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Offseason Moves A Lesson In Risk Management

by Mike Ulmer / Toronto Maple Leafs

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Serves me right for not listening.

Two weeks ago, I headed for the bug-laden shores of the Ottawa River, my straw homburg perched jauntily on the point of my head, sure that more roster changes were on the way.

It’s not that the Leafs had been stagnant. They had acquired Cody Franson and Matthew Lombardi for Brett Lebda and Robert Slaney. They signed free agent Tim Connolly to fill the substantial hole in the middle of the first line and landed puck-moving defenceman John-Michael Liles via trade.

Still, Brian Burke’s affirmation, “we’re done for now,’ irritated me like a hair I couldn’t quite clear from my face.

I saw a roster teeming with defencemen, an erratic body of work from Connolly and no one in the top six forwards inclined towards retaliation, let alone all out hell-raising.

One shoe felt untied but Burke said there would be no offer sheets. Sure enough none fell from the sky. Steve Stamkos re-upped with Tampa. Drew Doughty hasn’t sold his place in Los Angeles.

Two weeks jonesing for other people’s internet to find out Mike Zigomanis was coming back.

Time, as they say in periods of global recession, for a paradigm shift. Why not use the past to predict the future? That’s never been done.

I started thinking not so much about when but about how.

With a couple of exceptions, Burke has bypassed traditional methods of radical change: swapping a whole bunch of players for another bunch of players or making a whopping offer to a restricted free agent with the hope that someone gets nervous.

It hit me: the architect of the Leafs revival might stand out in any room because of the passion of his arguments and the vigour of his wit but he is less revolutionary than tactician.

At heart, or perhaps in the lawyerly dominant sections of his brain, Burke serves and is served by a keen awareness of risk management. He is as conservative as any guy with monogrammed sleeves.

The first question Burke asks a potential trading partner is what he needs. He answers that need, invariably takes on salary and then leaves some leftover stuff he can’t use. But what he takes back is human capital, talent in all its forms, plummeting, cresting, nascent, mishandled, emerging or stillborn.

Hockey has always been played by people, not dollars. That’s not going to change. But imagine the drapes in a manager’s office catching fire.

That’s the salary cap. Burke’s tack is to arrive at the manager’s door with a bucketful of water and an idea about his desk.

The Calgary Flames needed one fewer dominant personality in the dressing room and were anxious to ditch the $6.5 million in salary Dion Phaneuf represented.

Francois Beauchemin, acquired by Burke let us not forget as a free agent, was spinning his wheels with the Leafs.

So Burke got 136 games out of Beauchemin. Then, having invested nothing but money, he parlayed Beauchemin into Joffrey Lupul, a player who will find himself on the Leafs first line and might even justify that spot. He agreed to take on Lupul, who had serious health issues and an unwieldy $4.25 million contract that had two and a half seasons left in exchange for college defenceman Jake Gardiner. Gardiner’s skating and puckhandling talent is so prodigious he might advance better at the NHL rather than the AHL level this season.

In Tomas Kaberle, Burke had a receding talent who could fill a role with the Boston Bruins. The Bruins had a reverse cap problem, they didn’t want to give up anything off their roster, wisely it turned out. Again, Burke accommodated, shipping Kaberle for prospect Joe Colborne, a draft choice that turned out to be Tyler Biggs and a second rounder parlayed into Liles.

The Leaf garnered a top four defenceman in Franzen for $4.3 million in cap space and salary. If Lombardi does come back, they add one of the league’s fastest skaters and a terrific second line centre. Nashville GM David Poile bought freedom from the Lombardi contract for one of several good young defenceman he had on the roster. Lombardi’s health was now someone else’s wild card.

Burke retained found-ins Ron Wilson, Mikhail Grabovski, Nikolai Kulemin, James Reimer and Luke Schenn. He got Clarke MacArthur for $1 million and then resigned him for a palatable sum. There was little risk and a pleasing return.

This brings us nicely to the now. By adding Franson and Liles to the mix, Burke now has nine NHL-tested rearguards competing for six spots. With two, Korbinian Holzer and Gardiner not far removed from graduating from the Marlies, the situation looks a little crowded on the blueline.

Meanwhile, the Leafs lack a true power forward or puck control wizard on the number one line and need more bite near the top of the lineup.
Burke has little of the commodity he used to land Phaneuf, Aulie, Franson, Colborne, Liles and Lombardi. The Leafs have about $5 million in cap space and most of that will go to Luke Schenn’s new contract.

Two years ago, an overhaul was mandatory. Now with able NHLers sprinkled about the lineup and a few potentially high-reward components such as Phaneuf, Kessel and Connolly in tow, the Leafs could wait and hope Reimer, Colborne, Matt Frattin, Nazem Kadri and Gardiner can emerge as breakthrough talents.

We’re done for now is one of the world’s great conditional statements. It’s easier to change than a diaper but the club’s moves have been so unpredictable both in timing and execution, it’s harder than ever to figure out where the shot will come from.

That won’t make for entirely easy sleeping… either at the cottage or at home.

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