Leafs could still make late-season run

ROB LONGLEY, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 11:47 PM ET

TORONTO - He is careful in his wording, but a translator certainly wasn’t necessary to figure out that Brian Burke cares a lot more about the future than he does the present.

And in trading defenceman Tomas Kaberle to the Boston Bruins on Friday, mercifully ending what is now years of speculation, the big general manager all but ensured that your 2013 Toronto Maple Leafs have a lot more promise than the plucky current version.

But what about today? What about the flirtation with the 2010-11 Eastern Conference playoffs, however remote it is?

With Francois Beauchemin, Kris Versteeg and now Kaberle out of town in the latest Burke housecleaning binge, will the recent surge, that had the team six points out of the playoffs prior Friday night, come to an end?

First to Burke.

“Getting into the playoffs by the skin of your teeth and getting your ass kicked in the first round is not my idea of building a championship team,” the GM said forcefully at his late afternoon Air Canada Centre practice.

“We’re trying to get in the playoffs the right way. We’re not conceding the last spot. I believe we can put someone back in the lineup that can continue that momentum. I think our players know we are not throwing in the towel.”

While it’s difficult to ship three players who began 2010-11 campaign as significant pieces of your roster and rely more on guys who began the same season as Toronto Marlies, the deals aren’t necessarily season killers.

Start with Kaberle, who admittedly might be the most difficult of the three to replace in the short term.

Initially, it looks like the team will call upon Carl Gunnarsson to be paired with Luke Schenn and it may be time for the second-year Swede to show some consistency. Yes, Kaberle could move the puck out of his own end, but he was often a liability in that zone.

When he’s on, Gunnarsson is arguably better defensively and while he has nowhere near Kaberle’s finesse, he can move it well when he’s playing with confidence.

Kaberle’s work on the power-play isn’t irreplaceable either. Sure, he had 22 assists with that unit, but only three goals overall and the Leafs have been awful with the man advantage for most of the past month. If Dion Phaneuf’s big shot can suddenly find the target, Kaberle will be missed even less.

“This is a guy who walks on July 1 for nothing,” Burke said of Kaberle and his pending unrestricted free-agent status. “We got a prospect and a first-round pick for him. You can score that any way you want.”

Who knows what went wrong with Versteeg, but it was clear he wasn’t having the impact the Leafs had hoped. Frustrated at getting most of his minutes on the third line, the former Chicago Blackhawk wasn’t working out as expected.

Joffrey Lupul hasn’t been here long enough to get a full evaluation, but he’s starting to make Phil Kessel look better and isn’t afraid to use his size, something sorely needed on a Burke-style team.

“I think Lupul has really helped us, even though he hasn’t scored yet,” Burke said. “I think he’s changed the way our team has played with his foot speed and size.

“(Versteeg) didn’t fit in here,” Burke said. “I don’t think that was giving up a lot for two picks. I think he’ll help Philly, but he didn’t provide the push here that we wanted.”

And finally, Beauchemin. While he ate up huge minutes most nights and was a steady influence, Beauchemin never stepped up to be the shutdown blueliner that was expected. Rookie Keith Aulie might not be there yet, but he has looked comfortable in the four games since being called up.

“In my mind, we felt Beauchemin was ready to be replaced by Keith Aulie,” Burke said of the deal that brought Lupul here from Anaheim. “If we didn’t think Aulie was ready, we wouldn’t have made that deal.”

Take Burke’s words at their worth — coming from a general manager who would have the natural tendency to rationalize any trade in his own favour. But taking that into account, how far were the Leafs headed with Kaberle, Versteeg and Beauchemin as key personnel? Not much farther, if at all, than without them.


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