Opinions differ widely in regards to what really has been the main reason that the Toronto Maple Leafs have struggled so badly for so long. The lack of success in this toxic market has created an environment of finger pointing and anger when it comes to the current state of the blue and white. Some argue that the fault lies at the feet of Brian Burke, but allow me to provide you my idea as to why things have been so bad in Toronto. As the #fireburke hashtag gains momentum by the day, I’d like to take fans back to June 24th, 2006 a day in which then Leafs GM John Ferguson Jr traded the rights to 19 year old prospect Tuukka Rask to the Boston Bruins for 2004 Calder trophy winner Andrew Raycroft. With this one single transaction I’d argue that a significant portion of the current eight years, two months and 11 day post season drought in Toronto can be explained.
Ping Pong Balls
Rask was selected by Ferguson – in his first draft with the Leafs – with the 21st overall selection in the 2005 draft. That season the aging Maple Leafs missed the post season for the first time since 1998. The main reason for the Leafs failure was the poor play of 41 year old goaltender Ed Belfour. After two spectacular seasons for the Leafs in which he posted a .922 and .918 save percentage, the aging goalie emerged out of the lockout with an aching back that led to his pathetic .892 save percentage. Post lockout Belfour was a shadow of his former dominant self and the time had arrived for Ferguson Jr to find a suitable replacement in the off-season.
While Belfour struggled at the NHL level, the Leafs were seemingly set for the future as they had two top level goaltending prospects steal the show at that years World Junior Championships. Rask was named goaltender of the tournament as he and his .940 save percentage carried a weak Finnish team to a Bronze medal finish. Another Leafs goalie prospect outdid Rask though as Canada’s Justin Pogge – drafter 90th overall in 2004 – captured a Gold medal and earned raved reviews posting 3 shutouts during the tournament. Pogge did not allow a single goal in both the semi finals and gold medal game, and the future looked bright for the Leafs between the pipes.
Due to this apparent depth in goal Ferguson Jr jettisoned Rask to the Boston Bruins for what he thought was Belfour’s replacement in Raycroft. Two years and two goaltenders later both Ferguson and Raycroft were gone from Toronto and Burke was brought in to bring success and respectability back to the blue and white.
During the same season that Burke took over in Toronto and inherited a team that had a goaltending tandem of Vesa Toskala and Curtis Joseph, Rask made one start with the Boston Bruins. In that start Rask shutout the New York Rangers 1-0 recording his first NHL shutout.
In the three seasons that Burke has been at the helm of the Toronto Maple Leafs Rask has been a regular for the Bruins. Take a look at what Rask accomplished in those three seasons in comparison to the Leafs goaltending carrousel:
09-10 Rask – 1.97 GAA .931 sv % Toskala – 3.66 GAA .874 sv %
10 -11 Rask – 2.67 GAA .918 sv % J.Reimer - 2.60 GAA .920 sv %
11-12 Rask – 2.05 GAA .929 sv % J.Gustavsson – 2.92 GAA .902 sv %
Had JFJ decided to offload Pogge instead of Rask I think it would be safe to assume that the Leafs would have qualified for post season play in one of the last three years. With Rask in net the Leafs rebuild – that began with the removal of Ferguson Jr and the arrival of Burke – would be that much farther along. Instead another season of frustration and disappointment was endured by a loyal and hungry fanbase.
This summer as Burke and the Leafs furiously attempt to finally remedy the problem in net, the Bruins are ready to handle the fulltime reigns to Rask. At 25 years of age and with three full NHL seasons behind him the time has arrived for Rask to become an elite goaltender in the league, while the Leafs are once again forced to search for an answer.
While the pitchforks are being sharpened and the torches are being lit by fans ready to condemn Burke remember the absolutely horrible trade that his predecessor handicapped him with. Just like Mike Gillis has blossomed and earned accolades in Vancouver for a Canucks team largely built by Burke and Dave Nonis, those same two men are taking the heat for JFJ’s failures.
Whenever I stand up and attempt to defend Burke – and I do it more often than I should – the single argument I bring up again and again is June 24th 2006. If I could have one do over from the last eight years it would be the Rask for Raycroft deal. Hopefully the Leafs can find an answer to their ongoing goaltending dilemma soon because if not Burke may be the second general manager to walk the plank for the same trade.