I’m going to be honest, throughout this entire lockout ordeal I was convinced that this was going to be another lost season. Perhaps this pessimism emerged from the “once burned, twice shy” experience I’ve had with Gary Bettman and the NHL in the past, but from the original lowball offer, all the way to a pasty and twitchy Bettman angrily calling out Don Fehr in early December, it seemed like the owners had no intention of getting anything accomplished. Therefore, when news broke I was surprised. With all that in the past it’s now time to look forward at the roster Brian Burke has assembled and what pieces of it coach Randy Carlyle will utilize in a 50 or 48 game shortened season.
In late July following the buyout of Colby Armstrong and the deletion of Joey Crabb I wrote this article about how the time had arrived for the Leafs to do away with incumbents Matthew Lombardi, Mike Brown, Tim Connolly and Tyler Bozak in order to determine what they truly had with their young forwards. Natural progression and proper development had made it necessary to give Nazem Kadri, Matt Frattin, Carter Ashton, Joe Colborne and Jerry D’Amigo playing time over the carry over buds. However, the shortened season has thrown everything for a loop now. Do Burke and Carlyle choose younger, better options to play or do they continue with the veterans for this short year and then re-evaluate in the off season?
Considering the fact that Connolly, Lombardi and Bozak will all become UFA’s at the conclusion of this season then it may make sense for the Leafs to get to the point where they stick with the veterans. What doesn’t get discussed enough is Burke’s loyalty to his veterans. While it may frustrate many fans this loyalty goes a long way in maintaining relationships with agents around the NHL. When it comes time to sign free agents many of these men remember and respect how Burke treated clients of theirs in the past.
The biggest question becomes whether this lockout has created a safe year for Burke as GM of the Leafs? At the conclusion of the 2011-2012 season – seems like ages ago – the general consensus was that Burke had one more year to turn the Leafs around or else he was going to be fired. Does the lockout create some sort of mulligan on that though? Personally, I believe Burke has done a good job in restocking a bare organization and the Leafs are an average to above average goaltender from being a top 8 Eastern Conference team. If Burke can use this season, and regardless of the results not get fired, then it makes sense to play the veterans and then allow them to walk in the summer. Keep in mind that a condensed schedule is going to lead to a plethora of injuries therefore having depth at the AHL with the Marlies will be a blessing.
Should the Leafs not make a trade to acquire Roberto Luongo then it may be the best for the organization to consider this a lost season. It won’t be that hard since many assumed it was going to be lost anyways. The 2013 season should be one that allows the Leafs to answer many questions and put them on the right path moving forward. Take the time to find out if: 1. A healthy James Reimer is the answer in net? 2. Is Nazem Kadri fit to play in Toronto or is it time to move him? 3. Are Joffrey Lupul and Clarke MacArthur long term answers for the Leafs? And finally 4. Can John Michael Liles return to the level he was prior to his concussion?
In the end, another non-playoff season will not be the end of the world in Toronto. Take the time to answer these questions, allow Connolly, Bozak and Lombardi to walk away in the summer, amnesty Mike Komisarek and retool in the offseason when there will be plenty of reinforcements on the open market. It also doesn’t hurt to bottom out this season as the league heads into the 2013 entry draft that many are calling the best since 2003.