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THN.com Blog: New Leafs not better yet, but certainly nasty

Brian Burke said he wanted to make his team tougher and he's done just that so far this off-season. (Getty Images)

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Brian Burke said he wanted to make his team tougher and he's done just that so far this off-season. (Getty Images)

My son’s baseball coach is employing a tactic to make the kids more aggressive at the plate: anyone who watches a called third strike gets extra running after the game.

Seems GM Brian Burke is employing a similar philosophy with his Toronto Maple Leafs. If they’re going to fail, they’re going to go down swinging.

And there’s still reason to believe they’ll continue to flail in 2009-10. As one of my colleagues said to me July 2, the morning after the initial free agent frenzy, “Tell me how the Leafs are any better today than they were this time yesterday.”

They aren’t. At least not by any significant standard.

And that’s part of the beauty of what Burke and his lieutenants engineered on Canada Day. They did plenty without accomplishing much. At least, not in the short-term.

Whether by design or accident, they got busy and perhaps marginally improved their immediate future. Mike Komisarek, though he played below his high standards through the second half of last season and the playoffs, remains a blue-chipper and bolsters the blueline.

However, his presence, along with other newcomers Garnet Exelby and Colton Orr, coupled with the subtraction of Pavel Kubina – maybe the club’s best defender last season – keeps Toronto among the bottom-feeders.

And that’s exactly where they must be. The Leafs need another season of bad to “stay the course” in their long-term desire to get good. They need to draft high in 2010, acquire another prized asset and follow the tack the Pittsburghs, Chicagos and Washingtons have taken.

Of course, the aforementioned clubs also landed the first overall pick during their rebuilding processes and the Leafs may not be that bad…yet. Their fans can only dream.

Meantime, they can watch a team that finally has the genesis of an identity. Like it or not, the Leafs are turning nasty, a concept around which the team, the coach and a faction of its supporters can rally.

And, let’s not forget, they have plenty of cap space, which may not be critical this season, but will stand them in good stead for 2010-11. With a little more patience and continued prudent planning, that could be the point at which the franchise starts the long trek back to respectability.

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QUIET RIOT
Often, it’s the smaller, cheaper free agent signings that impact teams’ fortunes more than the heavy hitters. Here are three I like in terms of potential bang-for-buck ratio:

1. Craig Anderson, G, to Colorado
(two years, $1.8 million average). One of the league’s best backups last season – third in save percentage at .924 – could emerge as a serviceable No. 1 in Denver. At the price, the 28-year-old was a good gamble for a team not expected to contend next season.

2. Ian Laperriere, C, to Philadelphia
(three years, $1.17 million average). He’s not going to replace Mike Knuble’s goals, but he will help alleviate pressure on Mike Richards and Jeff Carter in penalty-kill and faceoff situations. His sandpaper abrasiveness will also be an asset come playoff time, and at 35, he brings veteran savvy.

3. Greg Zanon, D, to Minnesota
(three years, $1.93 million average). A solid No. 4 defenseman in Nashville, Zanon, 29, finished third in the league in blocked shots, a highly valued skill in today’s game. He’s a good fit on a blueline that already boasts Kim Johnsson, Brent Burns and Marek Zidlicky.

Jason Kay is the editor in chief of The Hockey News and a regular contributor to THN.com. His blog appears every Friday.

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

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