For years, Brian Burke pushed off the idea of the rebuild the Maple Leafs have desperately needed since Lockout II. Rather, Burke tried to make-over the Leafs with toughness and grit while adding Phil Kessel and pleasant surprise Joffrey Lupul to boost the Leafs' scoring.
Yet last week when Burke was shown the door in favor of new general manager Dave Nonis, the Leafs still had the same problems that they had when he arrived: questionable goaltending, a thin blue line, and a stockpile of minor league talent that hadn't reached its potential.
After some of the Leafs' roster moves this week, it looks like some of these prospects' time to shine will be now.
A front office change a week before a lockout-shortened season hardly screams stability, but the Leafs were never going to be a picture of stability if they were to have success this year. Any chance of a playoff run seemed to lean on the acquisition of Roberto Luongo from Vancouver to give the Leafs their first steady presence between the pipes since Eddie Belfour.
But after sending Matthew Lombardi back to the Phoenix Coyotes and waiving Tim Connolly and Keith Aucoin, the Leafs are going to be much more dependent on center Tyler Bozak this season, originally believed to be a key piece in any deal for Luongo. At this point, the day before the puck drops, James Reimer will apparently be getting his last chance to carry the Leafs. He isn't the only Leaf who will be getting big minutes from head coach Randy Carlyle.
The obvious man with the greatest opportunity and the biggest target on his back to produce is Nazem Kadri, a mishandled disappointment since being taken seventh overall in the 2009 draft, who finally showed signs of taking the next step with the Marlies during the lockout with 26 points in 27 games. With Lombardi and Connolly both gone from the roster, Kadri is almost guaranteed a spot centering the third line.
As Carlyle told the Globe and Mail, "He’s been one of our strongest players [in training camp].”
It's easy to forget that it was only three months ago that Kadri was under scrutiny from the Toronto media for showing up to Marlies' camp with unacceptable fitness levels, seemingly another glaring indication that Kadri did not have the mindset of a professional. Now, Kadri is finally getting the trust and accolades Leaf fans expected form day 1.
Matt Frattin also shined with the Marlies last spring and has been decent in camp, though it appears he will be losing out on a spot on Kadri's wing to Leo Komarov.
Clearly, the youth movement is underway in Toronto. A youth movement that had inched along with the development of Bozak and injured, untouchable Jake Gardiner. Adding Dion Phaneuf and Phil Kessel were steps in the right direction, but finishing pieces to a roster that was not nearly finished. It remains unfinished, and entering a shortened season with as many as three unproven players as major contributors, with the same question marks in net, the Leafs might already be surrendering 2013 and looking ahead.
That's ok. It's long overdue.
Dropping Lombardi removes an energy player from the line-up, while in Connolly they lose an underachiever, but an underachiever that scored 13 goals in a top-heavy scoring line-up. The addition of James Van Riemsdyk has to fill that void and more. They lose NHL experience but, more importantly, they lose about $6 million off the payroll.
Let's not pretend that this won't be the last chance for Mike Komisarek, another disappointing contract in Toronto, to prove he belongs in the fold. He's been a shadow of himself since arriving from the Canadiens and Gardiner's injury may be the only reason he makes the opening night roster. After all, Morgan Rielly somehow remained in Leafs camp through Friday morning. Komisarek is a candidate for a spring buy-out and the doors of Air Canada Centre are truly wide open, moving in both directions.
Toronto will kick off their 48 game dash to their first playoff appearance since 2004 in front of the NHL's largest audience, visiting the Bell Centre for a nationally televised game against the Canadiens. The Canadiens themselves are in need of a rebuild. Perhaps for the next few years we will be less intrigued by these two teams on the ice, and rather focus on Nonis v. Bergevin in the race towards a rebuild.
For now, both teams seem destined for growing pains. For the Leafs, they may finally grow.
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