Kessel pursuit resumes

LANCE HORNBY, SUN MEDIA

, Last Updated: 9:10 AM ET

Staring at a huge hole in the depth chart at forward -- and with coach Ron Wilson uncomfortable discussing who his top line might include -- Brian Burke again has turned his gaze towards Phil Kessel.

Whether the Maple Leafs general manager takes the conventional trade route with Kessel, or goes where many teams fear to tread and sign him as an restricted free agent, remains to be seen.

But Burke, who is now talking openly of chasing a playoff spot a season after most hockey minds saw a patient five-year rebuild as the only way up, is taking one last stab at making a deal with his salary cap-challenged comrade Peter Chiarelli in Boston, before NHL camps convene later this week.

The Bruins are within $2 million US of the $56.8-million salary cap, while Kessel is believed to be looking for in excess of $4 million per season.

It is believed, however, they would match any offer sheet and try to stay under the cap by any other means.

A late-afternoon call between Burke and Chiarelli did not move a potential deal along. Beyond Saturday, Burke thinks no club will be in dealing mode until after pre-season games determine team strengths and weaknesses.

Burke played coy with the media yesterday, agreeing his weekend trade for a 2010 second-rounder puts him "in position to influence things that might happen" with a first, second and third pick to compensate a team's RFA.

But he also said: "I do not contemplate an offer sheet with Phil at this time" and said he might eventually trade one of those high picks for a scorer or one of his surplus defencemen. That would exclude Tomas Kaberle, unless he waives his re-activated no-trade clause.

Burke also ruled out any more surprise comeback guests at this camp after granting a tryout to Jason Allison.

Kessel, with 36 goals for the Bruins on a line with 88-point centre Marc Savard, would be hard-pressed to equal that total here. The trading of Nik Antropov and Dominic Moore last season leaves Matt Stajan and Mikhail Grabovski as the returning veteran centres, battling young eager beavers such as John Mitchell.

To those who would brand Burke a hypocrite for pursuing Kessel when he objected loud and long to Kevin Lowe's seizure of RFA Dustin Penner in the Oilers-Ducks signing war in 2007, Burke said the two cases are quite different.

"My objection was I got blind-sided by (the offer sheet). Also, I objected to the player targeted and the amount paid (five years at more than $21 million after Penner had made the league minimum for Anaheim), which is a matter of judgement.

"But I pointed out at the time I supported offer sheets. That's in the CBA.

"This entire process involved dialogue with Peter, to the point where I told him I was thinking about re-acquiring the pick and telling him the night before I got it back. It's a professional courtesy that wasn't extended to me (by Lowe)."

Coach Wilson also was in a chatty mood yesterday at the opening of the Leafs' new practice facility, until asked about candidates for the Leafs' top line.

"I'm not going to go there, I haven't even written anything down," he claimed.

"You do need guys who are creative and who make guys around them better. But that's Brian's job, I'll take whatever I have and work with it."

LANCE.HORNBY@SUNMEDIA.CA


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