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Leafs GM Brian Burke feels team improved despite missing out on big free agents

The Hockey News

The Hockey News

TORONTO - Brian Burke is known for making bold moves to try and improve his team, but there's some things he simply won't do.

The Toronto Maple Leafs general manager believes he missed out on a chance to land Brad Richards in free agency because of his aversion to front-loaded contracts designed to lower the salary cap hit. It's a tactic several NHL teams have employed—including the New York Rangers, who landed Richards—but Burke refuses to follow suit.

"We made a very substantial offer to Brad Richards," Burke said Wednesday during the Leafs' prospect camp. "What we offered I don't think is material. We lost out on the Brad Richards sweepstakes for two reasons—one, we didn't offer as much money as other teams and more importantly we didn't structure the contract like other teams did.

"These deals that are front-end loaded and have small amounts on the back end in my opinion are designed to circumvent the salary cap. I won't do them, I never have, I'm not going to."

The Leafs are believed to have offered Richards a six-year contract in the neighbourhood of US$42 million.

Instead, the highly coveted centre accepted a nine-year mega-deal from the Rangers that pays him $24 million in the first two seasons and $36 million over the remaining seven. The last three years of the contract come with a salary of just $1 million each.

"Those contracts are accepted by the league on the basis that the player's going to serve the full term," Burke said. "That's the only basis they're accepted by the league. If there's any understanding that the player's not going to serve the full term they wouldn't be accepted by the league. I personally do not believe these players are going to serve the term of their contracts.

"I cannot believe—and I'm not going to name names—but I do not believe players are going to play 10 years that have signed or nine years, especially when the compensation for the final three years is $1- or $2-million."

Burke also indicated he was unwilling to extend an offer sheet to restricted free agents Steven Stamkos or Drew Doughty.

Using more traditional methods of acquiring players, the Leafs GM is confident the team has taken a step forward in recent weeks. Toronto signed centre Tim Connolly to a $9.5-million, two-year deal and acquired three other players in trades: defencemen Cody Franson and John-Michael Liles, and centre Matthew Lombardi.

"For now we're done," said Burke. "We'll see what happens. If we get a chance to upgrade we'll do it."

It's been six seasons—and seven years—since the Leafs last appeared in the post-season, giving the organization the NHL's second-longest drought behind Florida. Everyone is under pressure to change that in 2011-12.

Burke himself took some criticism from a local columnist after travelling to Afghanistan to visit troops over July 1 rather than staying in Toronto to woo potential free agents like Richards.

Asked if it was possible to find a balance between his job and the many charitable endeavours he's part of, Burke responded: "If I don't I'll get fired. Let me worry about the balance."

The team will enter training camp with James Reimer and Jonas Gustavsson as its top two goaltenders. They have just 102 games of NHL experience combined, but Burke is comfortable with that duo at the outset of an important season for the franchise.

Reimer almost single-handedly helped the Leafs get back in the playoff race last year.

"With James Reimer, the issue has got to be to build on what he started," said Burke. "A lot of goalies come in and have brief spectacular bursts in the NHL that don't sustain that. (Former Capitals goalie) Jim Carey is one, Steve Penny is one with the Montreal Canadiens years ago.

"What I said to James Reimer is Google both of those guys and make sure you're not one of them."

There doesn't appear to be any blockbuster moves on the horizon, especially with Burke unwilling to bend the rules just to make a splash.

Down the road, he figures a number of GMs will look bad when players walk away from their front-loaded contracts once they reach the years with minimal salary. He feels good knowinghe won't be one of them.

"I'm going to be very anxious to see the explanations that occur when these players don't serve out those contracts," said Burke. "So that's why I don't do them. I don't believe the players are going to serve the term and if that fact were known, the NHL wouldn't accept them for filing either."


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