TORONTO – There was no room on Brian Burke’s Toronto Maple Leafs for Tomas Kaberle.
The veteran defenceman only consented to the trade that saw him join the Boston Bruins on Friday after it became painfully clear he had absolutely no future in Toronto. Even after years of losing and having his name included in trade rumours, the Leafs longest-tenured player wanted to stay.
“The player did not want to leave, he asked for a (contract) extension several times,” said Burke.
It was a non-starter for the general manager, who indicated he didn’t think he would be able to pay Kaberle what he would want when his contract came due this summer. But he also didn’t try very hard.
Ultimately, Burke found a deal with the only other team Kaberle wanted to play for and the defenceman waived his no-trade clause to join the Bruins in exchange for prospect Joe Colborne, a first-round pick in 2011 and a conditional second-round pick in 2012.
Kaberle, 32, had spent his entire career with the Maple Leafs and was the only player remaining from the team’s last playoff season in 2004.
“I always thank players when I move them, but this requires a little more time and a little more dedication I guess to the player,” said Burke. “He’s been here a long time. During that time, he was a low-maintenance player, he was a quality player on the ice, he was a community-minded player.
“He was one of the best defencemen to play here in this era, if not the best.”
He was also a tie to the past for a franchise trying desperately to move forward. Kaberle’s departure completes the massive overhaul of the roster that was started by Cliff Fletcher and continued by Burke, who has been manning the controls since November 2008.
Nikolai Kulemin is now the longest-tenured Maple Leafs at 209 games, followed closely by 21-year-old defenceman Luke Schenn at 207.
“It’s bizarre,” Schenn said after practice Friday. “Three years in and just the turnover that’s been here ever since I’ve been here. You’re getting new teammates in all the time—new players, you’re meeting new people. It feels like just yesterday I was just breaking in here and trying to figure things out for myself.
“It’s definitely a bit of a weird feeling knowing that you’re one of the last guys standing here since three years ago.”
The Kaberle trade was Burke’s third in a little over a week. He sent defenceman Francois Beauchemin to Anaheim on Feb. 9 for Joffrey Lupul and prospect Jake Gardiner before dealing Kris Versteeg to Philadelphia on Feb. 14 for first- and third-round picks in 2011.
Overall, the moves hurt the Leafs in the short term as they continue to chase an unlikely playoff berth. The team entered play Friday six points behind eighth-place Carolina with 24 games remaining.
“Getting into the playoffs by the skin of your teeth and getting your ass kicked in the first round is not my idea of building a championship team here,” said Burke. “We’re trying to get into the playoffs the right way, we’re not conceding the last spot. With any luck at all, I believe that we can put someone back in the lineup that can continue that momentum.
“I think our players know we’re not throwing in the towel.”
The organization has gotten considerably younger under Burke’s watch and the prospect pool is much deeper. Goaltender J.S. Giguere is the only remaining Leafs player over the age of 30 and he’s likely on his way out of town when his contract expires after the season.
Colborne was a first-round pick by the Bruins in 2008 and will increase the competition among players on the AHL Marlies to crack the big club.
The smooth-skating Kaberle appeared in 878 career games for the Maple Leafs—stretching all the way back to when the team still played at Maple Leaf Gardens. He was a quiet leader in Toronto, serving as an alternate captain in recent years but often letting his play on the ice speak for itself.
“(First thing I noticed was) how professional he is,” said Leafs forward Colby Armstrong. “He gets along well with everyone. He’s probably one of the nicest guys ever, always got a smile on his face. He’s here first guy in the morning all the time and he’s ready to go.
“You can’t say enough about him as a teammate and obviously his play on the ice … (he’s) a real good player.”
His most productive season came directly after the NHL lockout, when a rules crackdown helped open up the game for skilled players. Kaberle finished with 67 points in 2005-06—a total that included 58 assists.
He led all Leafs defencemen in scoring this season with 38 points in 58 games.
“He’s consistent every night at what he does,” said Schenn. “He establishes the setup on the power play, makes that great breakout pass, logs big minutes for our team every night.
“There’s no question that he is one of the top defencemen in the league and has been for the last 10 years or so.”
Selected in the eighth round of the 1996 draft by Toronto, he appeared in just two AHL games before making the jump to the NHL on a full-time basis. He’s represented the Czech Republic in three Olympics—winning bronze in 2006—and leaves Toronto as the franchise’s second-highest scoring defenceman in history.
His 520 points (83-437) trail only the 762 registered by Borje Salming.
Even though Kaberle was no longer of use to the Maple Leafs, he arrives to big expectations with a Bruins team that intends to challenge for the Stanley Cup.
“We felt that we needed a player like Tomas—a player with good vision, a good skater (who) can quarterback a power play and has played many many games in the league,” said Bruins GM Peter Chiarelli. “It was an important piece for us to get and obviously we had to pay a price.”
The conditional draft pick in the deal will be a second-round selection in 2012 for Toronto if the Bruins reach the Stanley Cup or Kaberle signs an extension with the Bruins.