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Adding A Top Centre Won't Be Easy

by Mike Ulmer / Toronto Maple Leafs

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The challenge facing Leafs General Manager Brian Burke is simple enough to understand: Make something very big out of something very meagre. And could you do it now, please.

Burke could use one more deal and if possible one more steal that makes everything up to now look like kid stuff.

The Leafs crave a frontline centre and the available candidates are incredibly sparse.

Look at the top 10 centres in the NHL scoring race: Sidney Crosby, Steve Stamkos, Eric Staal, Brad Richards,  Nicklas Backstrom, Henrik Sedin, Mike Richards, Ryan Getzlaf, Derek Roy and Pavel Datsyuk . Nine of the 10 (Brad Richards, Tampa Bay) are playing with the team that drafted them. These guys rarely move.

But the need for a big time pivot has never been more pressing than it is now. With the goaltending and defence more or less overhauled, goalscoring has become an aching need for fans desperate for the Leafs’ first playoff appearance in six years.

Nazem Kadri, who seemed destined to spend much of the season with the Marlies has been promoted, first to the big team and now to the number one line with Phil Kessel

Kadri hasn’t scored in seven NHL games. His accession to the number one line is born of necessity.  With three goals and six points, number once centre Tyler Bozak has faced a colossal struggle. Suddenly there is a huge hole where the centre spot used to be. Bozak seems destined to be an effective second line player, but he is needed up front right now or the Leafs’ number one scoring threat, Phil Kessel,  could dry up.

There are no big-time centres ready to spring from the Marlies. The alternatives, if you can use that word, range from30-year-old Brad Richards who may or may not come free at the trade deadline and who might re-sign with the Dallas Stars should the team straighten out its finances.

You might consider the extraordinarily expensive and spectacularly risky Marc Savard, a 33-year-old whose $4 million cap hit runs seemingly into perpetuity.

There are potentially disaffected players who might have big-time potential. The Canucks Cody Hodgson has reportedly clashed with the Canucks’ front office and is playing well in the American League. That idea and a buck something will get you a coffee at Tim Hortons.

Landing a top-rated centre would be Burke’s crowning achievement in the business, which is saying a lot for a guy who stickhandled the Sedin twins to Vancouver in the draft and pried Chris Pronger out of Edmonton.

But big deals often arrive like a lightning strike. Who saw the DIon Phaneuf trade coming?  How many thought Burke could find a soft landing for Jason Blake?

If there is a way, it’s a way that no one has thought of from this side of the GM’s door.  So be it. Like it or not, the trade that brought Kessel here for two firsts and a second rounder represented a radical departure from the player-for-player route.

But with no first rounder next year and one of his major candidates, Tomas Kaberle, holding a no-trade clause, Burke is trying to hit a home run with a fly swatter. Considering the obstacles, if the Leafs are to reach Burke’s goal of the playoffs, they will need a move so spectacular that it  will define Burke’s legacy.

When you have track record as luminous as Brian Burke’s, that’s saying something.
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