, the masses rejoiced. Our Saviour had arrived and was going to transform the team from a laughing stock to a Cup contender. For a while, he didn’t do much of significance, and then he traded two first round draft choices for Phil Kessel. There were mixed emotions about that one – many thought it was a great move, bringing in a young stud goal scorer and giving up nothing. Others said “Nothing? You call giving up two first round draft picks (and a second!) nothing?” When the Leafs started the season with 3 wins in their first 20 games, the possibility of giving a first overall draft pick for Kessel became very real. People started questioning whether Burke was indeed the right guy. And then came January 31, 2010 – the day everything changed.
The biggest complaint about the Leafs this year has been goaltending – in particular, Vesa Toskala. Ever since the day the Leafs acquired Toskala, there has been talk that he’s a good backup but wasn’t starting goalie material, and he seems to have proven that in his time with the Leafs. Jason Blake, meanwhile, scored 40 goals in 82 games the season before being signed by the Leafs, and 50 goals in 216 games as a Leaf. He was eating up a ton of cap space for not much production. If Burke managed to get rid of the two of them for nothing, I think it would have made the team better – addition by subtraction. Yet Burkie managed to convince Anaheim to take a struggling goalie and an overpaid non-scoring forward for a quality starting goaltender. Of course, Giguère would have been a very high-priced backup in Anaheim anyway, so maybe it’s a push for them.
Then there’s the Calgary deal. They sent four players to Calgary and got three back. Let’s say for the sake of argument that the Leafs are a contending team in, say, four years. What are the odds that all four of Stajan, Mayers, Hagman, and White are on that contending team? Not very high. So the Leafs gave up a bunch of players that don’t likely fit into their long-term plans (well, maybe White) for a former Norris trophy nominee (not even two years ago) and two prospects. Is it possible that Phaneuf was a flash-in-the-pan and his best days are behind him? Well, sure it’s possible, but he’s only 24, so it’s not likely. I heard an interview with a Calgary sports report the other day saying that Phaneuf was no longer “fitting in” with his teammates or coaching staff in Calgary, so perhaps a change of scenery is what he needs to turn his game around. Then again, I can think of a number of players who were sent packing from Toronto only to find success elsewhere (happens a lot in baseball – Jeff Kent, Woody Williams, Chris Carpenter…), and not that many who did it the other way. As Bob McCown wrote, “The list of players who have regressed after landing in The Big Smoke is very, very, very long.” But even if Phaneuf never wins a Norris, he’s still a very good defenseman.
Now, I’m not saying that the Leafs will make the playoffs this year or win the Cup next year because of this deal. But now the Leafs have a stud front-line scorer (age 22), two top-tier defensemen (ages 24 and 31), a goaltender who’s been a Stanley Cup and Conn Smythe trophy winner, and a highly-touted young goalie backing him up. That sounds like a pretty good nucleus to build around, and it’s a helluva lot better than they had when Mr. Burke was hired.