Thursday, March 8, 2012

From the Net Out

Leaf fans not currently occupying space under a rock are well aware of the team's recent downward spiral and subsequent vacancy of a playoff spot. Everyone is sharing in the blame, especially Ron Wilson, who was turfed as coach and replaced by Randy Carlyle, who joined the team in Montreal.

Brian Burke trotted out to welcome his new coach, and answer any questions the media posed him. Unfortunately, Burke gave us many of the same answers he's fed us before, and though I like Burke a great deal, his act with the media, like his act as GM, is growing stale.

I have to reserve judgement on Carlyle's hiring. I'm not certain that bringing in a coach who is known as a harsh taskmaster is a great replacement for Wilson. I also question the timing of a coaching change at this point in the season, because changing systems late season is usually a recipe for disaster, and a coach shouldn't have to make roster decisions on the fly with an unknown roster.

There is a notion afloat out there that the reason Burke made no roster moves at the deadline is to give Wilson the best chance at making the playoffs, thus enabling him to keep his job. It's been clear for nearly the whole season that the Reimer/Gustavsson tandem has not provided even average goaltending. I can't subscribe to the notion that Burke gave his buddy the best chance of success for exactly this reason.

I'm not about to slag either keeper, but I do question a lot of the roster moves made by Burke in regards to goaltending. Why assume Reimer, almost 24, is a legitimate starter in this league, after a half a season? Why aggressively pursue Gustavsson only to basically do everything but give him a legitimate shot at being a starter?

I think this is the reason we're seeing Gustavsson start more often lately. I'm not advocating that he be re-signed, but I definitely want to know what I'm potentially letting walk for nothing at the end of this season. Francois Allaire may be the best butterfly coach in the league, but he's also seen a number of good goalies bristle under his authority. Sometimes, it just isn't a good fit, and I suspect this is the case here.

Reimer could use a stint in the A. He's very young for a team to be trying to hand him the starting job in this most fickle of markets. The Marlies are expected to make a deep playoff run. Let Reimer attach himself to a culture of success rather than mire himself in the misery of defeat. There is absolutely no reason to rush his development, and I think it's become obvious he's still developing.

As far as what should be done to improve our goaltending, I'm at a loss. There aren't a lot of quality options available. Trading for a keeper depletes an already weak team, and most teams aren't giving up the kind of goalie this team needs without a king's ransom returning. Free agency seems the most likely route, and the most unsatisfactory one. This team is supposed to be built from the net out. It needs a reliable keeper more than anything else.

As far as making the playoffs go, I wonder why people still have hope for this outcome. I completely understand and empathize with the desire to reach the playoffs and see the Leafs compete for the cup. I cannot feign the belief that this team is remotely capable of that, nor can it hope to make it out of the first round should they succeed in reclaiming a low seed playoff berth.

The best thing this team can do is admit defeat. Admit that Ron Wilson wasn't the ideal coach here. Admit that going with 2 unproven keepers was a poor choice. Admit that our defense has not been as good as it should be, and that playing run-and-gun hasn't helped their cause. Admit that our forward squad has holes that haven't come close to being filled. Admit that as it stands, this team won't be there next year either, because as great as the thought of Kadri, Colborne, Frattin and Ashton being called up sounds, it's not going to instantly make us contenders.

If you can do that, you'll see that the best option for this team is to ensure that Burke goes to the draft armed with the highest draft pick possible. There are some quality players in this draft, and Burke would do well to target a big young center who can join the club this season or next. If he can and/or needs to, he should trade up to ensure this.

Next year will be the final contract year for Connolly, Lupul, Lombardi, MacArthur, Armstrong, Bozak and Steckel. Unload these at the deadline, take as many first-round picks and picks in general as you can to the draft, trade up as best you can to get Nathan MacKinnon. Bring up all the kids, get whatever complimentary pieces you can get to compliment them, and with the current defense and a reliable goaltender you should have the foundation of a team that can compete for years.

It's going to hurt to be a Leafs fan until then, but no more so than it already does, and the very last thing I want to see is the team wasting another chance to get this rebuild done the right way in a feeble attempt to "patch up a leaky hull." Right now there's more hole than hull.

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