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Where To Go From Here

by Mike Ulmer / Toronto Maple Leafs
The questions of course is why didn’t the Maple Leafs acquire Mike Richards or Jeff Carter when the Philadelphia Flyers convened Thursday’s fire sale.

One thing is for sure: Brian Burke tried.

Burke was in meetings all day but published reports indicated he was in talks with the Flyers who wanted Nazem Kadri and Nikolai Kulemin for either Carter or Richards.

That, along with a decade or so years left on the contract of both players, might not have been too much for Burke. The same stories indicated after trying to pry those players, the Flyers hung up and never called back.

This is the sort of thing that makes Brian Burke angry. You see him come out of a meeting or stop for a second in the lobby of the hotel and you see a man agitated by his inability to make a deal. And now, with Richards and Carter in play...

For what it matters, I wouldn’t have made either trade and the need for a number one centre has been my constant theme since the season ended.

Carter is a terrific skater and goalscorer who is mostly a finisher, which is a great notion unless you are playing beside Phil Kessel. Richards is talented and mean but sometimes it looks like the Flyers made Voldemort their captain.

There is a nice but not compelling body of evidence that Kadri is a top six guy. That’s okay, he stepped out of junior two years ago. We can play this any way you like.

But I think Nikolai Kulemin is the Leafs’ best player. 

Here’s why. When the Leafs start playing games of real importance, the opponent’s top weapon will immediately become the responsibility of Nikolai Kulemin.

Kulemin rivals Phil Kessel for skating. He is easily the most effective Maple Leaf along the boards. He scored 30 goals, second only to Phil Kessel.

If you have a mediocre team, Nikolai Kulemin is hard to notice. If you have a good team, he becomes more prominent. If you have an excellent team, kids are buying his jerseys. The Leafs, you may have heard, want to have an excellent team.

So the combination of long-term salary and the possible inclusion of Kulemin made the deal for Carter a no-go. Wayne Simmonds, Brayden Schenn and a second rounder was an irresistible package for the Flyers. Schenn has long been considered the best player outside the NHL and the Leafs did not have a prospect with that kind of standing.  What are you going to do?

It seems unlikely the Kings with Mike Richards in tow, will be in on the bidding for Brad Richards. That leaves, by all accounts, the Leafs, Rangers (who have big-time salary obligations of their own)  and perhaps the Lightning who  must find a way to ink Steve Stamkos.

With L.A. and Columbus now sated, the market for a front-line centre appears thinner. All roads outside of free agency, it seems, lead to Paul Stastny.

Given the choice between Stastny, Carter and Richards, Stastny has always been the most reasonable bet. He has three years left on his contract at $6.6 million, he has a pass-first mentality and the Avalanche, especially if they draft Jonathan Huberdeau, are knee deep in centres.

But the price, if there is one for Stastny, certainly won’t be moved downwards by the Flyers adventures. Increasingly, Burke finds his options dwindling to July 1 and Brad Richards.

Little wonder he’s not a happy guy.

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