Just Gonna Have To Wait And See
This orgy of minute analysis two years into Brian Burke's term as hockey boss of the Maple Leafs is all quite understandable. To a point.
Anniversaries are signposts along the way, and it's worth seeing where the Leafs were when Burke landed in town and where they are today. Or at least interesting.
But conclusions? Nope. It's just too early.
Now I understand that part of the modern media system is that outrage must always be immediate and twittered, and that it's vital to be able to declare winners and losers as soon as possible, like election night. Perspective, it seems these days, is for suckers.
But sometimes you have to wait and let it all play out, at least to a reasonable degree.
In the case of the Leafs, every game cannot be a referendum on Burke's blueprint. Losses in Buffalo and Ottawa last weekend were no more definitive of the team's development than were the three wins in four games that preceded those defeats. When you've playing with two 21-year-olds on the back end, a 19-year-old on the top line and overall, the youngest team in hockey, there are going to be peaks and valleys. Big ones.
More to the point, evaluating the way in which Burke has gone about rebuilding the Leafs may ultimately prove it's been a failure. But it isn't yet.
As much as people want to go on and on about how finishing low and drafting high is the only way to produce a strong team, it's just not true. It can work, and, as the folks in the Windy City can tell you, it does. But Florida, the Islanders and Columbus are examples where it hasn't worked.
Moreover, look at the team atop the Western Conference, the Detroit Red Wings. Never bottomed out, and there's no Ovechkin, Crosby or Stamkos on that roster, unless you want to count Mike Modano, the first overall pick in the NHL draft 22 years ago. And he's injured. Otherwise, there were no picks made by Detroit in even the top 10 selections that altered the course of the franchise.
Yes, much of that foundation was built before the lockout. But the lockout was five years ago, the Wings have been operating under the same salary cap constraints as every other team, they've lost key talent over the past two years and they're still riding high.
So there must be another way to win, correct?
Philly bottomed out and got James Van Riemsdyk, but so far, he's no franchise player. The Flyers constructed a very strong team with good late first rounders (Mike Richards, Jeff Carter), resourcefulness (Michael Leighton, Sergei Bobrovsky) and a willingness to take risky gambles (trading a ton of futures for Chris Pronger).
The Flyers did get to the Cup final a year ago. So again, there is another way. Montreal, other than the drafting of Carey Price, hasn't built this year's quality team on finishing last. They've done it in a variety a ways, but certainly not like Washington, Pittsburgh or Chicago did it.
Now, whether Burke can find his own alternate route looks uncertain, or even doubtful now, but rebuilding projects always look this way. Three years after drafting Alex Ovechkin, the Caps had 70 points. But George McPhee wasn't fired. It's been four years since the St. Louis Blues bottomed out and took Erik Johnson first overall, and after a fast start it appears the Blues are likely to be fighting for a playoff spot again this season. Don't hear anybody calling for John Davidson's head.
These things take time, yet so many want to scream "Failure!" at the Burke regime after just two years. Make no sense.
Similarly, reaching final conclusions on Phil Kessel, the closest thing the Leafs have to a franchise forward, makes no sense either. Bill Watters, the former Leaf executive and radio analyst on A640, called Kessel a "dog" repeatedly on the air yesterday, and maybe he's right. Ol' Wilbur has been around the game a long time and talks to a long of folks in the sport, so I'm certainly not dismissing his opinion.
At the same time, Kessel is 23 years old, has 66 goals in the past two NHL seasons and has 10 in 22 games this season despite playing on a team on which he is the only threat to score. I would submit that deciding Kessel is never going to be a top player in this league is a little premature, like all the years Steve Yzerman was lambasted as a guy who couldn't win the big one. Until he did. (I know people will try and twist that into a comparison between Kessel and Yzerman, which it isn't, but I'm confident reasonable folks will understand the point).
Yes, Kessel has to add to his game. Yes, he's got to play harder. Yes, he settles for the long wrist shot instead of taking the puck to the net, although the fact opponents know he has no one to pass to limits his options.
And yes, he may fail to do all of those things and never be a better player than he is today.
But nobody knows that yet anymore than they know for sure whether Tyler Segin, second in the draft behind Taylor Hall, will be better than David Legwand, second in the draft to Vinny Lecavalier 12 years ago. (The next other three top 5 picks that year were Brad Stuart, Bryan Allen and Vitali Vishnevski, again suggesting finishing low and drafting high doesn't necessarily mean a championship is just around the corner).
Over the next three days, the Leafs will test themselves against the Tampa Bay Lightning and the Edmonton Oilers, two clubs who also finished well down the standings last year, like the Leafs, and are trying to re-build.
As much as some will try to use these games to prove or disprove Burke's rebuilding theories, they won't. That said, I can guarantee that if the Leafs were to win both games, there will be no one proclaiming that they are clearly ahead of both teams in their attempts to develop a winning team.
But if the Leafs lose both? Oh my, you can beat there will be many screaming that Burke has it all wrong.
It's weird, but in a town where so many maintain they want a patient approach to rebuilding the Leafs, patience is in remarkable short supply.