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Burke's retooled Leafs still struggling

Dan Di Sciullo, NHL Editor

Dan Di Sciullo Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) - The Toronto Maple Leafs were one of the busiest teams in the NHL this past offseason, but so far the alterations have done little to change the struggling franchise's fortunes.

The Leafs have yet to post a win through six games of the NHL season and, predictably, the murmurs suggesting that head coach Ron Wilson's job is in danger have begun.

Whether or not Wilson will take the fall for the slow start remains to be seen, but the real issue in Toronto concerns general manager Brian Burke and the moves he made over the summer.

Burke was named GM of the Maple Leafs last November, and considering he was coming off a stint in Anaheim that produced a Stanley Cup title, expectations for a turnaround in Toronto are very high. After all, the club has been mired in a franchise-record playoff drought, having missed out on the postseason in each of the last four seasons.

This hasn't exactly been the start that Brian Burke had envisioned.
Early on in this summer's offseason market, Burke made moves that were designed to make Toronto better defensively, as well as add some much-needed toughness to the squad. To help in those aspects, the Leafs signed immense blueliner Mike Komisarek away from Montreal and also inked Francois Beauchemin, who helped Burke win a title as a former defenseman for the Ducks.

But the biggest move came just last month, when Burke landed young forward Phil Kessel in a trade with Boston. The Maple Leafs gave up a ton for the talented 22-year-old, handing over a first and second-round pick in the next draft, as well as a first-rounder in 2011. Granted, Toronto did acquire an established scorer with the lion's share of his career ahead of him and as the saying goes, a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush.

The problem is that Kessel has yet to take the ice as a Leaf due to a shoulder injury that required surgery, and he isn't expected to make his debut until November. If things continue to head south, by the time Kessel returns any hopes of Toronto ending its playoff drought could be gone.

Certainly, Kessel wanted to be healthy at the start of this season, but his late arrival to the 2009-10 campaign could benefit him personally. Kessel is now the face of the franchise and it would do him no good to be part of Toronto's early-season struggles (even though his presence could've helped the Leafs land at least one win by now). When Kessel does get back on the ice, however, his teammates may have lowered the bar to the point where he can't help but improve the situation.

Another concern for the Leafs involving the Kessel trade is exactly how high of a pick they may handed over to a division rival. As mentioned, Kessel is likely going to be better than most players you can get with a first-round pick, but what if the Leafs wind up having one of the worst records in the NHL this year? That could then lead to the Bruins landing one of the top five picks in next summer's draft, a selection that could possibly have helped Toronto's journey back to relevance.

The hope was that the Leafs had already improved themselves from last year through Burke's early summer moves, and that the Kessel trade could make them a playoff contender. At this early stage, a run to the postseason is obviously still in the cards, but if Toronto should fall well short of that goal, then a high first-rounder in the hands of Boston will certainly sting.

However, another move that Burke made this summer could pay dividends soon, as Jonas Gustavsson may be on his way to landing Toronto's No. 1 goaltending spot thanks to the awful play of Vesa Toskala.

Toskala, who was brought in before Burke's tenure with the Leafs, is 0-2-1 on the season with comically bad numbers in goals-against average (5.57) and save percentage (.812). Gustavsson, an NHL rookie who led his Swedish club to a championship last year, was signed in order to push Toskala

For now, however, Joey MacDonald will serve as the No. 1 goaltender as both Toskala and Gustavsson are currently injured.

One thing is clear, the Toskala experiment has been a failure and Burke has no reason to continue the charade, especially since it wasn't the GM's choice to acquire Toskala in the first place. Whether Gustavsson takes over the No. 1 spot because of injury or because of Toskala's ineffectiveness, the job will eventually belong to the Swede.

This hasn't exactly been the start that Burke or the Maple Leafs had envisioned for this season, but Toronto has committed itself to a complete overhaul of its franchise and that process is rarely if ever a short and easy path. Still, they better find a way to take a few steps in the right direction before they give an already frustrated fan base another long summer to stew over.

Comments? Criticism? Applause? Contact Dan Di Sciullo at ddisciullo@sportsnetwork.com.
Dan Di Sciullo


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