TORONTO – The Maple Leafs are going to aggressively pursue a top NHL entry draft spot, perhaps even the No. 1 pick owned by the New York Islanders, says GM Brian Burke.
Going into the draft lottery Tuesday night, Toronto was seventh in the selection order and could have moved up a maximum of four spots if it won the weighted draw.
The Islanders finished last in the league this season and had the best odds of landing the No. 1 pick.
That’s exactly what happened when deputy commissioner Bill Daly announced the results of the draw, giving the Isles the top pick for the first time since 2000. Toronto remained in seventh spot.
Earlier Tuesday, Burke said he intends to be wheeling and dealing before the top teen talent is dispersed in Montreal with an eye on landing highly touted forward John Tavares.
“We’ll immediately attempt to move up,” Burke said during a morning news conference. “We’re going to talk to everyone between us and the first pick and see what the landscape is.
“We’re going to see what it costs and we’re going to try and move up.”
Anybody on his roster, with the exception of standout rookie defenceman Luke Schenn, might go in a package that would be required to get a higher position.
“No player is untradeable,” said Burke. “Wayne Gretzky got traded.”
Burke has a history of draft coups, most notably the ones that landed him Chris Pronger when he managed the Hartford Whalers and maneuverings that procured the services of the Sedin twins for the Vancouver Canucks. So, teams will be ready for his spiel this time.
“I don’t think we’re going to sneak up on anyone,” he said. “They’ve seen that movie.”
He wouldn’t necessarily need the No. 1 spot to draft Tavares, he said.
“I’m not confident every team has John Tavares as No. 1,” said Burke.
Toronto finished 12th in the Eastern Conference for the second year in a row and hasn’t been in the playoffs since 2004, but that was long before Burke was handed the reins. There were some positive developments this season, he said.
The development of “our young guns” was encouraging and the recent signings of top U.S. college prospects Christian Hanson and Tyler Bozak provides talent depth. Pitches have been made to land defenceman Matt Gilroy of the NCAA-champion Boston Terriers and free-agent Swede Jonas Gustavsson, who Burke considers the top goalie outside the NHL.
Burke also says he’ll be active in seeking unrestricted free agents once they become available July 1.
Vesa Toskala, who played in pain much of the season, should be fit enough in the autumn to retain the No. 1 goaltending job, says Burke. Gustavsson would be backup if the Leafs land him.
“The goal for next year is to make the playoffs,” Burke said. “If that’s not the goal of every GM, they should get out of the business.
“We’re building here to win a championship and the first step is to make the playoffs.”
The Leafs might have qualified for the post-season had they won some of the close ones they dropped during the winter, he said.
“If we had better goaltending and found a way to win those games, we’d be right there,” Burke said. “We could have traded Luke Schenn this year and made the playoffs” but that wouldn’t have been in the team’s long-range interests.
Burke said he and head coach Ron Wilson have progressed in their attempt to end the “culture of entitlement” some players feel when they play for the Leafs.
“Anyone who thinks he’s on this roster because he has a contract is sadly mistaken,” he said, adding a mention that the buyout option kicks in July 1.
Burke, as he has in the past, stressed that his only concern is to bring the Leafs a championship.
“I want to make the playoffs and have a parade here,” he said. “I have no ego involved in this.
“I’m not trying to put any personal stamp on the team. I just want to win.”
There remains no timetable to select a captain, he added: “This is the Toronto Maple Leafs so that decision has to be made with great care.”
Wilson said he expects to have a fitter team next season that won’t get worn down by opponents as was often the case this past season. Workout regimens have been distributed.
“We have a system in place where we’ll be able to monitor everyone’s progress on a week-to-week basis,” he said.
Toronto had the league’s worst goals-against average. Goaltending, injuries and conditioning were to blame, said Wilson.
Like Burke, he backed Toskala.
“I’m confident Vesa is going to bounce back next season,” said Wilson.
It was clear that Wilson expects Burke will be making numerous personnel changes this summer.
“This environment is going to change and I expect it to be changing rapidly,” he said.
Wilson picked the previous team he coached, the San Jose Sharks, to win the Stanley Cup. Adding Rob Blake and Dan Boyle to their power play was a big boost.
“They have to find a way to score 5-on-5 and if they can do that they should be able to win the whole thing,” Wilson said.