July 1, 2010
Leafs likely to go trade route
By ROB LONGLEY, QMI Agency
When you have missed the playoffs for a fifth consecutive season and are void of high draft picks, there’s not much hope to sell in an NHL off season.
So many Maple Leafs fans will buy into the notion that Canada Day truly could be free-agent frenzy for the team and that their wheeling-dealing general manager will somehow do something to spin this thing around.
Reality, on the other hand, is considerably more sobering.
The inherent problem with such optimism (desperation?) is that even if Burke has the best free-agent day in the history of NHL general managers, miracle fixes are not forthcoming.
Burke showed late Wednesday his willingness to belly up to the table when he acquired forward Kris Versteeg from the Stanley Cup champion Chicago Blackhawks in a deal that must be scored as an immediate upgrade.
As for the big day, the bold Leafs president has wisely stayed away from tipping his hand regarding free agency. If the consensus speculation is true, however, Burke has next to no interest in the one true impact player available.
That would be Ilya Kovalchuk, who is not a Burke player on a couple of crucial counts.
For one, he is expensive, both in terms of money and term and for another, his Euro diva act doesn’t seem to mesh with the type of character he is trying to create in the Leafs’ dressing room.
That said, Burke has maintained he will be active Thursday and, as we saw the previous night, you can take that to the bank.
He can still have a big day too, but given the state of his current team and the dearth and depth of quality available on this year’s bear market, don’t expect the world.
Rather than the highlight appeal of Kovalchuk, it is expected the Leafs will go for more little victories like the Versteeg acquisition, consequently upgrading the quality of the roster.
For sure, Canada Day 2010 promises to be a quieter affair than a year ago. You will remember that Burke spent the first day of free agency in Sweden in a futile attempt to nab the Sedin twins.
That didn’t stop Burke and Nonis from making a splash, however. Desperate for help on the back end, Mike Komisarek was signed as was fighting forward Colton Orr. Five days later, former Anaheim D-man Francois Beauchemin was added and some $10 million later, Burke’s first free agent foray as Leafs GM had to be considered at least a modest success.
This year, his options are limited, which is why Burke and Nonis seem as focussed on possible trades as free-agent signings.
Meanwhile, events from around the league may go a long way in determining whether Burke decides to move defenceman Tomas Kaberle and that could take a few days or more as well.
The obvious priority is some immediate help offensively and again Burke has been vocal in his message that it will take at least a top-six forward and probably more to pry away Kaberle.
So what will catch the Leafs eye when the much-anticipated process officially begins at high noon? Among forwards, Phoenix’s Matthew Lombardi and Atlanta’s Colby Armstrong are both players that are young enough and can contribute and it’s hard to image the Leafs not at least kicking the tires.
Even though there is strength at the rear of the roster, it wouldn’t be a shock if Burke made a pitch for Dan Hamhuis (if he is still available). And if you want a hunch play, how about New Jersey’s Paul Martin, a player Leafs coach Ron Wilson loved when he coached the U.S. team at the Vancouver Olympics and is a slick, puck-moving blue liner.
Now that it’s here, at least the free agency rumours will begin to turn to fact. And as Burke readily will tell you, a team that finished 29th can take help any way and anywhere it can get it.