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After a year-and-a-half of shuffling and dealing, a defining day for Brian Burke and the Maple Leafs dawns on Thursday.
The Leafs and the NHL’s other 29 teams can begin signing free agents at noon and despite a shallow free agent pool, Burke expects to be wade in waist-high. He has repeatedly said rebuilding the Leafs would not be a long-term job.
Now he is ready to prove it.
With ample room under the salary cap and a stabilized situation on defence and in net, Burke is concentrating on landing the three or four forwards he needs to push the Maple Leafs into the post-season. After another year of junior, last year’s first rounder, Nazem Kadri
should be ready to play. The Leafs have a player who should be an elite goalscorer in Phil Kessel
and a host of impressive young players including Tyler Bozak
, Viktor Stalberg, goalie Jonas Gustavsson
and defenceman Carl Gunnarsson
. All were unknowns at the beginning of last season.
Burke’s first moves will involve free agency. Defenceman Dan Hamhuis who's rights are held by Pittsburgh is a top-four all-arounder. Plenty of teams will look at speedy centre Matthew Lombard, a 28-year-old who scored 19 goals with the Phoenix Coyotes.
Rugged right winger Colby Armstrong
(27) scored 15 goals with Atlanta and would fit the Leafs’ need for second and third line winger who can score. Raffi Torres, 28, scored 19 goals last year and would fill a similar hole.
The real fun starts if Burke lands Hamhuis. That would leave him with seven NHL defencemen: Dion Phaneuf
, Francois Beauchemin, Mike Komisarek
, Luke Schenn
, Carl Gunnarsson
, Jeff Finger
and Hamhuis. Burke has another defenceman who is nearly NHL ready in Keith Aulie and Juraj Mikus
who advanced nicely last season with the Marlies.
That would set up the long-anticipated Tomas Kaberle trade, but also enough room to move another rearguard for a quality forward. Because of his youth and salary, the Leafs most attractive blue line commodity is Schenn and should Burke make him available, he could be assured of a top six forward in return. Among Leaf fans there has been much talk of the club trying to free restrickted free agent power forward Bobby Ryan from Ana
heim. Should he choose, Burke could offer a player whose future might be comparable to Ryan’s in Schenn.
Finally, Burke has long been rumoured to have front-of-the-line access to Boston centre Marc Savard. After a concussion and injury plagued year, the 32-year-old could be in line for a Leaf renaissance or a grinding end to his career. The gifted Savard was magical when paired with Kessel in Boston but is obviously larded with risk.
The Leafs are coming off a disastrous season in which they finished 29th in the 30 team-league. Paradoxically, Burke has manouevered his team into an advantageous position. The Leafs have cap space, a handful of legitimate prospects, a sprinkling of tried NHLers, emerging organizational depth and top drawer talents in Phaneuf and Kessel.
He has the levers to land three significant additions and head into the season in October on the dead run.
The market, of course, will dictate whether Burke can do anything at all, but one thing seems certain.