Hockey

Maple Leafs sticking to plan: preview

With a busy off-season of free-agent signings and the Phil Kessel trade, GM Brian Burke has stuck to his word of trying to get the Maple Leafs back to the playoffs, all the while making the team bigger, more intimidating and younger.

As much as he would like to, general manager Brian Burke will probably never forget the morning of April 1, 2009.

It marked the day after his Toronto Maple Leafs were ousted from playoff contention for a fourth consecutive spring. Burke called it "a sombre day … a day that represents failure."

Then he vowed to help the team get back in the playoffs and spent the next few months signing top collegiate forwards Tyler Bozak and Christian Hanson, veteran NHL defencemen Francois Beauchemin, Garnet Exelby and Mike Komisarek, Swedish goalie sensation Jonas Gustavsson and trading for game-breaking forward Phil Kessel.

Only time will tell if Burke's efforts translate into playoff success and perhaps one day, the Maple Leafs' first Stanley Cup title since 1967.

But an effort is being made, with the team's rebuilding phase in full swing.

At a Glance

2008-09 record: 34-35-13, 12th in Eastern Conference, missed playoffs for fourth straight season.

Hello: Phil Kessel (F), Wayne Primeau (F), Colton Orr (F), Francois Beauchemin (D), Garnet Exelby (D), Mike Komisarek (D), Jonas Gustavsson (G).

Goodbye: Curtis Joseph (G), Martin Gerber (G), Pavel Kubina (D), Anton Stralman (D), Boyd Devereaux (F), Brad May (F).

No. of Olympians: 7 (Francois Beauchemin, Vesa Toskala, Niklas Hagman, Nikolai Kulemin, Jonas Gustavsson, Rickard Wallin, Jonas Frogren).

What to like

The fact management, led by Burke and senior vice-president of hockey operations Dave Nonis, has a plan for long-term success. With a busy off-season of free-agent signings and the recent acquisition of forward Kessel through trade, Burke has stuck to his word of trying to get the Maple Leafs back to the playoffs, all the while making the team bigger, more intimidating and younger.

The signings of blue-liners Beauchemin, Exelby and Komisarek along with Gustavsson, show a commitment to building from the goaltender out.

"The fans, especially in a market like this, are investing a lot of time and money and interest in our team. You want to know there is a long-term plan for success," Nonis told CBCSports.ca. "We've taken some significant steps forward but we're not where we want to be. You have to have quality goaltending and we feel we've upgraded the depth there with [Jonas] Gustavsson and [starter Vesa Toskala] being healthy.

"We felt [Beauchemin, Exelby and Komisarek] were all big pieces to help solidify the back end. It's going to make our other players so much better. Adding those types of veteran players on the back end that all offer something different, they're going to stand out by the minutes they play … the different roles they take."

What to sweat

The confidence and health of starting netminder Toskala, who had surgery in March to repair groin problems and a torn labrum in his hip. Toskala recorded career lows in goals-against average (3.26) and save percentage (.891) in 53 games last season. He also allowed seven goals to Buffalo in Toronto's final pre-season on Sept. 27, while backup Gustavsson — whom Burke called the best goalie outside the NHL last season — created some buzz with his stop on a two-on-none against Detroit. But he is unproven at the NHL level.

"According to Toskala he feels 100 per cent," Nonis said, "so [health] won't be an excuse. But given his performance last year — which again we feel was [mainly] due to his health issues, and the fact Jonas hasn't played an NHL [regular-season] game — I think it's a legitimate [concern] for fans to have. If [Toskala] is healthy, we're confident he's going to be able to carry the ball and Jonas is going to push and challenge for ice time.

Under pressure: Vesa Toskala

The 32-year-old Finn has yet to play a regular-season game this season and already some fans are calling for Gustavsson to be handed the starting job in net. While few NHL executives put a lot of stock in pre-season statistics, a part of Burke probably has taken note of Toskala's .860 save percentage in the exhibition season.

"Toskala is a pretty proud guy," Nonis said, "and I think he really wants to have a good season for two reasons: he wants the team to do well and he wants to prove he is an elite goaltender in this league. I think that is driving him more than anything."

Fresh face: Phil Kessel

With his team lacking scoring depth, Burke traded for 21-year-old right-winger Kessel, who scored 36 goals and 60 points in 70 games for Boston last season. While the price was steep — first- and second-round draft picks in 2010, as well as a first-rounder in 2011 — Kessel gives the Maple Leafs a speedy and skilled forward to build around for years. He's expected to make his Maple Leafs debut in November following shoulder surgery.

"I'm impressed with his desire to play in a Canadian market where there's going to be even more scrutiny on him than there was in Boston," said Nonis. "People are going to like him more than they think. His desire to play here says a lot to me.

"You want a player that wants to play in the fire and to prove to people he can be a great player. He's got great skills and there's only a few guys in each conference that you would call a game breaker and we feel Phil's one of them."

Olympic impact

At least seven players on the Maple Leafs roster are expected to crack the Olympic rosters of four different countries: Sweden's Gustavsson, Rickard Wallin and Jonas Frogen with Sweden; Finland's Toskala and Niklas Hagman; Russia's Nikolai Kulemin and Canada's Beauchemin.

The Maple Leafs' added depth at all positions this season could come in handy if the aforementioned players return from Olympic competition either hurt or in need of a rest.

Outlook

A year ago, Toronto did what many pundits expected and missed the playoffs, finishing 12 points behind Montreal for the final berth in the Eastern Conference.

But it could be a different story come April as fans appear to be more excited and optimistic about the potential of this year's club, pointing to a bolstered defence and addition of Kessel up front for their enthusiasm.

"A month ago, our goal was to put a team together to challenge for the post-season. We feel we've done that," said Nonis. "We also know there's a long way to go. We haven't played a game that counts yet … but it's always going to be our goal to do whatever we can to make the post-season.

"We feel we have a team that should be able to challenge for that spot, but we're not going to lose sight of our long-term goal and that's to put a championship calibre club in Toronto. The emergence of the young players makes us stronger and the depth alone a more difficult team to play against."