It’s a confounding conundrum Maple Leafs GM Brian Burke finds himself in.
The Leafs are bad and there’s little on the horizon to suggest that will soon change. Burke has basically eschewed the generally agreed upon theory that the way to build a team in the salary-capped NHL is through the draft. Considering he gave up two first round picks and a second-rounder for a one-dimensional player who does little more than wire wrist shots, I guess Burke better stick to that message.
Yes, the GM is looking to build his team via the trade route, but that’s where his problems lay; the Leafs have very little of value and what assets they do have would leave the Leafs spinning their wheels if moved.
The name most bandied about in the media is Kris Versteeg. But, realistically, what could you get for him? Prospects most likely and that’s exactly what Burke gave up to get him. So trading Versteeg would simply be a lateral move and do nothing to make Toronto better immediately, Burke’s stated goal.
The defense corps was supposed to be an area of strength, but, outside of Luke Schenn, has mostly been a disappointment. Tomas Kaberle would likely net a pick and a player, but there’s nothing to suggest the market for him is hot or that he’d waive his no-trade clause; Francois Beauchemin also has an NTC (you have to think he’d be happy to move on if asked, however), but his inconsistency has lowered his value; Mike Komisarek’s play has made him virtually untradeable as does his NTC and cap hit; and the Leafs would never move Dion Phaneuf and likely couldn’t even if they wanted to.
Mikhail Grabovski would be coveted by post-season bound teams in need of secondary scoring. But he’s Toronto’s most dangerous forward of late and plays center, a position the franchise lacks any semblance of depth in. Moving Grabovski would mean a step back, not forward. Same goes for developing two-way winger Nikolai Kulemin.
Clarke MacArthur leads the team in scoring, but as the old adage goes: Even on bad teams, someone has to score. Would MacArthur net anything of value if traded? Not really. He’ll want a significant raise next season, though, and can anyone really see paying him $3 million or so? Burke probably should move him if anyone comes calling.
Outside of those three and Phil Kessel, there aren’t any forwards on the roster teams would want that could net any kind of return. Goalie J-S Giguere might, but will have to play better to do so. And Marlie Nazem Kadri would be of interest to teams, but it would take a lot to move the franchise’s top prospect.
The Leafs have cap space to play with, but taking on other teams’ overpriced players as a means of netting anything of value doesn’t seem like a viable option or Burke would have done so already.
Meanwhile, Wojtek Wolski – formerly of Phoenix, now of the Rangers – has moved. A Greater Toronto Area native who starred playing minor hockey, Jr. B and major junior in and around the city is a 24-year-old, 6-foot-3, 215-pounder who’s talented and affordable. Granted Wolski can be a bit of a loafer, but still, he’s a guy with top-six capabilities who’s signed through next season and will be an unrestricted free agent following that; the Leafs need to take chances on guys like him. Tomas Fleischmann is another mid-20s skilled forward who recently changed addresses, from Washington to Colorado.
Both those players would have upgraded Toronto’s talent quotient and were acquired for mid-level defensemen, players the Leafs have.
So it seems free agency is the only way Burke will be able to upgrade his squad. But outside of Brad Richards and Alexander Semin, this summer’s sweepstakes is pretty thin, meaning there’s no quick fix in sight.
You have to feel for Burke. He won’t admit it publicly, but he erred in trading for Kessel and set the team’s rebuild back by at least two years. Now he has little to peddle, nothing to look forward to come draft day and a fan base fed up with the losses.
Tough times in Toronto and, with limited options available, there are more to come.
John Grigg is the assignment editor with The Hockey News and a regular contributor to THN.com with his blog appearing on the weekend.
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