Not Gonna Conform
Cue the Frank Sinatra tune. Brian Burke will do it his way in Toronto, and when it works, or when it doesn't, he'll have no regrets at the end of the day.
The tradtionalists in the game, or those without imagination who believe a championship team can only be built one way, are either pulling their hair out over Burke's insistence on developing his own methods for constructing a winner in the salary cap era, or tut-tutting him for refusing to buy into their philosophies.
You just gotta love that.
So, with the announcement, "The Boston Bruins are proud to select Tyler Seguin" still ringing in their air, with people still insisting that Burke's decision to trade two first rounders for Phil Kessel was pure insanity, what does the Leaf general manager do but go out and buy another player at the cost of more futures.
This is a GM who just loves to thumb his nose at conventional wisdom.
Forget patiently stockpiling picks and prospects. Burke says he wants to win now with a team that finished 29th out of 30 NHL clubs last year and isn't particularly interested in whether you or I or anyone thinks he's doing it properly. He's not out to convince anybody of anything. He's just doing what he wants, doing what he thinks will bring a winner to Toronto under the new set of industry rules established after the lockout of 2004-05 that many in the business still refuse to acknowledge have changed everything.
The altered nature of the business is why Leaf fans are rejoicing this morning over the acquisition of winger Kris Versteeg from Chicago, and rightly so. He's a legitimate scorer with some bite in his game, and while he's overpaid at $3 million because of a procedural screwup by the Hawks last summer, he played with that salary last season and played hard. He's mouthy and competes hard and will fit right in with what the Leafs are trying to build.
Call him the anti-Matt Stajan, if you want.
"We paid a high price," said Burke this morning. "But we are pleased to add a player of this quality, and a top prospect (Bill Sweatt, who also came in the deal with Versteeg).
"Immediate help, as well as some future."
But Versteeg wasn't available because the Leafs know something the Hawks don't. He was available because of the salary cap system, and understand, there was a cost. Viktor Stalberg, we know, can play in the league. If this was last September after Stalberg had gone wild in the pre-season Leaf fans would be screaming bloody murder. But he's a young player still learning to be a pro and still learning to compete.
Chris DiDomenico was a good player on the 2009 Canadian national junior team that won gold in Ottawa, a scrappy, trash-talking and slightly undersized right winger who might turn into Versteeg in a few years. His main problem is a busted femur suffered in the spring of 2009 which held him out most of last season and could hamper his development as a pro.
And Phillipe Paradis? Never saw him, at least not as a Leaf prospect. He was picked up from Carolina for Jiri Tlusty as Burke sought to replace Euros with hardnosed Canadians in the Leaf system, and Burke had an inkling that Chicago liked him in his draft year and might like him still.
Out of Stalberg, DiDomenico and Paradis, two might play. Stalberg could be a 25-goal man if he learns how to compete every night, which is what Versteeg is already.
So like the Kessel deal, Burke is trading maybes and even blue-chip prospects for players who have already proven they can do it and have yet to reach their prime. Stalberg and DiDomenico were sixth round picks, Paradis a late first rounder, and moving them to get a proven 20-goal scorer off a Stanley Cup winning roster is a vivid illustration that there are many different ways to both acquire assets and move them.
Yes, Burke has given up lots of pieces to get Kessel, Versteeg and Dion Phaneuf. But all three are under 25 years of age. This isn't George Allen with the 1970s Over The Hill Gang in Washington with the Redskins. Phaneuf isn't Billy Kilmer. Burke is moving young players and prospects to get young players, and very new style of transaction ushered in by the salary cap.
The Leafs have been nothing but bad ever since Burke arrived in late November, 2008, of that there is no question. But in making more big deals than any GM since that time, Burke has shown an ability to identify distress points with other teams and capitalize. He did that with Kessel, who the Bruins couldn't or wouldn't afford to pay, although critics of that deal might argue Boston GM Peter Chiarelli victimized Burke, not the other way around.
Burke identified trouble in Calgary that led to the availability of Phaneuf, and knew that while Chicago had cleared necessary cap space from their championship roster by dealing Dustin Byfuglien and others to Atlanta, they had more money that had to be moved. Andrew Ladd, by the way, may also have to go, and has a championship team ever been dismantled so quickly? This, again, is a product of the salary cap system where a player's ability must be combined with his salary to establish a market value that often confounds hockey logic.
You can argue about any one of these Leaf deals. But you cannot disagree with the fact that when Burke arrived the Leafs had no plan and no core, and now they are North American-based and trying to build an ornery team, and that in Kessel, Versteeg, Phaneuf, Luke Schenn, Tyler Bozak, Nazem Kadri and Jonas Gustafsson there is an identifiable core. Moreover, despite the howling over Seguin, etc, the Leafs still have the youngest team in the league, although the Oilers might take that mantle once Steve Tambellini finishes hacking away at the Edmonton roster.
Tomas Kaberle is yet to be dealt, and players who might be offered to the Leafs include Ryan Malone (Tampa) and Andy McDonald (St. Louis), according to the rumour mill. Burke loves to daydream there's a way he could pry Brayden Schenn away from the Kings, and depending on how the Ilya Kovalchuk sweepstakes unfold, Kaberle might help him do that.
So thumbs up or down on the Versteeg deal? Don't overrate the ex-Hawk, but he's better than anything that went the other way, and it was a deal the Hawks had to do, not the Leafs, which suggests the risk is mostly one way. If Stalberg blossoms, the Leafs could regret the deal, but otherwise it looks like the Phaneuf deal, a player acquired for pieces Toronto can live without.