TORONTO – Brian Burke is rolling the dice again.
In acquiring forward Joffrey Lupul from Anaheim on Wednesday, the Toronto Maple Leafs general manager hopes he’s added a highly motivated player that has put a major injury behind him. Even he acknowledges that it’s far from a sure thing.
“There’s a human element in all of this,” said Burke. “You bet on people every time you make a trade. If this were just buying cars or buying livestock it would be a lot easier. But we’re betting on human beings.
“I bet on Joffrey Lupul because of his character and his skill level and I believe he thinks he has something to prove.”
Burke parted ways with defenceman Francois Beauchemin in the trade and also added prospect Jake Gardiner—a first-round selection in 2008—and a conditional draft pick in 2013.
The deal sees Toronto assume some salary because Lupul will earn US$4.25 million over the next two years while Beauchemin has one year remaining on his deal at $3.8 million.
“He may be overpaid for what he does now,” Burke said of Lupul. “That’s OK, that’s not the player’s fault. When the player’s overpaid one of us (GMs) made a mistake.”
Lupul is a three-time 20 goal-scorer that sat out nearly a year with a back injury and subsequent blood infection before working his way back into Anaheim’s lineup Dec. 5.
He was used primarily as a third-liner with the Ducks and is looking forward to assuming an expanded role on a Leafs team looking for more offence. Coach Ron Wilson plans to insert him on a line with Tyler Bozak and Clarke MacArthur for Thursday’s game against New Jersey.
“I think definitely I have a lot to prove to a lot of people now,” said Lupul. “The Anaheim Ducks kind of just let me go after 20 games. I don’t know if it’s injury-related or what it is. But I have a lot to prove to myself and to the team that just let me go and, first and foremost, to the new organization and my new teammates.
“I want to step in and help make an impact.”
For Beauchemin, it marks a return to a familiar setting.
The 30-year-old spent parts of four seasons with the Ducks before signing an $11.4-million, three-year contract with the Maple Leafs as a free agent in 2009. He was one of Toronto’s leaders in ice time and spent the majority of the season on the top defensive pairing with Dion Phaneuf.
Beauchemin had a limited no-trade clause and provided Burke with a list of 12 teams he was willing to be dealt to prior to the season.
“I was kind of expecting something to happen with all the rumours that were out there lately,” said Beauchemin. “I loved it here. Great city to play, great group of guys, but last year was a tough year and this year we’re still out of a playoff spot.”
The Leafs plan to fill his spot by calling up defenceman Keith Aulie from the AHL—”We think the big man can step in and play on defence,” said Burke—but that won’t happen until the team clears a roster spot. Forward John Mitchell was placed on waivers Wednesday and can be sent down to the minors if he clears Thursday at noon.
The Leafs have won four of five games since the all-star break and are clinging to faint hopes that they might make a charge at the post-season. The team is eight points back of Carolina, which holds down eighth spot in the Eastern Conference standings, with 28 games remaining.
Burke made it clear he expects to make more moves, but noted “nothing is imminent.”
The team could desperately use more depth at centre and the biggest assets Burke has to peddle are defenceman Tomas Kaberle and winger Kris Versteeg. He won’t wait around until the Feb. 28 trade deadline before trying to continue retooling.
“I’ve always tried to beat the trading deadline,” said Burke. “I think when you get to the trading deadline it’s kind of like a stampede—there’s a lot of milling around and a lot of confusion. I think it’s much more difficult to act with clarity and purpose at the deadline.
“It’s almost like a party with a pinata, everyone’s going for one player and everyone’s swinging at it.”
The wildcard in Wednesday’s trade is Gardiner, a smooth-skating defenceman who has 30 points in 30 games at the University of Wisconsin. Burke drafted the 20-year-old with the 17th overall selection in 2008 while he still worked for the Ducks.
In fact, he has plenty of familiarity with all of the players involved.
Burke traded Lupul out of Anaheim during the forward’s first stint with the team as part of the deal to get Chris Pronger from Edmonton in 2006.
“I think everyone would agree that move paid off,” said Burke. “We had a (Stanley Cup) parade.”
Lupul averaged just over 13 minutes of ice time with Anaheim in 26 games this season. He’ll receive more power-play time in Toronto and will be given a chance to add to his modest totals of five goals and 13 points.
Toronto sits 24th overall in goals per game and can use another offensive threat.
“He hasn’t played a lot of minutes,” said Wilson. “He certainly better get a good night’s sleep tonight because we’re going to play him quite a bit tomorrow (against the Devils).”
In Burke’s eyes, the move will benefit the team in real time and the future.
“Our plan here is to try and build towards a championship,” he said. “That seems remote, some people will snicker. But that’s the plan.So we’re trying to do a twin track of getting younger and getting better.”
Toronto’s conditional draft pick will be a fourth-rounder if Lupul spends 40 or more games on the team’s roster in 2012-13. Otherwise, it will become a sixth-round selection.