TORONTO - For almost two months last season, Brian Burke and Bob Murray or Dave Nonis and Murray kicked around the notion of how they were going to make a trade that would satisfy the needs of two teams apparently spinning their wheels.
Murray’s Anaheim Ducks wanted a veteran defenceman.
The Leafs wanted a defensive prospect from the Ducks.
That was the beginning of the talks that landed Jake Gardiner and what seemed to be a financial throw-in, Joffrey Lupul, in Toronto in a deal for Francois Beauchemin — a trade that has helped both teams grow.
“It was one of those deals that took longer than usual to put together,” said Nonis, the Leafs vice-president of hockey operations. “We were looking to move a defenceman with a salary. We were looking to get younger. We targeted Anaheim because they have a lot of depth in young defencemen. Because of the money involved, because of the some of the other concerns, it took a long time to get this done. But we kept coming back to them, they kept coming back to us. I guess you’d call it an ongoing conversation.
“It picked up a lot of steam at the world juniors in Buffalo.” And still, it took another month before it became official.
It didn’t necessarily seem that important a deal then. It seems rather significant right now.
Gardiner has been an absolute shock of a defenceman through the first few weeks of his rookie season, exceeding all expectations, including the Leafs’. Everybody in hockey keeps waiting for the fall, but he’s already shown a resilience beyond his age and experience.
That he would play somewhere down the road was expected, although not everybody in hockey believed Gardiner was a great prospect. The other surprise in the deal, short term, has been the quality of work put in by Lupul, who once was ticketed for stardom before injuries and illness took hold of his career. The truth on Lupul: The Leafs probably would have preferred to deal without acquiring his onerous contract.
But if Anaheim was bringing in the well paid Beachemin, they had to remove some salary from their roster. That salary belonged to Lupul and the reason the trade was made on Feb. 9 instead of earlier in January was that the longer the season went, the less the Leafs had to pay for Lupul that year.
“We had to figure out how the money fit,” said Nonis. “There was some risk with Lupul. We knew he had significant injuries, back injuries, blood infection. That’s another reason we waited. We wanted to see if he would get healthy and stay healthy. We weren’t as worried about his back as we were about the blood infection.
“I said to Bob. ‘Is there any issue health wise that I’m going to be mad at you later about?’ He said no. He told me he’s not going to fit into our top six forwards here. If he fits into your top six, it makes some sense.”
The first young defenceman the Leafs went after wasn’t necessarily Gardiner. While it can’t be confirmed, the Leafs might have had more interest in Justin Schultz, same age as Gardiner, who is still at Wisconsin and considered a candidate for the Hobey Baker Award, which goes to the top player in U.S. college hockey.
“They had a surplus of young defenceman,” said Nonis. “We wanted one back. We were comfortable with Jake.”
Against the Winnipeg Jets Wednesday night, Gardiner played 25 minutes and might have been the best player on the ice. By comparison, Luke Schenn, taken in the same draft, played half that time and the veteran Mike Komisarek just a little more than half.
“There’s no doubt he’s done a very good job,’ said Nonis. “I’d love to tell you we knew this was going to happen but I’d be lying to you. It may not last all year. It would not be uncommon for a young guy to have a real setback. But what I like is his confidence. This guy has ice in his veins.”
And Lupul sits in the top 10 among NHL scorers and has contributed to Phil Kessel’s early-season success in various ways.
“I think this trade got Anaheim in the playoffs last year,” said Nonis. And it may do the same for the Leafs this time around.