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Three fixes for the Maple Leafs

8/3/2012

With Craig Custance on vacation, ESPN The Magazine's Doug McIntyre fills in to provide a quick take on what could be ahead for the Toronto Maple Leafs.

When Brian Burke was hired as general manager of the Toronto Maple Leafs in November 2008, it was supposed to signal a new dawn for one of the NHL's flagship franchises.

The former Anaheim GM was just 17 months removed from winning the Stanley Cup with the Ducks, and he was expected to be the man who would finally return the Leafs to glory -- or at least respectability -- by painstakingly building them into a tough, balanced, contending team.

But almost four years into the five-year plan Burke spoke of at his introductory news conference, the Leafs are no closer to competing for a playoff spot, let alone a title, than they were when Burke took over.

The NHL's richest club still hasn't qualified for the postseason since 2004, and a Toronto player still hasn't hoisted that silver chalice above his head since 1967, two years before man first walked on the moon.

Not that Burke deserves all the blame. He was never going to turn Toronto around overnight, and although the Leafs have had the cash, cap space and ambition to sign blue-chip free agents like Brad Richards last summer, their struggles combined with the scrutiny that accompanies playing in the center of the hockey universe (with all due respect to Montreal) has left the Leafs without any marquee names.

Still, to say Burke is behind schedule is a fair criticism. In a league driven by parity, how has the Leafs' rebuilding project failed to make any significant headway? More importantly, how can the Leafs salvage a summer marked mostly by inactivity? The following three keys are a good place to start.

1.Find a No. 1 goaltender

Not since a past-his-prime Ed Belfour left town in 2006 have the Leafs employed a consistent starter. In the seven seasons since the 2004-05 lockout, five different goalies have led the team in games played. But while Roberto Luongo seems destined to leave Vancouver, the Montreal native doesn't appear enthused by the prospect of playing in another fishbowl Canadian market and is more likely to end up in Chicago or back with the Florida Panthers. Burke has reportedly inquired about Kings backup Jonathan Bernier, who is available after asking for a trade, but L.A. could be willing to hold on to him into the new season, when teams begin to get desperate for help in net. Some would argue the Leafs fit that description now.

2.Find another shutdown defenseman

Luke Schenn never quite lived up to the billing, and in June the 22-year-old was dealt to the Flyers for James van Riemsdyk after four seasons in blue and white. JVR should boost the Leafs offensively, but then scoring hasn't been the problem recently; as The Globe and Mail's James Mirtle pointed out last month, the Leafs have been above-average in that department since the lockout. Last season, although Toronto finished 13th in the Eastern Conference, two forwards -- Phil Kessel and Joffrey Lupul -- were among the NHL's top 30 point getters. Some fans would love to see Burke extend an offer sheet to restricted free agent P.K. Subban, a Toronto native. Although the Montreal Canadiens might match immediately, it would be an audacious move. But if improving is the aim, trying to pry Douglas Murray from San Jose would be a better use of energy. Tyler Bozak is expendable because of a surplus of forwards, and the Leafs have quality prospects playing in the AHL with the Calder Cup finalist Toronto Marlies. Now could be the time to part with skilled youngster Nazem Kadri, who spent most of the past two seasons with the Marlies but might fit better in the more open Western Conference.

3.Find a decent center

Like elite D-men, top-six pivots don't grow on trees. Van Riemsdyk is expected to get a shot in the middle, but even if he sticks, it might be worth taking a chance on 37-year-old unrestricted free agent Jason Arnott -- if the Vancouver Canucks don't sign him first. Arnott tallied a respectable 34 points for the St. Louis Blues last season, and he's a character guy who wins faceoffs. For all of Burke's talk about becoming tougher four years back, the Leafs didn't become measurably harder to play against until Randy Carlyle replaced the fired Ron Wilson midway through last season. Arnott, if he's available, is exactly the type of player who would thrive in Carlyle's system, and in a long-suffering city that revered the likes of Wendel Clark, Tie Domi and Doug Gilmour, he'd earn the respect of the fans, too.

Doug McIntyre is a staff writer with ESPN The Magazine. Though he mostly covers soccer, his first love is the coolest game on Earth. Still a rink rat, Doug played college hockey, briefly, with Iona's now-defunct NCAA program. He lives in Montreal.