Northern Exposure: The Toronto Maple Leafs Off-Season, Vancouver One Step Away


Welcome back to Northern Exposure, your weekly NHL Canadian tour.  Join me as I make a stop in each of the six (soon to be seven?) Canadian NHL cities, discussing stories of interest in each.

Having gone over Montreal, and last week Ottawa, we go southwest to the alleged “centre of the hockey universe”, Toronto, to take a quick look at where the Maple Leafs are heading.

The Toronto Maple Leafs 2010-11 season was one of transition.  Over the course of the campaign, GM Brian Burke changed the leadership of the franchise, by dealing veteran leaders Tomas Kaberle and Francois Beauchemin to Boston and Anaheim respectively for grand returns.  The move had other internal benefits.  Captain Dion Phaneuf finally took over the team and after the Kaberle trade he returned to the dominant player that Burke thought he was getting from Calgary.  Also, Keith Aulie stepped up and further demonstrated how lopsided the Calgary deal from last season really was.  The season was not without it trials and tribulations, as missing the playoffs for the sixth straight season is taking its toll on the franchise.

Burke has molded the team the way he wants, and has had ample time to put together “his” type of team.  Anything short of a playoff berth in 2011-12 would spell disaster for his ego, his reputation and his position in MLSE.

KEY FREE AGENTS TO BE:  UFAJS Giguere, Freddie Sjostrom, Joey Crabb, Tim Brent  RFAJames Reimer, Tyler Bozak, Luke Schenn, Clarke MacArthur, Carl Gunnarson, Darryl Boyce, Jay Rosehill

WHERE THEY ARE SET:  The Leafs defense hit its peak last in the season, and with a core of Phaneuf, Luke Schenn, and Aulie, look good going forward.  If, and it is a big IF, James Reimer is the real deal, the Leafs have found themselves a diamond in the rough.  As an RFA, it will be interesting to see the deal he gets, and what kind of insulation they will provide for him, as he really only had a half-season.  In Toronto, a city that is starving for positives, any positive can be blown out of proportion.

NEEDS:  The Leafs need to score more goals and be more consistent up front.  Phil Kessel cost the Leafs a lot in terms of draft picks, and he needs to step up even more than he did this season.  his 32 total goals is respectable, but his long scoring droughts likely cost the team a shot at the post-season.  The biggest need for this team is a #1 centre who can play with Kessel and keep him out of those droughts.


1) Number One Centre Brian Burke, whether through free agency, trade or otherwise, needs to find someone who can make Kessel the 40-50 goal scorer he traded for.  If Burke cannot get this done, then the Kessel trade has to be considered a complete disaster.

2)  Solve the Goaltending Situation – James Reimer may or may not be the long term answer in the Leafs’ net.  Jonas Gustavsson might turn out to be the long term solution, but his injury history has stalled his development.  And what becomes of JS Giguere?  Does he come back at a reduced rate to serve as mentor/backup to the younger guys?  This dilemma will have to be figured out for the Leafs to take the next step.

3)  Bulking up the Defense – The top end talent is there, and Matt Lashoff showed well in the latter stages of the season.  However, they need Carl Gunnarson to make a giant step up and also have to add a replacement for the disappointing Brett Lebda.

4)  Tim Brent – Not a top-line player, but the former Anaheim Duck was a heart and soul player last season.  He even contributed on the point of the power play later on in the season.  His defining moment was an incredible shift where he blocked 4 or 5 shots in succession while killing a 5-on-3 penalty against the Hurricanes:

This is the type of player the Leafs need to hang on to, and Burke would be well advised to make all efforts to keep UFA Brent in the fold.

5)  Ron Wilson – Burke has been loyal to his friend, but at some point he needs to determine if Wilson is indeed the man to carry the Leafs forward.  He hasn’t made a ton of progress and hasn’t shown an ability to get the most out of his players.  Wilson will take the fall before Burke should the Leafs get off to a slow start.

CONCLUSION:  As one of only 2 teams to have not qualified for the playoffs since the lockout (Florida being the other), patience is starting to wear thin among the members of Leafs Nation.  Tack on to that the fact that their Stanley Cup drought has reached into its fifth decade and the pressure is on Brian Burke more than ever to produce a winning team in blue and white.  Failure to do so will result in the Donald Trump treatment.

Now a quick tour to the other cities:

The Vancouver Canucks now know who they will be facing in the Stanley Cup finals, and it will be the Boston Bruins.  The  Canucks will host the Bruins in game 1 on Wednesday night, and in addition to being well rested, could have an emotional lift as well.  Centre Manny Malholtra has been cleared to play after suffering a scary eye injury in late March, and also expected to return after missing the last couple of games against San Jose are defensemen Christian Ehrhoff and Aaron Rome.  Henrik Sedin was a force in the San Jose series, moving into the league lead in playoff scoring.  If Kesler and the Sedins are performing at the top of their games at the same time in this series, the Bruins are in serious trouble and the Stanley Cup will call Vancouver home for the first time in the Canucks’ history.

The Ottawa Senators are delighted that their AHL farm team is still playing hockey into June.  They are currently tied with the Houston Aeros at a game apiece, heading back to Binghamton for games 3, 4, and 5.  If they can manage to win the series at home, it would finally bring some attention to the work Bryan and Tim Murray have done to rebuild the farm system of the Senators that was largely non-existent at the end of the John Muckler era.

The Calgary Flames have been relatively quiet since the signing of Curtis Glencross and naming Jay Feaster the full time GM.  Alex Tanguay has been a hot topic in Cowtown, as the potentail UFA could be a hot commodity in a relatively weak free agent class. The Flames would like to get a deal done before he gets to July 1 free agency, but the numbers might not add up and the two sides might not be able to agree on contract terms.

The Edmonton Oilers started to take care of some off-season business by signing Ryan Jones to a two year contract. The cap hit for the 18 goal scorer is reported to be $1.5 million, up from the $975,000 he made last year.  Also in consideration is the status of Sheldon Souray.  With one year left on his contract, he could be a buyout candidate when the window opens, otherwise it could be another year riding the buses in the AHL for the defenseman.

The Montreal Canadiens have to be wondering what might have been as they watch the team they took to Overtime in game 7 has advanced to the Stanley Cup Final.  However, the Canadiens continued to be active in the early off-season as they inked Finnish 2009 2nd rd pick Joonas Nattinen to an entry level contract.  It is anticipated that the 20-year-old centre will play in Hamilton next year to get acclimated to the North American style of hockey.

That is all for this week’s edition of Northern Exposure.  Next week, we may be able to confirm the existence of a 7th Canadian team, and we will take a look at the Calgary Flames.


Jared Crozier is also a contributing writer for SenShot on the Fansided Network.  He can be reached on twitter @alfieisgod or by email at