Leafs may have to part ways with defenceman Gardiner

Maple Leafs general manager Brian Burke may have to deal defenceman Jake Gardiner if he wants to...

Maple Leafs general manager Brian Burke may have to deal defenceman Jake Gardiner if he wants to pull off a blockbuster trade. (QMI Agency file photo)

TERRY KOSHAN, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 3:12 AM ET

TORONTO - If Maple Leafs general manager Brian Burke is serious about making a splash this week with a big trade, he is going to have to think long and hard about parting with defenceman Jake Gardiner.

That’s the feeling of several National Hockey League scouts who have had more than a few looks at the Leafs’ group of prospects, whether it’s with the big club, the Marlies, or at the junior or collegiate level.

And if the Leafs put a lot of stock in their young group, it’s clear that not every one agrees that Toronto is brimming with bluechip youngsters.

“Gardiner would be the top guy,” a Western Conference scout said. “Two or three years ago, I would have said Luke Schenn. But he has not made that next step.

“For me, Joe Colborne would be the next guy after Gardiner, but to a lesser degree. Nazem Kadri still hasn’t shown he can play with men yet.

“To do something significant, the guy he would probably have to give up is Gardiner.”

If the Leafs have concrete designs on Rick Nash or Jordan Staal, Gardiner almost certainly would have to be part of the package. Burke might get away with not using Gardiner in a swap with the Vancouver Canucks to acquire goaltender Roberto Luongo, but he still would have to attempt to find a No. 1 centre.

Gardiner surprised all with his NHL rookie season in 2011-12, playing in 75 games and recording 30 points (seven goals and 23 assists). No other freshman defenceman had as many points as Gardiner.

Gardiner, who turns 22 on July 4, then frustrated opposing teams in the Marlies’ Calder Cup run during the AHL playoffs with his smarts and ability to deke out of trouble. It’s not hard to see why Burke is loathe to trade the Minnesota native.

Burke is in a spot that few of his colleagues envy. He wants to make the Leafs, 13th-pace finishers in the Eastern Conference, better — obviously, he has no choice — and is on record as saying that he will be active in the trade market. There’s no other avenue for Burke, as the free-agent pool is thin, and there has not been much speculation linking the Leafs to either of the top two players on track to be available on July 1 — New Jersey Devils winger Zach Parise and Nashville Predators defenceman Ryan Suter.

Where Burke has zero interest in trading Gardiner, many figure he would be amenable to trading Schenn. Not that he necessarily is looking to dump Schenn, mind you, but just that it would be easier to swallow than dealing Gardiner.

Burke has said he plans to hang on to the No. 5 pick, but if, for example, he wanted to pry the No. 1 pick from the Edmonton Oilers, Schenn and the fifth selection would not get it done. Gardiner and the fifth would bring such a deal closer to reality.

There’s another possible reason why Burke would not be willing to move Gardiner.

“A lot of teams are concerned about what the new CBA is going to bring,” an Eastern Conference scout said. “There’s a level of nervousness around trading prospects because you might need them as they are going to be cheaper.”

Another scout concurred that Gardiner probably would have to be moved for Burke to make a major impact.

“I don’t mind Colborne and Kadri, but Gardiner would have to be the guy,” the scout said. “You look at their top four picks in the past two years — Tyler Biggs, Stuart Percy, Brad Ross, Greg McKegg — probably two of them make it. If you have one or two top prospects, other teams will lock in on them.”

Burke has been able to make trades in the past for Toronto that, either in hindsight or at the time, surprised many. Dion Phaneuf will forever have his critics, but the Leafs won that multi-player deal with the Calgary Flames hands down. Burke was able to unload the unhappy and expensive Jason Blake. Would Burke re-do the deal that brought Gardiner and Joffrey Lupul to Toronto for Francois Beauchemin? Of course. Would Anaheim? Unlikely.

Burke knows that Gardiner represents a building block for the Leafs’ future. But he also knows that his refusal to trade Gardiner might keep him from making the best deal possible. Burke’s decision on Gardiner, either way, will have a large impact in 2012-13 and the seasons that immediately follow.


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