I heard a caller on the radio the other day talk about the effect the Phil Kessel trade has had on the Toronto Maple Leafs. Most people think that the trade was a disaster for the Leafs, but I was a proponent of the trade when it first happened. However, I did not think Brian Burke needed to give up 2 first round picks to get Kessel because he had the threat of the offer sheet and only needed to give up a first, second, and third round pick if he were to go that route (I know Burke lashed out at Kevin Lowe for the Dustin Penner offer sheet, but the biggest issue he had with Lowe was that he didn’t approach him first about a deal; he felt blind sided). That being said, I do not want to sit here and discuss how good or bad that deal was. Back to the caller, he made what I thought to be a great point, he essentially said that if Burke did not make the Kessel trade, some of the other deals he made later in the year probably would not have happened since the Leafs would have most likely been tanking the season and playing for Taylor Hall or Tyler Seguin. So to judge Burke solely on the Kessel trade would not be fair. You need to look at the effect of that trade on the other moves he has made and I tend to agree with him. Thus, the Leafs most likely would not have made the Phaneuf or Giguere trades, which essentially brought the Leafs their young captain and also ridded them of bad contracts (Blake, and I would argue Stajan, and White as well).
When the Leaf organization was searching for a GM, they talked about bringing in a superstar, one of the top executives in the league to run the franchise. They put together a search committee and this led to the hiring of Brian Burke. At the time I was not a big fan of Burke, but he has begun to convert me. Burke has not been rebuilding the Leafs in a traditional fashion and I am in full support of his approach. Being bad and finishing at the bottom end of the standings year over year is no guarantee for future success. For example, look at teams like the Atlanta Thrashers, NY Islanders, Florida Panthers, and Columbus Blue Jackets (Columbus has drafted in the top 10 for 10 of their 11 seasons in the NHL and have ONE playoff appearance to show for it). Sure people will point to the success of teams like Pittsburgh and Chicago, but they rarely consider the opposite side of the spectrum. Those teams were fortunate to draft superstar players with their top picks. Players like Crosby, Malkin, Toews, and Kane are not available in every draft. On the other hand, teams like the Detroit Redwings, San Jose Sharks, and New Jersey Devils, have been consistently among the leagues elite without drafting in the top 5.
With the Leafs being void of any high-end NHL prospects, Burke has begun to build a young core group of players through the draft and free agency. In less than 2 years on the job Burke has added Kessel, Dion Phaneuf, Kris Versteeg, Mike Komisarek, Jonas Gustavsson, Tyler Bozak, and Colby Armstrong. All of these players are 28 or younger and will form the core of this Maple Leaf team for the next 3-5 years. To get these players I would argue that he has only given up one potential impact player in Viktor Stalberg.
Are the Leafs a Stanley cup contender right now? Not even close, but I think they are on the right track. This team should be expecting a playoff spot this year and if their young core takes the leap from potential to performance they should have no problem achieving that.