Maple Leafs Watch: Recent trades signal a change in direction

For the second straight season, the Maple Leafs are in the midst of another late-winter trade-o-rama. But this year’s housecleaning seems to be different than last year’s.

Last year, it was Matt Stajan, Ian White, Vesa Toskala and Jason Blake, among others, who were sent packing out of Toronto by GM Brian Burke at the end of January; this year, it’s defenseman Francois Beauchemin (dealt to Anaheim) and right winger Kris Versteeg (shipped to Philadelphia) who’ve been turned into former Leafs, with more – most notably, longest-serving Leaf Tomas Kaberle – likely to follow them out the door by the Feb. 28 trade deadline.

Last year, Burke’s deals brought in experienced NHLers (including goalie J-S Giguere and current captain Dion Phaneuf). But the Beauchemin and Versteeg trades appear to represent a backtracking by Burke on his oft-stated goal of avoiding a long-term, more traditional rebuilding of the franchise, instead attempting to stay competitive while re-stocking the team’s depleted collection of NHL prospects.

Yes, Beauchemin was traded for veteran right winger Joffrey Lupul, but most believe the key piece Toronto received in that deal was 20-year-old NCAA blueliner Jake Gardiner. And with the Versteeg transaction, all Toronto got was salary cap relief (Versteeg will earn $3.08 million next year) and the Flyers’ first and third round draft picks this summer.

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Perhaps Burke uses the $24 million in salary cap space he’s built up to take an off-season run at soon-to-be-unrestricted free agent Dallas Stars center Brad Richards. However, Burke’s willingness to start jettisoning veterans – especially veterans he brought to Toronto himself – without wanting experienced players in return is as close as he may get to a tacit admission his sped-up rebuild isn’t working as planned.

To some Leafs fans who still break out in hives when hearing Phil Kessel’s name, such an admission is coming a couple years too late. But better late than never.

Burke could stubbornly stick to his guns and acquire familiar NHL names who cash large paychecks. That he’d rather accept cap flexibility and the promise that comes along with still-developing youngsters shows he has learned a painful lesson.

This article was originally published in Metro News. For more hockey commentary, check out Metro Sports.