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Summer's Over, Burke Stops Leafs' Fall

Sep 19, 2009 – 11:59 AM
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Christopher Botta

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Bravo, Brian Burke. The Toronto general manager talked his usual good game and delivered, acquiring Phil Kessel from Boston for two first round picks and one second-rounder.

Without the benefit of a cornerstone prospect like John Tavares or Steven Stamkos up front, Burke still found a way to shake up the Maple Leafs and make them better. Since he accomplished the trick without giving up any of the half-dozen very good NHL players on his roster, Burke now runs a team that can compete in the East -- this season. He also held on to his top forward prospects, 2009 first pick Nazem Kadri, Czech Republic left wing Jiri Tlusty and college free agent signee Tyler Bozak, so he did not completely mortgage the future.

No, Toronto is not ready to beat Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, Washington and perhaps a few others in a seven-game series, but today the Maple Leafs are a competitive hockey team and a fun watch.

Last season, Burke had a perceptive line about building hockey franchises. The team president said teams must be either "ascending or descending rapidly." His point was, the Leafs needed to either contend now or perform badly enough to put them in the hunt for a Tavares or Victor Hedman. Being in the middle -- like Florida (on the low side) and Nashville (maybe win a round but never have legit players for the Stanley Cup) -- is death.

Even with Kessel, of course, the Maple Leafs have plenty of work to do. They have become Anaheim-tough, re-tooled their defense around stud youngster Luke Schenn, added a possible gem in goaltender Jonas Gustavsson and now have something resembling a first line. In Ron Wilson, they also have a top-5 head coach. They still need more than Kessel.

Nevertheless, this is the kind of deal everyone outside of Toronto will find plenty to cry about:

"They gave up way too much." (No, they gave up just enough to get a trade done).

"They gave a very restricted free agent too much money." (No, $5.4 million a year for five years may have been too much for Boston to give him. Toronto paid the price for improving dramatically overnight ... well, in November, when Kessel's shoulder heals).

"Phil Kessel is a little turd." (If half the complaints are true, count on fellow Americans Burke and Ron Wilson scaring him straight).

Astoundingly, few are pointing fingers at the mismanagement of the Boston Bruins. GM Peter Chiarelli left no room in his salary cap to sign Kessel, a potential star he wanted to develop as a Bruin. Something is very wrong when an NHL franchise cannot keep its top young player as a restricted free agent. Maybe Kessel and his rep, Wade Arnott, gave Chiarelli no other choice. Then again, Chiarelli was under no pressure to give the unaccomplished Derek Morris -- a supposed puck-moving defenseman with 31 goals combined over the last five seasons -- $3.3 million for this year.

Of course, the Bruins could not absorb much salary in a Kessel deal. But to not bring back a premier prospect only a year or two away from the NHL is unconscionable. To make this trade within your own division is worse, no matter the 35-point separation between Boston and Toronto last season.

Look at it this way: the Bruins traded a 36-goal scorer who turns 22 on opening weekend for a pair of 17-year olds and a 16-year old. The first-rounders Boston receive in 2010 and 2011 will likely fall in the draft between 10th and 20th overall. Even if one of them becomes the equal of Kessel, it won't be for at least four years from now.

Big step back for the Bruins. Huge, ballsy step forward for the Maple Leafs. Makes you wonder why other teams didn't step up.
Filed under: Sports