August 17, 2010
Confident Burke opens up about Maple Leafs
By STEVE SIMMONS, QMI Agency
An introspective Brian Burke has admitted he could have traded Tomas Kaberle by Sunday night and could have acquired a “top six” forward for the veteran defenceman.
But he wasn’t about to make a deal he couldn’t live with.
“The whole thing ended up being easier than I thought it would be,” said Burke, who expected to have to make a tough decision on dealing Kaberle at the end of his no-trade availability.
“But we didn’t get any offer that made it difficult to consider. We said, back at the draft, this is not an auction. We’re not going to move him for the best offer. It has to make sense for us.
“We could have come up with a top six forward. There were some out there, believe me. We could have overpaid. There were some bad contracts out there. We could have made a bad deal. We didn’t want to do that.”
It is not the end of the world for the Maple Leafs but it is hardly nirvana either.
Yesterday, this was a challenged hockey team.
Today, it remains just that.
With Kaberle in the lineup, they have a skilled offensive defenceman who is rarely a difference maker.
Without him, they have a defence deep enough to compete well at the NHL level.
The whole Kaberle dance turned out to be much ado about nothing but whether he says this for public consumption or not, Burke has been a Kaberle fan since the beginning of these questions.
He likes the player, the person, the skill level, the size of contract: Everything about him but the fact he doesn’t win and seems content not winning.
He didn’t say that: I did.
Burke has intentionally rid himself of many longtime Leafs — “Where did they get us? Twenty-ninth place? — but Kaberle wasn’t as easy to convert into anything resembling gold.
“We were never close to make any deal for him,” said Burke. “We didn’t really have to make any kind of decision because there was no decision to make. I don’t know why the offers weren’t what they needed to be. But we weren’t about to give this guy away.”
Next month at training camp, Burke will sit down with player agent, Rick Curran, and talk about a contract extension for Kaberle. Maybe the last contract of Kaberle’s career.
Should he come in at reasonable numbers, Burke will likely sign him again. If the numbers are too high — and if teams weren’t willing to pay for him at $4.25 million, why would they go higher in the future? — then Burke will let him take on free agency.
And he won’t — as he steadfastly and stubbornly adhered to — ask Kaberle to waive his no-trade arrangement during the season, or close to the league trade deadline.
He should but he won’t.
“If they ask, that’s a different issue,” said Burke.
“I will not ask a player to waive a no-trade arrangement. I’m bound by that. But if he wants to give me a list, that’s different.”
Another year with coach Ron Wilson and by February, who knows, Kaberle may well be drawing up a list.
But until then, he’ll be one of eight NHL defencemen going to camp with the Maple Leafs next month, seven of them more than capable of playing full-time in the league.
“I’ll put that group of 1 through 8 against anybody in hockey,” said Burke.
“That’s as good as anybody’s got.”
It is as deep as other NHL teams are on defence, but just how good will have to be proven considering the Leafs have been among the worst defensive teams in hockey in recent seasons.
Burke points to January 31 of this year as being something of a turning point for the franchise.
It was the day the Leafs traded for Dion Phaneuf and J.S. Giguere.
Just as importantly, it was the day they traded away Vesa Toskala and Jason Blake and Matt Stajan and Ian White and Niklas Hagman and Jamal Mayers.
“From that point on, we had the seventh-best record in the East. And that includes our swoon at the end (when they finished 2-and-5). One of the reasons I’m so encouraged is Luke Schenn. He’s up to 235 pounds. He looked great in the second half for us.
“In the last 20 games, I thought he was our best defenceman, better than Dion (Phaneuf). His game really took off.
“You look at the defence. (Mike) Komisarek missed half the year. (Francois) Beauchemin tried to do too much and didn’t play the way he can. I think they’re vital for our team. They both toiled in shadows on other teams and all of a sudden they’re big names making big dough and they tried to be players they weren’t.
“They both had poor starts. Now I look at our defence as the lynchpin of the team and we bring in Giguere and two things happen. One, he’s an upgrade on our goaltending and two, he’s had a positive affect on The Monster (Jonas Gustavsson).”
Burke included Carl Gunnarsson amongst the players he’s impressed with and looking for better things.
And with Kaberle, that leaves the Leafs with a solid six-man blueline before you even include free-agent signing, Brett Lebda.
For the record, Burke didn’t mention Jeff Finger, nor was he asked about him.
The assumption is that Finger will be shipped to the minors should the Leafs feel they need the necessary salary-cap room come October.
But in the wake of the Kaberle heat and another noisy episode ending in silence, Burke remains characteristically optimistic.
He’s still talking loud and proud, understanding the challenge of just how far away the Leafs remain from being the team he envisions them to be.
And he does admit, with typical Burke from-the-heart honesty, there is a sense of frustration with that, brought on by his own impatience, his steadfast belief in his methods, his absolute conviction that his way will in fact be the right way over time.
This has to be an improved season for the Leafs or Burke’s reputation, already being challenged, will face serious doubts.
“I’ve been able to move the needle on every team I’ve taken over by insisting on a higher level of performance, by pushing people,” said Burke.
“This is the first group I was unable to move the needle with by shaming people, challenging people, getting them to raise their games. I’ve always been able to do that.
“This has been the hardest thing about this job.
“But I believe January 31 will go down as a critical day in the timeline of this team. That’s when things started to change. You could see it.
“We have a lot of things to look forward to. We’ve got better goaltending. We’ve got a better defence. We’ve got (Phil) Kessel healthy for a full season. You add in (Kris) Versteeg and (Colby) Armstrong. Our most improved young forwards, (Tyler) Bozak and (Nikolai) Kulemin, should be better.
“We’re not where we want to be, but we’re getting there.”