The message has been consistent, if not ringing a touch desperate.
“We’ve got to get better, now,” Maple Leafs general manager Brian Burke has said as if on a repeating loop over the past couple of weeks.
In his latest acquisition, on the eve of what has suddenly become an even more anticipated start to free agency Burke at least did that. And the best part is it didn’t take an act of desperation to make it happen.
Kris Versteeg may have been mostly a third-liner with the Chicago Blackhawks, but the Leafs will be a better team with him in October than they were without him in April.
Applying some reasonable hockey logic to the deal, which also brought prospect Bill Sweatt to the Leafs, it’s safe to say a third-liner on a Stanley Cup champion at least moves up one unit on a team that finished 29th in the standings and is desperate for top six bodies.
Yes, Burke paid a price for Versteeg, who was a valuable contributor throughout the Hawks’ Cup run, but you didn’t really think he would get something for nothing, did you?
The cost comes in the form of Viktor Stalberg, an incredibly gifted skater with flashes of offensive prowess. The problem was that those flashes were often too intermittent to be counted on and there was no guarantee the winger would be an impact player in 2010-11.
There is a better than good chance that Stalberg will be a front-line player one day, but the Leafs could ill afford to wait a season or more for it to happen.
In 40 games with the Leafs in his rookie season, the Swedish born and U.S. educated Stalberg (he played college hockey at the University of Vermont) scored nine goals. During that debut campaign, he went from first-liner, to third-liner to the Toronto Marlie and back, never establishing enough consistency in his game to win the steady confidence of coach Ron Wilson.
Also heading to Chicago are prospects Philippe Paradis, a rough and tumble forward who came to the Leafs from Carolina in the Jiri Tlusty deal. The Quebecer was destined for the Marlies next season and was a long-term project/prospect at best.
The other Chicago-bound player, Chris DiDomenico, was a great story in perseverance and dedication. The Woodbridge native was drafted by the Leafs in the sixth round of the 2007 draft and after signing an entry level deal with the Leafs in March, 2009, he suffered a broken femur in a junior game.
While some wondered if he would ever play again, DiDomenico worked doggedly with the Leafs training staff, maintaining a stall at the team’s Etobicoke practice facility. The recovery was far enough along for him to return to Drummondville of the QMJHL where he scored seven goals and 14 assists in 14 playoff games.
But he too was a project that was going to take some time and with a stable of developing prospects of a similar ilk, Burke clearly felt he could afford to part ways with the member of Canada’s gold medal-winning team at the 2009 world junior championship in Ottawa.
Versteeg, let’s be clear, won’t be confused as a sniper but was still seen as a valuable contributor to the Hawks and scored at least 20 goals in each of his past two seasons. His 44 points in 79 games included four game winners and followed a 53-point season in his rookie campaign a year ago.
Blackhawks GM Stan Bowman said Wednesday night that Versteeg was versatile enough to play all three forward positions, which certainly gives Leafs coach Ron Wilson some options.
By swinging a deal on the eve of free agency, Burke suddenly has some options as well. If he can land another top-six forward when the auction opens at noon on Thursday, then parlay Tomas Kaberle into an even more potent scorer, suddenly the forward portion of the roster doesn’t look so bleak.
A solid, if not quite spectacular, start to the most important few days of the Leafs’ off-season.