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Maple Leafs Watch: How much farther does the rebuild extend?

In terms of expecting an underdog season for the ages in Toronto, things are getting cloudier – and these ain’t soft, puffy clouds; they’re dark, ominous ones.

Yes, Brian Burke is likely on his way to town and will do so sooner than later, but no, nobody in town actually knows when he will arrive. Having said that, interim GM Cliff Fletcher has at least done some work on this twisted Rubik’s Cube of a roster, but Burke will obviously do more.

In acquiring Lee Stempniak from St. Louis for Carlo Colaiacovo and Alex Steen, the Leafs essentially admitted their recent standards for success were far below the rest of the league’s. After all, Steen was once touted as a future captain of the franchise and Colaiacovo made the squad as a 19-year-old in 2002-03, before quickly being sent back to junior. Both were first-round draft picks.

But it is Stempniak who shows the most promise of the three and only Stempniak who has accomplished a 20-goal season (27 in ’06-07) in the NHL and is currently on nearly a point-per-game pace. St. Louis took the right winger in the fifth round of the draft.

In Tuesday’s 6-3 loss to Atlanta, Stempniak showed off his skill set, though obviously there was little chemistry with linemates to do any real damage. That will evolve when he actually gets some meaningful practice time in with his new mates, but the fact he was moved up to the top line by coach Ron Wilson midway through the game (replacing Alexei Ponikarovsky), is a good omen.

When Burke does arrive, it is expected he will put his stamp on the club. But with nothing but the future look forward to, here’s hoping the new GM does as much as he can to hoard draft picks – and high ones, at that.

The Leafs will almost certainly be sellers at the trade deadline this season, a role they have not performed well in recently. Facing another year out of the playoffs last season, the team decided to only shed marginal contributors Chad Kilger and Wade Belak, plus defenseman Hal Gill. Returns for such players are nice, but not what could have been netted with tastier bait.

Toronto would not or could not play hardball with the ‘Muskoka Five,’ those players with no-trade clauses, and therefore lost franchise player Mats Sundin for nothing (whether he returns to Toronto now is irrelevant, since he could have been a ‘rent-a-player’ last year and come back as an unrestricted free agent this season).

Yes, the Burke Regime will be intriguing. If he maintains his pedigree, there will be no sacred cows on the Buds’ roster and there will be feather-ruffling come spring. Can you imagine a Leafs blueline not anchored by Tomas Kaberle? What about a forward corps absent of twin towers Nik Antropov and Alexei Ponikarovsky?

Based on early play, Curtis Joseph will not return as backup goaltender next season and Marlies prospect Justin Pogge has done nothing to prove he is the heir apparent to Vesa Toskala.

Toskala himself has been no Johnny Bower himself, lately. So once again the question becomes, how far does the model get blown up as this season goes on? The answer, of course, is: stay tuned.

This article also appears in the Toronto Metro newspaper.

Ryan Kennedy is a writer for The Hockey News magazine, the co-author of the book Hockey's Young Guns and a regular contributor to THN.com. His blog appears Monday and Wednesday, his column - The Straight Edge - every Friday, and his prospect-watch feature, The Hot List appears Tuesdays.

For more great profiles, news and views from the world of hockey, Subscribe to The Hockey News magazine.

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