TORONTO – Brian Burke saw it as a vote of confidence in his team, rather than inactivity.
The Toronto Maple Leafs general manager made two minor deals prior to the NHL trade deadline Monday, but held off on anything major despite a 1-7-1 run since Feb. 7 that has dropped his 29-26-7 team out of a playoff spot in the Eastern Conference.
“I think some people will be disappointed but I’m not,” Burke told an Air Canada Centre news conference. “If I’m a member of the Leafs I look at this as an endorsement from management.
“There was nothing we could have done today that would have made us better now. It was all stuff that would have made us better maybe down the road but our fans have lived through that. We’ve got to see if this team is good enough to get in (the playoffs).”
Leafs coach Ron Wilson has been critical of goalies James Reimer (38th in the league with a .903 save percentage) and Jonas Gustavsson (35th, .905) during the team’s recent slide, but Burke defended both Monday, noting he turned down an trade offer for Reimer.
“From my perspective, James Reimer is the real deal despite the fact he’s scuffling a little right now and we wouldn’t be in the hunt if it weren’t for Jonas Gustavsson,” added Burke, who had said last week he might have to see what goaltending options were available.
“He’s bailed us out twice when James got hurt and when James stumbled mid-season.”
Burke said he wasn’t prepared to make a move that would mortgage the future or hurt the club in the present. The team sat in 10th place in the conference entering play Monday, three points out of the eighth and final playoff spot.
“Panic can’t be part of the vocabulary if you’re a general manager. If you want to win a championship that can’t be part of it. Setbacks for 10 days or 12 days, that can’t be how you guide your ship,” Burke said. “I still believe this group can get it back on the rails.
“We’ve gone through a dreadful spell here and we’re still very much alive.”
Burke said he was asked repeatedly about Jake Gardiner in trade talks but refused to even discuss moving the rookie defenceman.
“I think with what you’re seeing with Jake is a guy with a special set of gifts. We don’t know where that goes from here,” Burke said. “Is he Duncan Keith? Is he Kris Letang? I don’t want to put pressure on him by saying he looks like this guy or that guy but clearly this is a guy with an exceptional skill set and he wasn’t going anywhere.”
Burke sent defenceman Keith Aulie to the Tampa Bay Lightning for right-winger Carter Ashton.
The Leafs also made a move to bolster the AHL Marlies, dealing forward Dale Mitchell to the Anaheim Ducks for defenceman Mark Fraser.
The 20-year-old Ashton was taken 29th overall by Tampa at the 2009 draft and has yet to play in the NHL. In 56 games with the AHL’s Norfolk Admirals this season, the Winnipeg native has 19 goals and 16 assists.
“We felt we had some depth on defence and needed to add some size and foot speed up front,” Burke said. “(Ashton) is a big-body guy that can skate. He’s got some finish, he’s got some sand(paper) and from our perspective this is a player that’s going to be important for us down the road.”
The 22-year-old Aulie has split time between the Maple Leafs and the Marlies this season. The Rouleau, Sask., native had two assists in 17 games with the Leafs in 2011-12 and one assist in 23 games in the AHL.
Originally drafted by the Calgary Flames in the fourth round of 2007 draft, Aulie was part of the trade that brought Leafs captain Dion Phaneuf to Toronto.
“He’s a young guy, and he’s been up and down a bit in the (AHL).” Lightning GM Steve Yzerman said in a statement. “We would like to get him into our lineup and give him more NHL games and experience.
“From watching him, we think he’s close to being an NHL regular.”
Notes: Burke said negotiations are ongoing with Mikail Grabovski. The centre, who is set to become an unrestricted free agent July 1, was rumoured to be on the trading block but Burke said he’s confident the two sides will be able to come to agreement on an extension.