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The Never Ending Story

by Mike Ulmer / Toronto Maple Leafs
RELATED: Burke Statement On Kaberle   
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Tomas Kaberle is the star of a trade story that will not die. It’s Night of The Living Trade. The latest installment of the Kaberle saga ended Sunday without a deal, but this isn’t over. It’s never over.

“We had a double digit number of offers,” Leafs GM Brian Burke told Toronto radio station AM640. “We did a conference call and everyone in hockey ops agreed there was nothing on the table to make us make a deal.”

Let’s back this narrative up, shall we?

Tomas Kaberle is not the reason the Leafs had the second-worst goals against average in the league. Credit Vesa Toskala, the shoulder injury incurred by Mike Komisarek and a cavalier team-wide opinion of defence. The Leafs viewed their own net the way the rest of us appraise a full Green Box left for a month in the sun.

Likewise, it’s a little silly to blame Kaberle for the league’s worst power play since it is his job to give the puck to the guy who then scores. If you want to blame someone for the power play, you might settle on Dion Phaneuf who scored just two power play goals in 26 games.

Yep, Kaberle endured a dreadful second half of the season. Take a number.

I don’t remember anyone saying Tomas Kaberle was a Norris Trophy candidate. He’s a handy guy with some top-drawer skills and one pressing drawback: Kaberle avoids body contact the way Mike Fisher used to.

Kaberle is second in career points among Leafs defenceman behind only Borje Salming. Clearly, he can play a little.

The guy hasn’t changed. What has changed, for the better, is the defence. The late season addition of Dion Phaneuf and the rocket-like development of Carl Gunnarsson leaves the Leafs with one of the better blue line corps in the league.

Kaberle’s presence figures to push either Brett Lebda or Jeff Finger all the way down to the Marlies. Those two have 525 NHL games between them. Some would call that depth.

“We think we have a group of eight that is as good as any in the league,” Burke said.

The lack of a trade would be an absolute tragedy were Kaberle the only player Burke could barter to fill the team’s substantial holes up front.

After a rocky start, Francois Beauchemin delivered a fine second half of the season and led the team in ice time. He was minus-4 after Christmas playing against the opposition’s top units. The surplus of defencemen and the expected ascendency of Keith Aulie might free up Luke Schenn, perhaps in a package that would involve the Ducks’ unsigned restricted free agent Bobby Ryan.

Burke said one of the benefits of the cattle call for Kaberle was the surfacing of players available on other rosters. “We will circle back and see if there is another way to skin a cat,” he said.

It’s hard to imagine Kaberle wanting to get back on the merry-go-round by re-signing with the Leafs but Burke said he will extend him a contract extension when he lands back in Toronto.

There are inducements to ditch the extension.  Add the savings the team could realize by cutting Kaberle loose to the $6 million saved on J.S. Giguere’s expiring contract and the Leafs will be beautifully poised for next summer’s free agent sweepstakes.

Burke said he has about $5 million in salary cap room and may use it to ink a veteran forward such as Raffi Torres.

There could be intriguing names available through unrestricted free agency a year from now, none more so than gifted 26-year-old Washington star Alexander Semin and San Jose Sharks mainstay Joe Thornton. All are centremen. Buffalo assist machine Tim Connolly, and rugged Blues winger David Backes could come free at the deadline if it is obvious to their teams that they are not ready to re-sign.

Of course, the real story surrounding the Leafs is the club’s thin pool at forward, but Burke gained ground by inking Colby Armstrong and trading for Kris Versteeg. He sees a centre corps comprised of  Tyler Bozak, Mikhail Grabovski, John Mitchell, Christian Hanson and perhaps Nazem Kadri as highly skilled but undersized.

With Burke on the job for less than two full years, this is far from a championship roster. But it is a substantially better team than the one that closed the season. It turns out that neither trading Tomas Kaberle or keeping him will have a profound impact on that.
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