With the NHL’s trade deadline set for Monday at 3:00 PM EST, crunch time is officially here for general managers all across the league. There is a select group of about six or seven general managers that have a bit of added pressure, though, and the Toronto Maple Leafs’ Brian Burke is one of them.
That group, which also includes Dale Tallon of the Florida Panthers, Kevin Cheveldayoff of the Winnipeg Jets and George McPhee of the Washington Capitals, is specifically made up of general managers whose teams are battling for a playoff spot.
Burke and the Maple Leafs─more so the latter─find themselves in a rather unfamiliar situation this season. As everyone knows by now, the Leafs haven’t qualified for the NHL’s post-season since the lockout that wiped out the entire 2004-2005 season. What this means is simple: for the first time in many years, the Leafs can officially be considered ‘buyers’ as the deadline approaches. That’s great news for a team whose fanbase and front office carry high expectations each season, but it may mean a little extra work will be needed upstairs.
The big question that is being asked concerns the Leafs’ most pressing needs. There are plenty, which makes finding an answer almost impossible. Among those needs are a top-line centre, sizable top-six winger, a solid defensive defenceman and a veteran goalie who can help James Reimer and Jonas Gustavsson fight through their current and future slumps.
It goes without saying that no one is entirely sure what Burke, perhaps the most unpredictable general manager in the league, has up his sleeve. In fact, there is even talk of Burke and his staff remaining silent between now and Monday afternoon and sticking with the current roster as the 82nd game nears. With the appetite for upgrade present in Toronto, that strategy would undoubtedly upset many Maple Leaf fans.
But worrying about upset Leafs fans isn’t why the pressure is building on Burke. Actually, the main reasons are rather obvious. For one, a playoff berth would bring added passion that has been missing over the last several seasons back to Toronto and a shot at the playoffs is not something the Leafs can just throw away. While standing pat and not making any moves, or at least none that would result in a major impact, might not be considered “throwing the season away,” it could result in another Leaf-less month of May.
Another transaction that could be considered “throwing the season away” would be dealing second line centre Mikhail Grabovski to another team. This is something that still appears unlikely to happen, although the chances seem to be greater following Darren Dreger’s report of Grabovski and the Leafs being well apart when it comes to contract negotiations, something that will need to be successfully completed if Grabovski is to wear blue and white again next season.
A player of Grabovski’s calibre would probably fetch a half-decent return, although you would expect to see nothing more than high draft picks or a high draft pick and a prospect. That, of course, would be considered ‘selling,’ which would go against what the Leafs consider themselves to be.
Secondly, the Maple Leafs fell 2-1 to the San Jose Sharks on Thursday while the Jets defeated the Tampa Bay Lightning 4-3, meaning they currently sit one point outside of the eighth and final playoff spot. Looking at the teams around them, you will see that there is now little room for error.
That’s where a veteran player would come in handy. Whether it fill one of the four needs listed above or some other position doesn’t really matter. All that does matter is that a change will need to be made soon while remaining buyers.
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Lukas, a student at the University of Ottawa, covers the Toronto Maple Leafs on a part-time basis for The Hockey Writers. Contact Lukas at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter, @LukasHardonk.