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Lots Of Obstacles For Burke

by Mike Ulmer / Toronto Maple Leafs

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In his days coaching the woebegone Vancouver Canucks, longtime broadcaster Harry Neale acknowledged his team performed  poorly both at home and on the road.

“My failure as a coach,” he said, “has been my inability to find us another place to play.”

Sometimes, as Harry learned, there are no more options.

It’s a story worth remembering when contemplating what could be an eventful 30 days for the Maple Leafs.

Could be, as in probably won’t be. Not enough options.

As you know, the Dallas Stars announced they are soliciting bids for anyone interested in an exclusive negotiating period with marquee free agent Brad Richards. It’s an enticing arrangement but it overlooks the central rule of marital relationships: just because you have something to say, doesn’t mean someone else is going to listen.

Wooing Richards before July 1 is a frontrunner’s move, a chance to close a deal and meet all the necessary criteria over salary and term. It’s a window for a nice clean offer and if the money is right and the team involved is the player’s first choice, it could pay off.

How did you know there had to be a but?  The team that signs Richards via the early-bird special will likely gift the Stars with a first-round draft choice or better. That’s why it seems  unlikely any team will trade for the rights.

It figures the Leafs would love to have Richards. Who wouldn’t? He is still in his late prime at 31. He’s a terrific person, a Conn Smythe winner. He fits their needs for a number one centre perfectly.

The problem here is one of precedent. While his stance has softened slightly, Leafs’ GM Brian Burke has said he will not deal in the kind of 8-15 year contracts ladled out for Rick DiPietro, Jeff Carter, Mike Richards and Vincent Lecavalier.

There are doubts about Richards’ desire to play in an intense Canadian hockey market. Some believe Richards is headed to the Rangers where he will be reunited with his former coach John Tortorella. None of this, of course, is particularly good news for the Leafs.

The chances of landing a centre in the late first round of the draft who could make an immediate impact are, of course, a bit south of bupkus.

So with the draft and free agency out of the way, the only option is trade. Here is where Harry’s words hit home.

Over the last decade or so, two front-line centremen have been acquired by trade: Joe Thornton and Brad Richards. It just seems easier to conceptualize because the Leafs did it with Mats Sundin and Doug Gilmour.

With a free agent spending limit that seems destined to go from $59.4 million to $63 or $64 teams like the Philadelphia Flyers could still meet their free agent aspirations for a goalie and shuffle enough money around to keep assets like Jeff Carter and Mike Richards.

So while the Leafs may have more money to spend, they will have no leverage they can use to gain a player from a capped-out team.

If he lands a number one centre, Burke will have turned a feat that makes manipulating the league to allow him to draft the Sedins seem as easy walking to the fridge and whipping up a cheese sandwich.

The impediments are listed above. Burke arrives at the bargaining table with only his imagination, experience and reams of cap room that he may or may not get to use.

In the wake of the trade that brought the Leafs their number one pairing of Dion Phaneuf and Keith Aulie, it would be foolish to say Burke can’t pull it off.

But in the wake of the wall of obstacles lined up against him, it would be just as silly to say he will.
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