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HELENE ELLIOTT / ON THE NHL

For Maple Leafs, it's gloomy weather inside and out

GM Brian Burke admits he didn't think they would be struggling this much. But no, they won't be rebuilding through the draft as the Kings have done.

January 26, 2010|Helene Elliott

On The Nhl — Brian Burke's office is surprisingly small for a man of his physical and professional stature. Windows offer a view of a chilly, gray Toronto afternoon but the gloom is brightened by his children's drawings and family photos on his walls.

The personal side of his move from Anaheim, where he led the Ducks to the Stanley Cup in 2007, to Toronto and the job of president and general manager of the Maple Leafs has worked out fine. One daughter from his first marriage visited from Boston last weekend. Another will visit soon. His wife, Jennifer, a Canadian TV host, is back on the air. He's a constant presence for his two preschool-age daughters.

"It's all good family-wise," he said Monday.

Hockey-wise is another story.

The Maple Leafs, who will play host to the Kings tonight at the Air Canada Centre, rank 14th in the Eastern Conference and 28th in the NHL. They have the league's worst team goals-against average (3.36) and penalty killing (69.6%). They're 11 points out of a playoff spot, and Burke is preparing to buy and sell before the trade deadline.

"I didn't think we'd struggle like we're struggling right now, no, especially with the upgrades on defense," said Burke, who gave Mike Komisarek a five-year, $22.5-million contract and Francois Beauchemin a three-year, $11.4-million deal only to see each struggle to a minus nine defensive rating.

"We talked about playoffs as a goal. I thought it was realistic after our preseason. And it obviously looks remote right now."

His biggest deal -- acquiring 36-goal scorer Phil Kessel from Boston for two first-round draft picks and a second-round selection -- hasn't been a smash. But there are extenuating circumstances: Kessel's debut was delayed by shoulder surgery, and he has 15 goals and 30 points in 41 games.

"He hasn't struggled. We've struggled," Burke said. "He's generating scoring chances on his own. He's not getting scoring chances handed to him. He's getting double-teamed and triple-teamed and to me, when three guys go to one puck carrier, it leaves somebody open.

"I think as our team gets better and we get better puck distribution to him, he'll be fine."

That could be a while, especially without a first-round pick in the next two drafts. The Kings rebuilt through the draft, and it's paying off.

"All it points out it is you have to be patient," Toronto Coach Ron Wilson said of the Kings' ascent. "As much as everybody wants you to sprinkle magic dust and be good in two weeks' time, you can't. It might be two or three years."

Burke said he won't copy the strategy used by Kings General Manager Dean Lombardi. Burke is sticking to the blueprint that worked when he made the Ducks big and tough and transformed their defense into a versatile and formidable unit.

"That being said, I think what Dean has done with the Kings is remarkable," Burke said. "But we've taken a different tack here in that we don't intend to pick second or third overall and build that way."

He must make his smallish team bigger and stronger and he's lucky to have cap space and the budget to acquire impact players who can accelerate the process. But for the short term, the Maple Leafs will endure days made gloomy by causes besides dreary weather.

"I didn't believe that we'd be able to fix it overnight," Burke said, "but this year has been discouraging."

Outside looking in

Detroit isn't accustomed to having to compete for a playoff spot, but injuries and inconsistencies have taken a toll on last season's Western Conference champion.

The Red Wings cracked the top eight briefly last week but losing to the Kings on Saturday -- the third consecutive game in which they squandered a third-period lead -- dumped them to ninth. They moved back into eighth on Monday after Calgary lost.

"I can honestly say in the middle or end of January we've never been in this situation before," veteran forward Kris Draper said. "We got beat up. We weren't scoring a lot of goals and we weren't winning a lot of games. But we're right in the mix right now."

And maybe ready to make a move because winger Tomas Holmstrom (broken foot) and defenseman Niklas Kronwall (sprained knee) are expected back soon.

"We're definitely not where we want to be and it's a little bit of a different scenario than last year's but we're not that far out and it's up to us to play the way we're capable of playing," forward Kirk Maltby said.

"If we can, which is very possible, get into that fourth or fifth spot . . . I don't think a lot of teams are going to want to get us in the first round. But for us it's about getting healthy, getting going and playing the way we're capable of. If we play like we have the last little bit and continue that for the rest of the year we definitely have a chance to get into that fourth or fifth spot."

helene.elliott@latimes.com

twitter.com/helenenothelen

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