TORONTO — Brian Burke vows that his duties as general manager of the U.S. Olympic team won’t take away from his similar role with the Maple Leafs.
And, really, the Olympics have to be the least of his worries these days, don’t they?
The team that his primary employer just finished a toothless six-day, two-game tour of Alberta during which it scored just once in each of two losses.
As the Leafs gradually fritter away the benefits of the recent recovery from their disastrous start, Burke is starting the process of determining the future of a large portion of the current roster.
The GM and his staff have begun evaluating the group of more than a dozen players whose contracts expire after the season. Agents will be approached and, for those players Burke feels are worth keeping around, a price tag will be set.
Others will be ignored as the second, and arguably most important, phase of the Burke-led Leafs’ rebuild begins.
“We targeted New Year’s as the first day to (discuss pending free agents),” Burke said. “We are going to do it quietly behind closed doors. If the players want to stay and the numbers are reasonable and we think they can make a contribution, we will sign them.”
The level of interest Burke has in the individual free agents to be — if any — will be apparent once those talks begin.
You can bet he won’t overpay for players he believes will have just a minimal role in his view of the future.
Those who overprice themselves, or don’t fit into Burke’s plans, will become currency at the trade deadline, which arrives just days after the Olympics conclude.
The list of unrestricted free agents on the Leafs includes forwards Lee Stempniak, Alexei Ponikarovsky, Matt Stajan, Wayne Primeau, Jamal Mayers and Rickard Wallin, plus defencemen Garnet Exelby and the injured Mike Van Ryn, as well as goaltender Vesa Toskala.
The restricted group has four notable members: Forwards John Mitchell and Nikolai Kulemin, defenceman Ian White and rookie goaltender Jonas Gustavsson.
It’s hard to imagine Burke sticking with more than a handful of the overall group, depending on how greedy the players and their agents get.
White, who earns $950,000 US, is the most worthy of a big raise as, through hard work and solid play, he has established himself as a top four defenceman with the Leafs.
Gustavsson, who by season’s end, or sooner, could be the clear No. 1 netminder, is another must-sign.
Depending on how thorough Burke wants to clean house, the rest will be up for debate.
There is still a chance the Leafs can make the playoffs, of course, but much of that has to do more with the fact that the Eastern Conference is so weak. The long-term must remain the focus.
The demoralizing trip to Alberta aside, for the most part the GM says he likes the work ethic of his team, especially in the past six weeks or so.
“Take out the first seven games, it’s a successful season,” Burke said. “But you can’t do that. Other than a couple of clunkers, I like our effort.
“I would like to stabilize the goaltending situation, have one guy emerge as a No. 1 and the other guy stay healthy and back up.”
Burke said any roster shuffles between the Leafs and Marlies will be based on merit rather than a desire to get prospects exposure to the NHL game.
“I’d prefer not to have a lot of movement,” Burke said. “The more stable your lineup is, the better chance you will have. We’ll have to see how it goes. It’s a fluid situation as far as I’m concerned.
“(Bringing up players) is not a priority. We’re trying to win hockey games.”
Both for today and in the future.