Before the Maple Leafs screwed up against the Capitals, Brian Burke vowed his blueprint would not be blown up in a panic trade.
“We’ve spent three years putting together some depth here,” Burke told Hockey Night In Canada a half hour before the Leafs laid an egg against Washington. “We’re not going to blow it all up to try to squeak in the eighth spot.”
My how things have changed. A few weeks ago, Burke was talking boldly of a pre-deadline trade that could fortify the Leafs to shoot for the second round or beyond.
“I want to get in with a reasonable chance to (advance deep) or bloody someone’s nose while doing it,” he stated in January when everyone in the Eastern Conference except Boston and the Rangers were tripping over themselves. Burke even said draft picks and prospects could be on the table to hit a home run.
Now, he’s tempered expectations to the point where something small could be all that results from the next day and half of discussions. If he doesn’t want to put precious resources such as Jake Gardiner on the market, the Leafs will be waiting for Plan B or C deals that spin off other teams’ dealings.
Everyone will want to know about bringing in a goaltender by 3 p.m. Monday and James Reimer’s inability to make the big save, never mind if it’s a teammate’s fault, is huge cause for concern.
“I said specifically that we’re going to listen on goaltending,” Burke of stinging comments earlier this week about Reimer and Jonas Gustvasson.
“We haven’t seen anything that makes sense yet, but we’re going to continue to try to add.”
He said the Jeff Carter deal between Columbus and Los Angeles started a domino chain, but that seemed to have stopped by Friday.
“I haven’t seen an appreciable increase in activity since then,” Burke said. “Everyone’s working the phones like crazy. So far we haven’t had any tough calls to make.”
He said the Leafs are in an awkward position, not a clear buyer or seller, while others have more defined needs.
“Teams that think they’re close and are trying to load up, teams that are banged up and trying to patch holes, teams that have under-achieved ... we don’t fall in any of those categories. So from my perspective, we’re in the hunt. If we can add a piece that gives up a better shot at getting in the playoffs, we’re going to do it.”
Burke did confirm reports this week that the Mikhail Grabovski contract hit a snag — likely when Ales Hemsky and Tuomu Ruutu signed in the neighbourhod of $5 million a season. But he added that talks have not reached a state of animosity with agent Gary Greenstin that could see the potential UFA get a ticket out of town this week.
“He had a real poor start this year, he’s stumbling a bit right now,” Burke conceded. “But in between, he’s played some real good hockey and last year he was really good for us. We’d like to keep him. If we have a realistic chance of making the playoffs, we need him.
“I don’t intent to move him at this time. That could change, but I see him as a guy that we wait until the end of the year and see if we can sign him then.”
Grabovski is hardly the only Leaf labouring under off-ice pressures. The whole team is either negatively fixated on the trade deadline, hearing footsteps from teams behind them or afraid to read the paper or watch TV. After an 0-3 homestand, the crowd has been subjected to 2-0 deficits and are booing the players whose ballots they stuffed for the all-star game. The “fire Wilson” chants can’t be far behind.
Matt Frattin came up from the Marlies on Saturday and bumped Nikolai Kulemin from the second line for half the game, but he’s not going to cure the team malaise alone.
“I’m as guilty as the guy next to me,” defenceman John-Michael Liles said. “That’s not Maple Leaf hockey. I haven’t been here that long, but I know it’s not how you win.
“You can’t look for answers anywhere other than in this room. You hate to keep saying it as the season goes on, but there are a lot of games left (20). It’s up to everyone in here to make sure that we turn around and we’re ready to go Tuesday against Florida.”
Liles uttered that knowing some of the faces might have changed by then.
“The deadline is the deadline, part of what we do. Bottom line, you can get traded at any time. If we’re looking for some miracle (player) ... it’s not how to win games. We have to take it upon ourselves. We have the team to do it in here, we’ve done it a lot this season. It’s a matter of getting back to that.”
For some Leafs, and even the coach, time might already have run out.