Leafs coach excited to have new options

ROB LONGLEY, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 10:08 PM ET

The text message came from Maple Leafs coach Ron Wilson, a captivated observer in the efforts of his boss to make year three behind the bench less miserable.

Asked about the acquisition of forwards Kris Versteeg via trade and Colby Armstrong through free agency, Wilson clearly liked the new options available to him this fall.

“Established NHL players, excited,” Wilson texted in response. “Waiting to see if Santa brings more!”

General manager Brian Burke didn’t bring any more gifts at day’s end Thursday, but at least he had a promise to continue shopping for bargains in the days and weeks ahead.

“We’re not done yet,” Burke said before locking up the vault on an opening day of free agency. “Would we be happy going into the season with this group? We might have to, but we continue to look for upgrades through trade or whatever. We’re not done.”

He better not be done, of course, if the Leafs are to have a better than reasonable shot of making up the 14 points that distanced the NHL’s 29th place team from an Eastern Conference playoff spot this past spring.

In Armstrong, Burke added a piece of the puzzle, if not a piece de resistance.

He is at worst a third-line winger and at best a situational player who can add some jump to the top two lines when the need arises. Versteeg, another forward acquired from Chicago late Wednesday is another upgrade, a player who might flourish with more ice time here.

The obvious, gaping hole is at centre, though Burke doesn’t seem stressed over it just yet. When Tyler Bozak, Mikhail Grabovski and Nazem Kadri are the top choices heading into training camp, there is clearly work to be done, however.

“Does the top six need some more firepower?” Burke said. “We will see if we can add to it.”

How he does so will be the next interesting poker hand to be played by the GM and assistant, Dave Nonis. The most obvious blue chip to play is defenceman Tomas Kaberle, a commodity Burke figures will draw more serious trade interest once the fury from the opening bell of free agency subsides.

The other avenue is to wait out the market. There were others who drew interest from the Leafs Thursday, but before the process began they attached a dollar value to all players on their radar.

While the Leafs may acquire more depth through free agency, another possibility is to swap with other teams that run into budget concerns over the next few weeks.

“We did not move on some of the big names, but we kept our finger on the pulse,” Burke said. “You can always sign guys if you give enough term and money. It doesn’t mean it’s a sensible signing.

“In my mind, it’s time to sit back and let the dust settle. We think we are a better hockey club today and we plan to continue to get better.”

As for the new faces, there remains the possibility that they can flourish and improve in their new environment. For example, given that Versteeg was productive as a third-liner with the ‘Hawks, what might he do as a second-liner with the Leafs?

“Obviously something I’d like to get is some more ice time and a bigger role,” Versteeg said. “I was playing behind a lot of players in Chicago so maybe I’ll be able to go out and play more minutes on the power play or wherever which can result in added production.”

“We think he’s a top six with us and that’s an upgrade,” Burke added. “He scored over 20 goals not playing top six minutes (in Chicago.) He’ll get better minutes with us and better situational ice time so I think that number will go up.”

Over the next week or so, the Leafs will see if there’s more where that came from.

rob.longley@sunmedia.ca


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