Leafs bolster blueline

ROB LONGLEY, SUN MEDIA

, Last Updated: 9:35 AM ET

As he so often does, Brian Burke offered perspective to his latest beefy personnel moves in the bluntest of terms.

The Maple Leafs general manager landed another wide body yesterday, signing free agent Francois Beauchemin to a three-year, $11-million US deal. And in adding the former Anaheim hard-nosed defenceman, a team that surrendered a league-high 293 goals this past season got that much tougher.

“If you look to upgrade on defence, goalies are always happy about that,” Burke said yesterday of his growing blueline corps. “They measure their chance for success by the (butts) they get to watch.

“(We have) better (butts) to watch than a year ago.”

With the signing Beauchemin — all 6-feet, 213 pounds of him — the Leafs defensive zone continued on its may to being dramatically more hostile than a year ago.

Add in another sturdy free-agent acquisition on July 1 in Mike Komisarek and big-hitting Garnett Exelby, who came from Atlanta in the Pavel Kubina deal and the foundation is rock solid. And that’s not including soon to be sophomore D-man, Luke Schenn.

“First and foremost we needed to make ourself bigger and change the tenor of our team,” Leafs coach Ron Wilson said when asked about the sculpting Burke and assistant Dave Nonis have done in the six days since NHL free agency began.

“People are already thinking, ‘boy you go across the blueline against the Leafs and this is a big defence and getting bigger.’”

Fair to say it made Burke sick in his half season as Leafs GM that he had to watch 19-year-old rookie Schenn do too much of the dirty work in front of Vesa Toskala. The Finnish goaltender didn’t help himself by hiding injuries and his own suspect play on too many nights, but it didn’t help that their wasn’t much muscle in front of him, either.

That is about to change for the better.

“I try to play an aggressive style, solid in the D zone and try to get guys caught with their head down in the neutral zone,” Beauchemin said yesterday. “I also try to contribute offensively when I get the chance.”

The acquisition of the Sorel, Quebec native added another missing piece to the Leafs roster: As one of 16 defencemen invited to Team Canada’s orientation camp this summer, Beauchemin is the only Toronto player currently with the chance to wear the red Maple Leaf at the Vancouver 2010 Olympics.

Beauchemin also recognizes the opportunity to break out of the shadow of Chris Pronger and Scott Niedermayer, a pair of all-star defencemen he played behind during his four seasons with the Ducks.

“I learned a lot from watching them play,” Beauchemin said. “Now it’s time from me to move (on) from that and show what I can do. I know what I can do. I don’t want to change anything ... just keep playing the way I have the last four years.”

The Beauchemin signing continued some solid off-season work by Burke and Nonis, although the team has yet to land a proven top six forward. To that end, Burke may be more ready to move Tomas Kaberle but also believes the muscle on defence will give younger forwards a chance to shine up front.

“You go into a hockey game with a toolbox and one of the tools is team toughness,” Burke said. “We don’t know how good (Mikhail) Grabovski or John Mitchell can be if we surround them with some toughness.

“I think we’ve made some dramatic changes and I’m looking forward to the season. We’re not done yet.”

rob.longley@sunmedia.ca


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