Critical Times For Burke
As rumors swirl regarding Tomas Kaberle's future in Toronto, the blueprint general manager Brian Burke has imprinted for the Toronto Maple Leafs is anything but definitive---but that doesn't make it any less effective.
With the departures of Francois Beauchemin and Kris Versteeg, Burke has managed to not only add some prospects to the cupboard, but relieve some cap space for acquisitions via trade and/or free agency . If Burke and Bruins GM Peter Chiarelli reach an agreement and Kaberle decides to waive his no-trade clause, the Leafs would free even more cap space assuming the team doesn't acquire a bloated contract in return---which Burke is apparently willing. Considering Kaberle is eligible for free agency this summer, it's hard to envision a lucrative return from the Bruins for his services. That's not to say the Leafs won't be able to acquire some important building blocks moving forward, but Kaberle won't net an impact player of such caliber as, say, Jeff Carter.
If, hypothetically, Kaberle is traded, what might be the next phase in Burke's plan to restore the Leafs to respectability? Depending on the contracts the Leafs absorb between now and July 1, Burke could have upwards of $15 million to fiddle with in the free agent waters. Despite the lack of depth in this year's free agent pool, Burke intends on being active. As Dave Nonis has stated, Kaberle will be replaced in the off-season if he is traded or tests free agency. Players potentially available come July 1 include Andrei Markov, Kevin Bieksa, Bryan McCabe, Ed Jovanovski, Eric Brewer, Joni Pitkanen, Christian Ehrhoff, James Wisniewski and more. And if you think that list if bare, that of the free agent forwards, besides Simon Gagne and Brad Richards, is littered with marginal second and third-liners.
Does this mean Burke intends on entering the bidding wars for Richards and offering a long-term, lucrative contract for the 30-year-old? Richards would undoubtedly upgrade the top-six and provide the Leafs with a legitimate first-line center for Phil Kessel, but is he the knight in shining armor that will push the Leafs into the playoffs for the first time since the lockout? Perhaps, but committing significant amounts of money to free agents---especially with Dion Phaneuf and Mike Komisarek on the roster for three more seasons--- could prove costly.
But these are the types of risks that must be taken when rebuilding on the fly, rather than a traditional rebuild through the draft. It's possible the next couple of seasons will determine Burke's fate in Toronto, as the results of his rebuilding method should come to fruition by then. But it's hard to criticize his methods even if it does fail when you consider that he has made the Leafs the youngest club in the NHL and has imported a decent amount of assets despite the team's supposed dire state.
If a first-line center and top-four defenseman are brought into the fold, the Leafs could progressively rise in the Eastern Conference standings within a couple of years as its core develops. While many analysts cite that the Leafs lack the core to realistically contend for the Stanley Cup, it's premature to determine that considering very few of its key players have reached their prime. I understand patience is wearing thin after 40 years, but it doesn't mean every decision the Leafs make will lead to failure. If Burke's method has proved anything, it's that there's at least realistic hope in Leafs Nation that brighter days are ahead.
The Leafs' fate, however, hinges on Burke's plan to acquire such talent in the off-season. Considering the limited amount of star players in the free agent pool, Burke may have throw considerable amounts of money at free agents in order to avoid another season with the same questions surrounding his team. Otherwise, trading draft picks and/or prospects for proven talent would only contradict his plan.
For a team that is attempting to harvest as many draft picks and prospects as possible, free agency is the perfect opportunity to avoid relinquishing such assets via trade.
It's going to be an exciting summer for the Leafs.
Follow me on Twitter at: http://www.twitter.com/#!/RonGuillet