The trade deadline over, the next significant chance to add organizational depth won’t come until June 24 at the NHL Entry Draft, followed by the July 1 free agency period. It means that everyone has the girl they will be dancing with until the Stanley Cup is won.
Brian Burke’s 2009-10 Maple Leafs finished a somewhat disastrous 29th overall. Not what he’d expected. His team opened 2010-11 with 4 straight wins, then sank quickly to the bottom of the standings. Burke has made a number of transactions to improve his organization. In the meantime, his squad has climbed back into the playoff race, sitting 10th in the East, 4 points out of 8th, with 18 games remaining, while his AHL Marlies are also battling to make the playoffs. Through it all, his goal is both to make the playoffs and to build a strong franchise for years to come.
A contract extension to Mike Brown was signed February 2. For more detail, see https://thehockeywriters.com/maple-leafs-extend-mike-brown/. Ultimately, while Brown is not a ‘key’ piece of the puzzle, Burke locked in a 25 year old with some decent toughness and 4th line skills, and at a modest raise in cap hit.
On February 9, Burke made his first trade before the deadline. In all, he’d send out 4 players who’d played 20 games or more with the Leafs, and amass a number of assets many thought unlikely.
In Francois Beauchemin, the team loses a veteran blueliner who never quite met expectations. He struggled with turnovers and breakdowns in coverage, though he managed to play about 25 minutes per game. That time has now been spread out among the remaining defensemen, and has allowed Ron Wilson to insert Keith Aulie, who many feel is NHL ready. It gives Toronto a fairly large and youthful defensive corps, with Schenn, Phaneuf, Aulie and Gunnarsson playing most of the ice time.
Kris Versteeg was another Burke acquisition that in his short time did not perform as hoped. He performed well, a 50+ point pace on the 3rd line, but Burke had hoped he would emerge as a first-line player to use with Phil Kessel. That chemistry never materialized, and while Versteeg was on pace and working on the PP, he was miscast for the Toronto lineup, more valuable as a tradable asset. He will do much better in Philadelphia, where he will be better utilized.
Tomas Kaberle was a player long rumored to be traded. He represented probably the best asset Toronto had, a veteran puck-moving defenseman. For all the weaknesses his game may have had, he’d played over 800 games as a Leaf and was the last player remaining to have played in the playoffs as a Maple Leaf. Boston gets the kind of player they have lacked for several years, a powerplay quarterback with great vision. The Leafs avoid letting him walk in free agency for no return.
Finally, in the only ‘Deadline Day’ deal, Burke moved John Mitchell. The last player remaining from the Pat Quinn era, Mitchell was never really able to solidify himself as a regular. Despite many opportunities, his production and play simply did not develop in Toronto.
Going forward, Burke seems to have set the table fairly well. Among the returns of these deals are only 2 players with any NHL experience. Aaron Voros is strictly an insurance move, given that Mike Brown has been out with hand injuries, and Colton Orr is out with concussion. At the cost of sending Anaheim’s 7th round pick back to them (if he resigns), Voros represents a potential call up signed only until year end.
The more important piece is Joffrey Lupul, and he seems to be paying dividends already. While he carries a large cap hit of $4.25M for the next 2 seasons, he is a big body wing who has taken some pressure of Kessel. While Lupul is likely not the sole reason, since he and Kessel have been linemates, Kessel has exploded and took NHL first star honors for the week ended February 28. In 10 games with Toronto, Lupul has 2 goals and 5 points, while his ice time has increased compared to his duties in Anaheim. The hope is he will be able to find his 25+ goal form again.
Burke added 2 prospects in Jake Gardiner and Joe Colborne, both rated by hockeysfuture.com as 8.0C prospects. It may not be Drew Doughty and Brayden Schenn, but the Leafs now have what could be a top-2 defender and a first line forward. Gardiner is still played NCAA hockey, and the word on him is he could develop into a puck-mover of a Kaberle type, though he likely needs to add some bulk to be an effective NHLer. Colborne is now in the AHL. He’s a big (6’5″, 210) centre, a position the Leafs need help with. His focus and drive have been questioned, but he possesses the skills to be a scorer. He’s already scored 4 goals and 5 points in 6 Marlies games and will get a serious look at training camp next year.
Burke has also done a fair job of stocking draft picks. No, he did not acquire a pick comparable to the pick sent in the Kessel trade. Before this trade deadline period, the Leafs had 8 picks (rounds 2, 4, 5, 6, 6 EDM, 6 ANA, 7, 7 ANA). Burke added first round picks from BOS and PHI, as well as a third rounder from PHI. Not high picks, but certainly an upgrade over what they had, for a total of 11 selections. In addition, the Leafs get conditional 2nd rounder and 7th rounder in 2012, and a 4th in 2013.
While it’s easy to criticize Burke, as his team is still no lock for the playoffs, he’s done a remarkable job as the season draws to an end. The players traded away are generally quality players, but for one reason or another, they were not part of the future in Toronto. And while he removed 4 players from the roster, he added 1 to his NHL team, 2 prospects and a veteran to his minor-pro system, and 6 draft picks over the next 3drafts. With the pieces received, the draft picture is brighter, the quality of prospects in the system is greater, and a top-6 forward is added to the NHL roster. Coincidentally, the Leafs have gone 9-2-4 since February 1, and may find a way to sneak into the playoffs despite the roster changes. It may not have been the initial blueprint, but the Maple Leaf franchise is stronger, both in the short term and for the future.