TORONTO - Given that he has no desire to trade Jake Gardiner, Maple Leafs general manager Brian Burke, one has to think, is looking at parting with at least a player or two off the club’s roster in the coming days or weeks.
Making trades to improve the Leafs is the way to go. Burke has said it as much himself, knowing a thin free-agent market has few attractive players that could come in and help the Leafs become a playoff contender.
When you manage a team that finished 13th in the Eastern Conference in 2011-12, a full dozen points short of the eighth and final playoff spot, few players on your roster would be deemed untouchable.
But there are a few Leafs who know they aren’t going anywhere. Captain Dion Phaneuf, forwards Phil Kessel, Joffrey Lupul and Mikhail Grabovski, defenceman John-Michael Liles, goaltender James Reimer — none of these young men have trouble sleeping at night because they’re worried they might be traded the next day.
For the rest of the Leafs outside of Gardiner, there is no such certainty. Defenceman Luke Schenn likely will be hearing rumours until the time comes that he actually is traded, though Burke would have to eat some fairly significant words that he uttered last September when he signed Schenn to a five-year contract.
“What you see is a classic, hard-nosed Canadian defenceman,” Burke said at the time. “Luke plays the game we all dream about finding players to play that way. He plays hard, is hard to play against, he finishes his checks.”
On the surface, it appears that Burke has on his hands several unmovable contracts. Forwards Matthew Lombardi, Clarke MacArthur and Colby Armstrong all represent at least a $3-million US salary cap hit next season, but none of them are signed beyond 2012-13. It’s possible that a team that needs to get to the floor could be convinced to take on a hefty contract for just one year. But Tim Connolly at $4.75 million against the cap? He’s a Leaf next season.
Centre Tyler Bozak had 47 points in 2011-12 and probably won’t record more than anything in the 50-60 point range, but he is due to have a cap hit next season of just $1.5 million. In other words, Burke shouldn’t have much interest in trading him, but Bozak is the type of player that other clubs will find attractive.
Where it’s just as tricky for Burke is the group of defencemen. Of the seven, only Franson, a restricted free agent, and Carl Gunnarsson, a restricted free agent after next season, are not under contract for at least each of the next two years.
If Burke has about as much interest in trading Schenn as he does Gardiner, then it’s likely that Gunnarsson will be on the move. No one can say for sure when training camp will be, given the possibility of a work stoppage, but everyone in the Leafs organization thinks Korbinian Holzer will push hard for a job among the top six.
Mike Komisarek, he of the $4.5 million cap hit in each of the next two years, is in the same boat as Connolly, in that he is staying put. Komisarek has a no-movement clause, not that many teams would be lined up to eat his salary.
Three players — forwards Nikolai Kulemin and Matt Frattin, as well as Franson — are due qualifying offers as restricted free agents by Monday’s deadline.
The other factor in all of this are the whispers around the league that the Leafs’ roster as it stands now does not do a lot to whet the appetite of coach Randy Carlyle. Several NHL people were saying as much when they gathered for the combine three weeks ago in Toronto, and it became clear in Carlyle’s 18 games to end the regular season that changes are required.
Again, it’s the challenge for Burke — how does he go about improving his team, while at the same time trying to convince other general managers that players who contributed to an 80-point season are worth having?
If you figure that Burke will have to pull a rabbit out of a hat to really turn his team around in the coming weeks, you’re not alone.