Brian Burke made it clear from the outset of this sleepy summer free agency period that Ilya Kovalchuk was never a threat to become a Maple Leaf.
If pressed, he might even have forwarded a laundry list of reasons why he wasn’t interested in the talented but ridiculously pricey Russian.
That doesn’t mean that the finally signed sniper won’t have a significant impact on Burke’s plans to add the cherry piece to what so far has been a productive off-season.
After weeks of waffling, on Monday Kovalchuk finally ended the drama that has been handcuffing too many NHL general managers since the July 1 opening bell of free agency. His monster deal, reported to be worth $102 million U.S. over 17 years, was a big order of business that needed to be cleared before other GMs could start pushing chips to the centre of the table.
For convenience purposes, Burke would have preferred that the Kovalchuk deal had been done a couple of weeks earlier given he is about to leave on his annual Western Canada vacation.
Safe to say Burke won’t be hanging out the “Gone Fishin’” sign, however as the second phase of free agency rolls out.
“Pieces on the chess board will begin to move a bit now,” Burke said Monday in response to a question regarding the potential impact of the Kovalchuk signing.
Just how much they move could go a long way towards determining whether a good
off-season of activity by the Leafs brass moves to a significantly better grade.
So far, Burke has acquired a fourth-line winger (Mike Brown) via a draft day trade, a third-line forward (Colby Armstrong) through free agency and what should be a solid second-liner in Stanley Cup champion forward, Kris Versteeg, another trade acquisition.
Factor in some other minor acquisitions and it has been a busy if not blockbuster summer so far for Burke. But here’s the deal: Draft day or free agency were never going to be major components of this chapter of the rebuild.
In Kaberle, Burke has his biggest chance to get his most significant upgrade, which is why what happens over the next week or more has potentially serious implications.
On Monday, the Leafs’ GM confirmed that he has so far received six offers for Kaberle, presumably of varying degrees in quality and quantity. The hope, from Burke’s chair, is that those offers get sweeter in the days ahead.
Of the potential suitors, Los Angeles is certainly among the most interesting. After losing out on Kovalchuk and Flyers forward Simon Gagne, who was shipped to Tampa on Monday, the Kings must now look elsewhere to improve.
As a team just a piece or two away from being a serious power in the West and one that could use a pure puck-moving defenceman like Kaberle to accompany Drew Doughty, you can bet GM Dean Lombardi will be interested.
(Who knows if it’s a realistic option, but how intriguing would it be if Burke made a serious play for Brayden Schenn, brother of Luke and a big centre who the Kings used with their first-round pick in 2009? There has been some suggestion that Schenn has a shot at being second-line centre in L.A., however and Lombardi may deem him untouchable.)
“The thing you don’t do is panic and go out and grab somebody,” Lombardi told the Los Angeles Times on Monday. “As far as I’m concerned we’re still right on schedule. We talked about being a couple players away — somebody else will come up.”
Whether Kaberle is a candidate remains to be seen, but Burke has maintained that any transaction regarding the Czech defenceman will not come in auction form.
This is not like selling your home, lining up the bidders and taking the most lucrative offer. But if the asking price comes close to being met, it’s hard to envision Kaberle playing another game as a Leaf.