The most newsworthy element of Brian Burke’s season-ending press conference surprised absolutely no one.
A few days after coach Ron Wilson recommended making Dion Phaneuf
the Leafs 18th captain, Burke offered his own ringing endorsement.
“If it’s Dion, and it appears that’s the way it is leaning, we would support that. I have never brought a guy in who had a bigger impact on the team from a personality standpoint. It was like an adrenaline bomb went off in our dressing room. This guy brought e
nergy and a positive approach and he challenges everybody. He challenges me; he barks at me sometimes that we need this or that.”
In 26 Leafs games, the 25-year-old Phaneuf scored twice and added eight assists. He was minus 2.
Burke said Phaneuf perfectly reflects the attitude he wants the Leafs to project.
“To me, I think this guy is a quality player, he chews up minutes, he plays against top people, he’s physical, he can skate. Aside from that he brings an energy level and a set of skills that is truly impressive.”
Of greater suspense is the way Burke plans to fashion the Leafs into a playoff contender. The Leafs finished 29th out of 30 clubs in what was one of the worst seasons since the club became the Maple Leafs in 1927. The Phil Kessel
deal means they won’t have a first-round draft choice this year or next.
Burke has often alluded to the July 1 free agency opening, but the available talent in this year’s crop is paper thin.
He anticipated more teams would lock up their unrestricted free agents by July 1. “There are more mechanisms for cap-friendly team to do some things,” he said.
For example, compare the Leafs to this year’s poster boy for salary cap trouble, the Chicago Blackhawks.
The Leafs have two players to sign, restricted free agents Nikolai Kulemin
and Jonas Gustavsson
. The Leafs have 19 players signed for next season, including junior prospect Nazem Kadri
. Right now, they have $44.2 million committed to next season. The Hawks, meanwhile, are hard by the cap at 62.93 million and they have 15 players under contract.
Lucrative long-term contracts have handcuffed teams, especially those in smaller markets who operate with a radically different profit picture than do the Leafs.
Consider the Tampa Bay Lightning. The Lightning will pay Vincent Lecavalier, now toiling as a second-line centre, $10 million per annum over the next six years. From there, Lecavalier’s salary drops to $8.5 million, $4 million, $1.5 million and $1 million. Despite the contract’s dip in the last four years, the cap hit stands at $7.7 million per season.
Since Lecavalier isn’t expected to play much past his mid-30s and since his contract could be swapped to teams looking to hit the free agent floor, there could be room to manouevre should the player want a change of scenery.
The Lighting will soon have to pay superstar Steve Stamkos a staggering sum. He is a restricted free agent after next year, but his attractiveness would likely make him an irresistible target.
They are also facing $19.5 million owed power forward Ryan Malone over the next five years.
In Tampa and Chicago, it seems something has to give.
Burke foresees a time when teams will trade valuable players for only cosmetic return. "The real reward will be relief from the cap. Salary cap considerations will mix with the free agent movement to present other scenarios,” he said.
Always mindful of tampering rules, Burke never came close to revealing, let alone endorsing any scenario. He simply acknowledged that he was flexible.
“There is more than one way to skin a cat and as that (free agent) list keeps dwindling there are other mechanisms for cap friendly teams to do some things,” he said.
Burke offered no odds for keeping Tomas Kaberle, but re-iterated the club had spoken with him about an extension should the team decide to keep him.
“We’re going to listen. We aren’t going to shop him. We have already set an internal price. If we don’t get it, we’ll keep him.”
Burke named five players, Gustavsson, Kessel, Kulemin, Colton Orr and Carl Gunnarsson
as vital contributors this season and said he wasn’t sure whether Tyler Bozak
would be Kessel’s centreman for years to come.
“It depends on when you ask me,” Burke said. “If you had asked me a few weeks ago, I would have said yes. Then when they weren’t having success and Ronnie put the Frat Pack (Christian Hanson and Viktor Stalberg with Bozak) together…we’ll see. “