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Burke willing to stick with current group of Leafs

by Mike G. Morreale
Despite his team's recent slide in the Eastern Conference standings, Toronto Maple Leafs general manager Brian Burke is confident the group he has in place is the one capable of making a last-ditch effort to qualify for the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

"We're sticking to the blueprint here," Burke told the media following Monday's 3 p.m. ET trade deadline.

"In my mind, there is nothing we could have done (Monday) that would have made us better now," he added. "It was all stuff that would have made us better down the road and our fans have lived through that. We have to see if this group is good enough to win and keep our assets."

Burke and Dave Nonis, Toronto's senior vice president of hockey operations, reiterated in the days leading up to the trade deadline that the organization wasn't interested in rental players and wouldn't deal a promising prospect for an experienced player.

Burke reminded the media of that Monday afternoon when he was asked if he found it difficult to stand pat considering the 1-7-1 slump that has dropped the team to 10th in the East -- three points behind eighth-seeded Winnipeg -- heading into Monday's action.

"You can't change the course just because you have 10 bad days out of 180 days in the season," Burke said. "I still believe this group can get it back on the rails. The schedule favors us in terms of teams we play and how we have control whether or not we get into the playoffs. Panic cannot be a part of this."

The Leafs close the season with 19 of their final 20 games against Eastern Conference teams, and of their 15 games in March, nine are against teams currently in the top eight in the conference.

"If we don't get into the playoffs, I'm sure a lot of things would have to be looked at," Burke said. "But that wasn't the focus on (Monday). We have not had a discussion of a coaching change … I know that's a popular topic in (the media) circle but not mine."

Burke also said he has all the confidence in the world in goalies James Reimer and Jonas Gustavsson.

"The goaltender position isn't an easy position to play in Toronto, particularly if you're struggling a little bit," Burke said. "When we signed (Gustavsson), one of the things we spent the most time on was whether or not we felt he could play in Toronto. It wasn't so much if he could be an NHL goalie, but if he could play in this market. I'm not whining since it's what we do and where we live. But the pressure here is a millstone and not an asset."

The Maple Leafs did swap one prospect for another Monday when they sent defenseman Keith Aulie to the Tampa Bay Lightning in exchange for forward Carter Ashton. Aulie was expected to make the Leafs this season but was passed on the depth chart by Jake Gardiner and spent most of the season with the AHL Toronto Marlies.

"We felt we had some depth on defense and we needed to add some size with foot speed up front," Burke said. "Ashton is a big-bodied guy who can skate … he has some finish and also has some sand. This is a player who will be important down the road. Our scouts have been pushing this guy to me for a while and the fact we've seen an emergence of guys with the (AHL Toronto) Marlies and the draft picks, gave us enough depth to make this deal."

In addition to rookie defenseman Gardiner, Burke has also seen vast improvement in Marlies defense prospects Korbinian Holzer and Jesse Blacker.

Burke also wouldn't reveal whether he was in contact with Columbus GM Scott Howson for the services of Rick Nash.

"I think that particular situation log-jammed a lot of other deals," he said. "It held up a lot of potential deals because of the size of the deal and scope of the player. But I won't comment on whether we were involved or not."

Burke said the offers he did receive were to take players that his organization had acquired and believe in and move them for future assets in the form of high draft picks or "good" prospects.

"In my mind, there is nothing we could have done (Monday) that would have made us better now. It was all stuff that would have made us better down the road and our fans have lived through that. We have to see if this group is good enough to win and keep our assets." -- Brian Burke

"The offers weren't insulting," Burke said. "Sometime you get insulted this time of year. You wonder if the guy is mad at you, has a grudge against you or if your dog bit his dog, but none of that happened this year."

Burke also seemed a tad agitated when asked his opinion of the trade deadline and the effect it has had on players in recent years.

"I'm debating starting our own trade freeze 10 days before the deadline, much like I do prior to Christmas … that's how distracting it is," Burke said. "It's amazing. Clarke MacArthur was traded 10 times (before the deadline), Mikhail Grabovski 12 times, (Nikolai) Kulemin and Luke Schenn was traded 50 times. I think it's remarkable that the players have kept their focus through this. The trade deadline is hard on players, but murder on players in Toronto -- so we've had serious debate whether we would do this 10 days earlier so that our players can relax.

"I don't know if that's the right answer because I don't want to tie my hands here, but it reminds me of the '24/7' (HBO) series. It's '24/7' here now; I don't know how the players can ignore it, but it's part of playing on a Canadian team, so this is the hardest market to play in from that perspective."

Follow Mike Morreale on Twitter at: @mike_morreale
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