Leafs calm despite free agent frenzy

Leafs general manager Brian Burke at the year-end press conference which at the Air Canada Centre...

Leafs general manager Brian Burke at the year-end press conference which at the Air Canada Centre on April 12, 2011. (MICHAEL PEAKE/QMI Agency)

ROB LONGLEY, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 10:43 PM ET

If you didn't know that July 1st was the most overdone day in hockey, remember the case of Rick Nash and his would-be career as the next great Maple Leaf.

A little less than a year before he was even to become a free agent, the crazies already had him in blue and white.

Months before he actually became a free agent, of course, the Columbus Jackets zipped up Nash on a long-term extension and it was on to the next frenzy of speculation.

Over the past few days, we've heard some wild talk around Tampa Bay Lightning superstar Steven Stamkos, even though he is a restricted free agent and thus much tougher to land.

Nothing to see here, folks, keep moving. Barring a seismic shift, Stamkos isn't leaving the Sunshine State any time soon.

So while Leafs general manager Brian Burke has vowed his team was going to be active on July 1, his right-hand man made sure such a proclamation comes with an asterisk.

"July 1 is a great time to augment your lineup," said Dave Nonis, the Leafs' senior vice-president of hockey operations. "It's not a great time to build your team."

No truer words have been spoken given the options available this year.

It's unlikely there will be much foundation building over the next 48 hours and beyond, especially if a team's needs far outweigh what's available on the soon to be open market. And unless the Leafs land Dallas centre Brad Richards (who will get overpaid wherever he ends up), whatever they do over the next 48 hours is more likely to be of minor impact.

And consider this: Beyond Richards, it is not a stretch to suggest the second-best player that will be free and available on July 1 will be former Leafs defenceman Tomas Kaberle (with apologies to Christian Ehrhoff.)

So we welcome you to Burke's world since he took over as president and general manager of the Leafs.

This will be his third summer shopping and in each, the pickings have been as slim as the Leafs' power-play percentage.

Two Canada Days ago, the "haul" included Mike Komisarek (who has struggled in two seasons as a Leaf), Colton Orr (whose status as an enforcer is in jeopardy because of a head injury last season) and Garnet Exelby (who was often a healthy scratch.)

The team later added Francois Beauchemin, who never lived up to expectations but in a subsequent trade with Anaheim this past winter at least brought in forward Joffrey Lupul and highly-touted blueline prospect Jake Gardiner.

What were the options that got away? Well, you will remember that Burke went to Sweden ostensibly in an attempt to sign the Sedin twins when the free agency bell rang and came home empty handed and later faced a tampering charge for comments made by his coach, Ron Wilson.

Hindsight shows that the five years and $22.5 million the Leafs paid for Komisarek would have been better spent on getting Mike Cammalleri, who signed a five-year, $30-million deal with Montreal. At the time though, that verdict would have been far less clear.

A year ago, the options were considerably less attractive.

It started when Patrick Marleau was locked up by the Sharks before he made it to fee agency, as did teammate Joe Pavelski.

There was talk the Leafs would be interested in Bruins centre Marc Savard but the risk, given his history of concussions, was seen as too high. Good call there, obviously.

Burke did land Colby Armstrong who, when he wasn't injured, had a significant impact on the young team. On June 30, he acquired Kris Versteeg who was subsequently shipped to Philadelphia for the first-round pick the Leafs used to select defenceman Stuart Percy last Friday at the 2011 NHL entry draft.

Which brings us back to the present, where it's probably unrealistic to expect much more than what Burke has delivered in his first two summers here.

The Leafs have just south of $19 million in cap space and even with some serious restricted free agents to sign (hello Luke Schenn and maybe you too, Clarke MacArthur) they have some room to spend. The free-agent shelves, unfortunately, are nearly bare and you can't blame Burke for that.

You have to believe the Leafs will be in on Richards, but if the price gets too high expect the Leafs to fold. He may kick the tires on Ehrhoff as well, but need on the blueline isn't at the crisis point right now.

Once again for the Leafs, getting an impact player in the off-season may have to come via trade. And we know that Burke is ready to play that game as well.

rob.longley@sunmedia.ca

twitter.com/longleysunsport


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