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Leafs, Burke are reaching the crossroads

The Sports Xchange

The problems dogging the Maple Leafs heading into 2012-13 are very much the same ones that cursed them this season, the fourth straight time they've missed the playoffs under general manager Brian Burke.

The difference will be Burke has perhaps one year remaining to show he's putting the team on the right path to improvement. The Leafs' new ownership group, a partnership of rival Canadian telecom giants Rogers and Bell, can't be seen as endorsing mediocrity as it takes full control in the coming months and years.

Burke's stated goals to be a tough team, to build depth from the goal out and to restore the power of the Leaf brand has encountered several roadblocks. The roster he hoped to win with has shown itself thus far to be too thin. It's further handicapped by big contracts that will be hard to trade as well as several players possibly being incompatible with new coach Randy Carlyle's defensive philosophy. The Leafs will not have a lot of cap room, either.

Carlyle, who starts the meat of a three-year deal next season, needs two key components that were denied predecessor Ron Wilson, starting with a bigger and more productive first-line center to augment potential 40-goal winger Phil Kessel. Then the Leafs need to develop or acquire a front-line goaltender to replace James Reimer, who was derailed by injury and inconsistency.

The Leafs finished with 80 points, five less than last year, but once again, had they reversed less than half of their 22 one-goal losses, they would have likely qualified for the playoffs. As it was, they missed for the seventh straight year.

Toronto had its best start under Burke and looked like a lock to make it after the first week of February. But after Feb. 6, when the Leafs had points in six straight games and were in sight of the division and conference leaders, their record was 7-18-4.

The Leafs opened the schedule with five games at home and built a record of 4-0-1, including wins against division rivals Montreal and Ottawa. But then, after Jonas Gustavsson played net in the first loss in Boston, James Reimer was bidding for his fifth win in a game against Montreal when Canadiens' Brian Gionta accidentally kneed him in the head. Reimer missed the next month.

At the Feb. 27 trade deadline, despite a three-week slump, the Leafs sat still, making only one minor deal. GM Brian Burke said he could have made deals for up to four first-round draft choices but judged that fans didn't want to see more prospects. At the same time, he said he didn't want to mortgage the farm for what would likely be a first-round elimination.

The players sensed the white flag was coming out and played some of their worst hockey afterward -- one win in eight games -- to ensure they would not make the playoffs, and coach Ron Wilson was fired March 3.

Copyright (C) 2012 The Sports Xchange. All Rights Reserved.


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