The one thing Brian Burke counts on seeing every year at the trade deadline is teams overpaying for players.
And the Toronto Maple Leafs GM isn’t shy about saying he’ll only be really active before March 4 if teams are willing to pay top dollar for his assets.
Take the price he’s set on Tomas Kaberle, for example. Burke is looking for a first-round pick, a roster player and a top prospect in exchange for the 29-year-old defenceman.
“It would be a package just like I paid when I got Chris Pronger from Edmonton,” he said Wednesday on a conference call. “I’m not putting a price on it that I haven’t paid myself in the past.”
While that may seem a bit steep, Burke has been around long enough to know that one of his colleagues might step up and pay it.
These can be extremely desperate times for general managers. Mid-season trades are basically limited to the period around the deadline in today’s NHL.
When Burke was with Anaheim, he wasn’t a fan of making deadline deals. His view is different in his first season with the Maple Leafs because he’s looking to be a seller rather than a buyer.
And he’s ready to start dealing now.
“We have set our prices internally,” said Burke. “I’m not waiting for an auction mentality (on March 4). If we have players we’re going to sell, we have set prices on them.
“If a guy offers us the right price then we’re willing to make that deal today.”
The Maple Leafs are one of the few teams that has already committed to being a seller. Ottawa, Tampa, Atlanta and the New York Islanders will also have veteran players up for grabs.
It’s a completely different story in the Western Conference, where Colorado is believed to be the only committed seller.
A tight playoff race has left other teams weighing their options. The St. Louis Blues, for example, play three games before March 4 and will use those to decide if they’re selling or buying.
“We know the job ahead of us to get in, knowing there’s teams ahead of us, that some of them are playing very well,” said Blues vice-president John Davidson. “It’s going to be very difficult. But we want to at least now make sure we send a message to our players and fans that we want to make the playoffs.”
The Blues might even end up keeping veteran forward Keith Tkachuk – a player they sent to Atlanta at the deadline in 2007 and will be contacted about potentially trading again. The fact that they’re even considering keeping him now suggests that things are moving in the right direction for the franchise.
A major reason for that is because they’ve been able to pick up prospects and draft picks at the trade deadline in years past.
“For us, it really helped,” said Davidson. “We’ve had quite a number of first-rounders and second-rounders the last two drafts. For us, we had to do that. …
“We’re bullish on our future because of (our prospects). One way you can get to it is working the deadline.”
The biggest job for the buyers is trying not to get worked over.
Columbus Blue Jackets GM Scott Howson currently finds himself in that role and concedes that some sellers might try to take advantage of his situation. Howson has coveted a skilled centre all season but hasn’t yet been able to acquire one through a trade.
“There were a couple deals we just weren’t comfortable with,” he said. “It felt like we were robbing Peter to pay Paul. We weren’t going to do that at that time.”
And at the deadline?
“It’s a dangerous game for sure,” said Howson. “It goes back to my philosophy, I don’t think you should give up a lot just to get in (the playoffs).”
Even though he might choose not to do that, history suggests that others will.
Ryan Smyth brought Edmonton two prospects and a first-round pick from Long Island in 2007; Tkachuk netted the Blues a roster player, two first-round picks, a second-rounder and a third-rounder from Atlanta that same year; and Columbus got a first-round pick and future considerations from Colorado for Adam Foote last February.
Those are the kinds of returns Burke hopes to get as he considers trading players like Nik Antropov or Kaberle over the next week. As crazy as it seems, he thinks it could happen.
“We’re all nuts,” Burke said of GMs. “Because there’s 30 teams and one parade. After the first round there’s only eight teams playing. So that’s in the first round, you get 22 teams on the sidelines. The math is horrible. …
“For every guy that makes a brilliant decision (at the deadline), there’s five or six of us that have made poor ones that same day. It’s an awful day, it’s an exciting day, it’s a day full of magic and a day full of very poor decision-making.”