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Burke Has His Building Block

by Mike Ulmer / Toronto Maple Leafs

Press Release | Video: Kessel Highlights | Burke On Kessel

Toronto Maple Leafs GM Brian Burke finally has his building block.

In the biggest move since Burke took the job November 29, he has landed the speedy front-line player the team has struggled without.

The Maple Leafs acquired restricted free agent Phil Kessel Friday, from the Boston Bruins after a contract stalemate with the Bruins who are flush against the salary cap.

Kessel comes at a prodigious cost. The Leafs have reportedly surrendered first and second-round picks in 2010 and a second rounder in 2011.

Phil Kessel is just 21 years old. He is one of the league’s fastest skaters and his scoring arc, 11 goals in his first season, 19 in his second and 36 last year suggests a player who can register 40-plus goals barring injury. True, his plus minus, a sterling plus 23 last year, reflected the excellence of the team around him but it is an astounding figure for a young player.

The move signals a number of things.

Burke has addressed the club’s shallow talent pool up front with surgical accuracy. The crew of incumbents:  right wingers Lee Stempniak, Niklas Hagman, Jamal Mayers, and Andre Deveaux, was untenable. Hagman is an excellent player but the lack of depth on the right side is jarring.

Second, there is no five-year plan here. If Burke did not honestly believe that the Leafs will  finish in the top 16 teams this season and next, he would not have made such a risky move. It is a tremendous price to pay but landing a player with 50-goal potential who is 21 years old presumably won’t seem preposterous if those choices turn out to be number 17, 20 and 41. That is the gamble here.

Third, Burke knows that his alternate methods of acquiring talent are drying up. The Leafs may dress four free agents from Europe and US colleges this fall, Jonas Gustavsson, Rickard Wallin, Christian Hanson and Tyler Bozak.  That is an astonishingly high number. Those players came because they saw opportunity. Their presence, assuming they show well, and the arrival of players such as Jiri Tlusty and Viktor Stalberg will dissuade other free agents, searching for opportunity, from looking at the Maple Leafs. Burke has said he hopes to land one or at most, two players through this route in the coming year.

Finally, Burke is obviously content, at least for now, with the revamped defence. The addition of Mike Komisarek and Francois Beauchemin through free agency and the trade for Garnet Exelby has drastically altered the chemistry on the blue line. That he was able to make the trade without sacrificing a player off his roster keeps Tomas Kaberle in the fold and allows Burke to retain a puckhandling finesse player amidst the roughhousers.

To heighten the anxiety, Kessel has been out with a rotator cuff injury and will not play until November.

The Leafs have shored up a weakness and dramatically upgraded their team. Using Kessel with another speedster, Jason Blake and any combination of centres will give the Leafs a dramatically new look in the 2009-2010 season.  Getting talent for premium draft picks is as chancy as things get. Burke has no doubt weighed that. It might take years, but the trade will likely go a long way in dictate whether the club can be quickly overhauled or whether tougher times are around the corner.
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