Maple Leafs Watch: Deadline, summer will be key for long rebuild

I’m glad Maple Leafs fans get to bask in the glory of Canada’s stirring Olympic hockey gold medal – because, from now until next fall, it’s going to be another nuclear (read: radioactive) spring and summer.

With 20 games remaining and Toronto sitting last in the Eastern Conference standings, this year’s playoffs obviously are out of the question for the Leafs. And the fruits of NHL losing – i.e. a top selection in the June entry draft – also are out of the question, both this year and next year because of the Phil Kessel trade. So what’s worth anticipating?

Well, there’s a pair of key trading periods in which Leafs GM Brian Burke should be active. The first is the trade deadline, where veteran winger Alexei Ponikarovsky (and perhaps star blueliner Tomas Kaberle) will be moved for the best combination of prospects and draft picks offered Toronto’s way.

If Kaberle isn’t deal, he’ll be moved to another team at or after the draft, when his no-trade clause disappears until mid-August.

Those summer months – also home to the July 1 kickoff of unrestricted free agency –could be the setting for additional Leafs intrigue.

Granted, the UFA market is far from deep, meaning Burke will be hard-pressed to build up his wobbly group of forwards the way he did to the defense corps last year.

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But perhaps the ideal time to deal Kaberle is immediately after the free agent market dries up. By then, Kaberle’s $4.25 million contract will look like an even bigger bargain and should result in some desperate GM paying Burke a king’s ransom.

Undoubtedly, the next few months will be painful for backers of the Blue & White. I’m talking doing-your-taxes-while-undergoing-invasive-dental-surgery painful.

Unfortunately – and as insulting as this appears to all those eyes that haven’t seen a Stanley Cup parade in 43 years – Torontonians must have a little more patience.

There are kids worth watching in the development system. Phil Kessel and Dion Phaneuf are central to the future.

However, make no mistake – this always was going to be a lengthy battle back to respectability.

This column also appears in the Toronto Metro newspaper.

Adam Proteau, co-author of the book The Top 60 Since 1967, is writer and columnist for The Hockey News and a regular contributor to His blog appears Mondays, his Ask Adam feature appears Fridays and his column, Screen Shots, appears Thursdays.

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