TORONTO – Brian Burke is unafraid to be bold. But the Toronto Maple Leafs general manager typically doesn’t view this time of year as the right moment to swing for the fences.
“I’ve always tried to beat the trading deadline,” Burke said in January 2011 after completing the Joffrey Lupul deal with Anaheim. “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.”
With the Feb. 27 deadline approaching, will Burke stay true to his own mantra?
The Leafs currently find themselves in a battle for eighth spot in the Eastern Conference—a big opportunity for a franchise looking to end its playoff drought at eight years—and Burke hasn’t made a move involving NHLers since acquiring centre David Steckel from New Jersey at the end of training camp.
That hasn’t kept rumours from being brought up to players on a daily basis for the last couple months. The majority have centred around defenceman Luke Schenn and centre Mikhail Grabovski, an impending unrestricted free agent, but everyone from Jake Gardiner to Clarke MacArthur to Tyler Bozak has been mentioned as well.
All of the chatter can serve as a distraction, particularly for a team as young as the Leafs.
“The fortunate part now is (the deadline is) only week or less than a week away,” coach Ron Wilson said Tuesday. “This week will probably be difficult. But players, it’s completely out of their hands.”
It’s no secret that Burke would love to add a top-six forward with some size, but that doesn’t mean he’s willing to break the bank to make it happen now. The Leafs are among the teams that have been linked to Columbus forwards Rick Nash and Jeff Carter, speculation that gained steam with news that Burke met Blue Jackets GM Scott Howson on Sunday morning in New York City.
But given Burke’s stance on trying to make big moves at the deadline it could be nothing more than due diligence.
Either way, the Leafs are in a position to wheel and deal. The team has stockpiled prospects in recent years and currently boasts a surplus on the blue-line, which explains why Schenn, Gardiner and Cody Franson have all been named in rumours.
For the most part, the players have tried to avoid discussing the impending trade deadline amongst themselves.
“There’s so much speculation, there’s so much of a rumour mill,” said Steckel, who at 29 is one of the more veteran players in the dressing room. “You’re going to drive (yourself crazy). It’s like looking at the standings every day and thinking `All right well if they play here and they win and we win’—you’re going to drive yourself nuts.
“You just prepare for our next game and that’s what we’re trying to do. Just get the next two points.”
Steckel was dealt for the first time in his NHL career at last year’s deadline. Washington sent him to the Devils along with a second-round pick for Jason Arnott in a deal completed in the dwindling minutes—Steckel wasn’t actually informed he was traded until half an hour after the deadline passed. It took him completely off-guard.
“Trades are a part of the game,” said Steckel.
Schenn is one of the team’s longest-tenured players after being selected fifth overall in 2008 and making his NHL debut a couple months later as an 18 year old. Despite signing a five-year contract extension just prior to the season, he’s fallen out of favour with Wilson at times and even found himself as a healthy scratch on two occasions.
He’s learned to deal with ups and downs that come with playing in a feverish hockey market. Recently, that’s included an endless stream of queries about trade rumours.
“It’s out of my control,” said Schenn. “Obviously, you’re faced with the questions all the time. You learn, I think, to have thick skin playing in Toronto. You’re faced with it every day, whether you make a mistake on the ice or you don’t have a great game.
“It’s a lot different playing here than somewhere down south.”