With a spot in the bottom 5 league wide freshly secured, the fear of giving up 2 lottery picks to a divisional rival because more of a reality. It also becomes more difficult to right the ship and end the free-fall. The team lacks confidence, can't score consistently, has horribly timed defensive lapses, sporadic weak goals, increasingly ineffective special teams and only 1 win since starting the season 4-0-0. Oh, in case you haven't clued in, I'm referring to the Leafs.
Burke, once said to be dealing from a position of strength when talking about dealing a defenseman for a forward by many hockey pundits, clearly isn't. Especially when you take into account the teams current skid and the increasing desperation that mounts loss after loss. Topped off by the fact that the free agent market gets bleaker and bleaker each passing week for the upcoming off season and it is starting to become a greater and greater cause for concern when you try to figure out how in the world this mess can be fixed, IF in fact it actually can!
For a few of the clubs losses, it could easily be argued the team deserved a better fate, as more than a couple games they outplayed their opponent only to be stifled by a hot goaltender or a timely defensive lapse or goaltending gaffe, but the fact of the matter is that close or "should haves" don't get you the points required in the NHL to make the playoffs.
That being said, there is SOME promise to be taken from some of the games, but not enough as it stands, to consider the club a playoff worthy team. So again, I ask myself what can be done...
Firstly, I start with video review after video review. Show the bad lapses, but also the good. I'm not saying this isn't happening, but it needs to be drilled into the teams head. THIS is what you're doing wrong. THIS is what you're doing right. Game in and game out, the club has costly errors that lose them games, and the more you drill in what those errors are and what the positives are, the more likely it is that those errors will cease.
Second, I'd make it clear that there is no untouchables (again), to the team. If Kessel goes 7 games without a point, sit him in the press box and substitute someone who is looking for a shot to prove himself (see: B. Irwin, D'Amigo, Mueller). If Beauchemin wants to throw the puck up the middle with reckless abandon, put in someone who wants to prove himself (see: Lashoff, Mikus)! Fact is, this is a rebuilding team. A young team. A team that WILL struggle and WILL make errors but that doesn't mean that these errors (particularly those by veterans) need to be watched with such frequency.
Third, I'd send Mitchell to the AHL to see if he can develop his game into an NHL game. His effort is there, but his mindset and skill set is not. Prime example is the penalty he took with Toronto up 2-0 and all the momentum in their court versus Vancouver last night. A weak call yes, but a stupid and costly play by Mitchell where there was no need to do what he did to risk a call. Joining him for the cab ride down the road to the AHL would be Luca Caputi and Carl Gunnarsson. Caputi has not produced given a shot to do so, and Gunnarsson seems to be mired in the same sophomore slump that hindered Luke Schenn for a large part of last year. Further development for both players is needed, and a player like Mikus, Lashoff, Aulie or Holzer can fill in for Gunnarsson and a player like Zigomanis, Irwin, D'Amigo or Mueller can fill in for Mitchell.
The last thing I would do is to flip 2 veterans off the roster for any forward help or prospects attainable. Obviously, this cannot be done just for the fact of doing so, but there is a market out there for a defenseman who can move the puck and if Kaberle is not willing to waive (or Burke won't ask), then Beauchemin could be sold as one who could perhaps fit that bill, and there is also a market for shut-down defensemen out there, and Komisarek could fit that bill, particularily if the Leafs take salary back in the trade. Ideally, I would trade Beauchemin for a forward with a bad contract like Dainius Zubrus of the Devils that could be plugged in of the 2nd or 3rd line for a bit of offensive help, and a mid to late draft pick. Then I would flip the 2nd veteran. I would look to ship out an under performing forward to open a spot for a young player looking for a spot to prove himself. Versteeg instantly comes to mind when considering under performing forwards, but considering the prospects given up for him, more time should be given to see what he can do. This basically leaves Grabovski, who frankly I am a fan of and is starting to play better offensively, as the forward with any value that could be considered as a expendable commodity at this point. Ideally, Grabovski, paired with a package of mid picks and/or a prospect being traded for another bad contract forward and perhaps a first round pick, depending on the package offered, would be what I would look to do. The main point to moving the 2 veterans is to open up the roster and make it competitive. Sure, there would be players who could be plugged into the lineup, but the fact that there is either new blood, or a roster spot up for grabs could be enough to right the ship.
The four game win streak was no a complete fluke. It is a glimpse of what the younger players on the team can bring to the table in the future. It can also be partly attributed to the Leafs sprinting out of the gate instead of floundering instantly like last year, where other teams were not so fast to get going.
Fact of the matter is, this pattern cannot be allowed to continue this year. Giving another lottery pick to a divisional rival is essentially building their dynasty for them. And while it can be argued that Kessel (a potential 40+ goal scorer) is worth giving up Tyler Seguin, it cannot be argued that he is worth a dynasty. Small steps, and small changes can fix the skid. They will not make the Leafs into a Stanley Cup favourite, but it WILL give them a shot to win games night in night out.