June 26, 2011
Leafs' next stop: Free agencyBurke likes who Leafs drafted, but now comes true test
By ROB LONGLEY, QMI Agency
ST. PAUL, MINN. - Brian Burke knows he’s singing the same tune as the 29 others in the choir of NHL general managers when he can give a two-day business trip to the Twin Cities a rave review.
But what else is he supposed to say?
Whatever was, or was not, accomplished at the 2011 NHL entry draft here won’t accurately be evaluated for another three years or longer and, for all the dreamy promise, the urgency of other business awaits.
“We’re pretty happy with the trip here to Minnesota,” Burke said at the conclusion of the seven-round draft that saw the team make two first-round picks on Friday and add seven more prospects sprinkled through Rounds 2 and 7 on Saturday.
“We try to identify, and we don’t always get it right, but our big focus is on character. Every team says that, but it’s part of our DNA.”
The early look at the DNA certainly seems promising, especially based on the team’s Friday picks — big forward Tyler Biggs and promising blueliner Stuart Percy — plus the non-draft moves from the same night.
Getting puck-moving defenceman John-Michael Liles from Colorado for a song sure looks good, as does the signing of Rick Dudley to the management team, an addition that will further elevate the team’s talent evaluation.
However, with patience long since worn thin over the team’s lack of success in recent years, Burke and crew are hoping to have a busy week to try to make the present look a little brighter as well.
The Leafs are now on the clock for the July 1 free-agency period that probably won’t be as easy to make a big impact as they might hope.
“We plan to be active on July 1st,” Burke said. “We have to see who gets there first. Some guys are going to sign.
“We make no secret about it. We have two drafts — one draft now and one draft on July 1st. We’ve been active each year and we plan to be again.”
Of course, just how active they can be remains to be seen. Burke can’t tip his hand on who he likes or doesn’t but we’re guessing that unless the price on Dallas centre Brad Richards is reasonable, both in money and length, the top prize of this year’s FA class may not be within reach.
Depending on what you believe, Burke may also have missed out on the other Richards, former Flyer Mike, who was traded to Los Angeles on Thursday. All indications are that the Leafs were in serious discussions with the Flyers, who apparently were asking for both Nazem Kadri and Nikolai Kulemin.
On Saturday, Burke said he’ll be busy this week both working on a trade and free agency to get some much needed help, particularly up front.
“We’re going to knock on both of those doors so we’ll see,” Burke said.
Back to the draft, the Leafs hope they made good use of the seven selections taken from Rounds 2 to 7, with most of those players classified as long-term prospects.
The first pick Saturday was Sudbury Wolves forward Josh Leivo (at 86), a late-bloomer who had a big OHL playoff run and figures to continue his improvement.
There was also a Swedish defenceman (Tom Nilson at 100) and a goaltender, Guelph Storm’s Garret Sparks with their last pick at 190 plus a pair of Minnesota high schoolers and more.
All of the players selected this weekend will be asked to report to a development camp at the MasterCard Centre next weekend.
“Obviously everybody is happy when they leave here but we like a lot of the guys that we took, which is important and we like a lot of the developmental upside with some of the players,” Leafs head scout Dave Morrison said. “I think we got a lot of different things.”
With player development personnel such as Jim Hughes and Bobby Carpenter plus coach Dallas Eakins minding the farm with the Marlies, the Leafs believe that if given the time, they can take raw talent and refine it into future prospects.
“I think as a staff we are feeling a lot more comfortable in who we can take and how much work we can put into them,” Morrison said. “We might take a player that’s a little bit of a higher risk, but there may just be a higher reward at the end of the day.”