|The Montreal Canadians have lured Brandon Prust. (REUTERS)
TORONTO - Brian Burke gave fair warning that the Maple Leafs would watch the Canada Day fireworks instead of light them.
But when the smoke cleared, the mean streets of the Eastern Conference, the Northeast Division in particular, became more dodgy for his team’s path back to playoff turf. Six-foot-one free agent checking centre Jay McClement could turn out to be a useful late-day pick-up on Sunday, but other National Hockey League teams were bolder.
From far too petite up front a couple of years ago, Montreal keeps putting more grit in its lineup. New general manager Marc Bergevin and ex-Leafs assistant Rick Dudley added more Sunday with one player Toronto dropped the day before, Colby Armstrong, and another the Leafs had coveted in Brandon Prust.
Small-market Ottawa, which shocked a few teams by bidding for the big-name free agents, was denied in that respect, but still made moves, trading for Marc Methot to strengthen the back line. And though it lost some clout in Zenon Konopka and Nick Foligno (moved to Columbus for Methot), the Sens brought back UFA Guillaume Latendresse close to his Quebec roots and where he was so effective for the Habs early in his career. If Latendresse’s concussion problems are indeed behind him and free agent Mike Lundin is past his sports hernia problem, the Sens should at least protect last year’s eighth seed.
The other Northeast squads, Boston and Buffalo, were quiet on Sunday, the Bruins affording to lay low with a deep roster and the Sabres still counting on last year’s major lineup changes to make a difference. For others on the Lower East Side, going back to moves last week at the draft, few have sat still. There’s no denying Carolina, with two Staals in the lineup, won’t end up behind the Leafs and anyone with set goaltending, which the Leafs don’t have yet, must be ranked ahead in the chase for eighth.
But Toronto’s GM, who made the significant trade for James van Riemsdyk nine days ago, did not feel he had been left behind at the starting gate at noon Sunday.
“I think the first time I gave this rant was 1998, maybe ’99, but I believe our group (of GMs) makes more mistakes on July 1 than the rest of the year combined,” Burke said Sunday night. “I think we hand out contracts with unrealistic value and unrealistic terms. These are things that in a hard cap system, will bite you right in the butt at some point.
“Maybe I’m out of step, but a bunch of teams did nothing today or waited until late in the day and signed sensible deals. It’s not hard (to resist temptation). A year ago I was in Afghanistan, watching those deals come across the wire. This is what the agent wanted for this (example player), four years at $3 million and I said, ‘No, we’re not doing that.’ Same thing today, I’m checking my Blackberry, it’s going off every 30 seconds. You want in on this deal, ‘no’, that deal, ‘no’.
Fair enough, but if one of those deals turns out to impact the Leafs’ playoff chances — seven years missed and counting — Burke’s words will ring very hollow.
Though there was more action on Sunday than perhaps some people thought, few players of renown were signed.
“So I’m not surprised we weren’t able to do more,” Burke said. “We could have, we have space, we have money and ownership (the changing board of drectors of Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment) has authorized us to spend (to the cap). I just don’t think (this year’s crop) is a prudent way to spend money and I felt the same way a year ago.
“We still need to get bigger, still need to solve or upgrade the goaltending situation and we’re still looking to upgrade at centre if we can. That decision might be internal, it might be a Marlies’ player. But as I said at the draft, this is a chain of events that goes on in the summer and I’m not discouraged at all.
“I felt all along we would have to address these things through trade and that’s how we’re going to have to do them.”
Burke didn’t get into Roberto Luongo at all, but that is one dance that might go the whole summer. If Vancouver can’t move him to Florida, his most desired destination, and he still wants to be a No. 1, then coming to the Leafs with their cap space and hole in the crease might be his only recourse.
“We’re not done,” promised Burke.
At least one more star burst is needed.