The Toronto Maple Leafs haven’t been legitimate Cup contenders for quite some time, and so the past half-decade for better or worse must necessarily be considered a “rebuilding period.” And because top-tier free agents like Brad Richards have chosen not to relocate to the hockey “fish bowl” that is Toronto, that rebuilding effort hasn’t been able to accelerate very quickly.
As a result, GM Brian Burke has had to resort to creative means to upgrade his team, targeting top-tier players who have worn out their welcomes elsewhere.
The biggest move he’s made so far was the acquisition of Dion Phaneuf from the Calgary Flames, and while the Leafs’ captain hasn’t exactly been stellar since arriving on Bay Street, it’s quite fair to say that he (along with fellow acquisitions Fredrik Sjostrom and Keith Aulie) have proven to be far more valuable to the Leafs than the quartet of Ian White, Matt Stajan, Niklas Hagman and Jamal Mayers has been for the Flames.
The much-maligned trade for Phil Kessel was another excellent example of Burke going to unconventional lengths to upgrade his team, but it’s already clear that Leafs fans are more inclined to boo Kessel and the trade than consider just how rare consistent 30-goal scorers actually are. Leafs fans might bemoan the fact that acquiring Kessel cost them both Tyler Seguin and Dougie Hamilton, but the reality is that to this point, Kessel has been a far more valuable commodity, and it’s still more likely than not that Kessel will always be the most valuable player involved in that trade.
Perhaps Burke’s shrewdest maneuver came today, when he took advantage of the Nashville Predators’ tenuous financial situation. Burke sent 2010 free agent bust Brett Lebda and forward Robert Sleney to the Preds in exchange for very promising young defenseman Cody Franson and forward Matthew Lombardi. The key to this deal was Lombardi, who signed a big contract with the Preds last summer and suffered a concussion in his second game with the Preds that forced him to miss the remainder of the season. Lombardi’s hockey-playing future remains in serious doubt, and the Leafs’ financial might made it possible to take on what may well be $7 million in dead contract dollars.
By agreeing to absorb Lombardi’s contract, Burke was able to heist one of the best young players in the Preds’ system and in the process put the finishing touches on one of the NHL’s best young defense corps. With Phaneuf, Franson, John-Michael Liles, Luke Schenn, Carl Gunnarsson and Mike Komisarek patrolling the blue line, this should inevitably get easier for goaltenders James Reimer and Jonas Gustavsson. And now Burke can pay virtually all of his attention to upgrading his team’s forwards, where Kessel remains without question the diamond in the rough.
The signing of Tim Connolly could help immensely, if he’s able to remain healthy. Connolly is a fantastic stickhandler and playmaker, but he hasn’t played more than 73 games in a season since 2002-03. If he can stay on the ice, he just might be the playmaker needed to spur Kessel to his first 40-goal (or more) season. Obviously a big “if,” and a pretty substantial financial risk for the Leafs at $9.5 million over two years.
Additional forward options still on the market include Antti Miettinen and Jason Arnott, but it’s unclear at this point whether Burke is looking at UFA’s or rather planning to continue on the trade route. Judging from the moves he’s made to date, it’ll probably be more wheeling and dealing. And although Leafs fans might want to disagree, the reality is that the organization is in far better shape today than when Burke took over.
On the Preds’ side of the deal, this is a sad day indeed. First there’s the Lombardi contract blowing up in GM David Poile’s face, and then there’s having to give up a terrific young asset (Franson) in order to shed Lombardi’s contract.
“Unfortunately, Matthew Lombardi’s concussion last season and recovery left us uncertain about his ability to come back for this season, and that uncertainty has made it difficult for us to move forward, plan and develop our lineup,” Poile said in a press release about the trade.
Making matters worse, Lombardi indicated to the Canadian Press that he actually might be able to play in 2011-12.
“I’ve come a long way since then,” Lombardi said during a conference call. “My everyday stuff is getting pretty close to normal, I’ve seen a lot of progress the last few months. Obviously it has taken a long time but I’m pretty confident I’m near the end. I’m getting better. I’m not there yet but my goal is to be ready for training camp. It is what it is right now and I’m looking forward to the opportunity.”
If he plays – and plays well – this will be a truly awful deal for the Predators. Lombardi scored 53 points in 78 games for the Phoenix Coyotes in 2009-10, earning him his big deal with the Preds, and it seems as though Franson was a very steep price to pay to get rid of a player who might actually be quite productive in 2011-12.
Given that the Predators are currently nearly $13 million under the payroll floor – meaning they must increase their payroll by another $13 million in order to be cap-compliant for the 2011-12 season – Poile has created a situation where he has absolutely no choice but to make another deal that utilizes the cap space in such a way as to reinvigorate fan interest. Perhaps that move will be to sign defensemen Shea Weber and Ryan Suter to lucrative contracts.
But no matter what comes next, it’s hard to view the cash savings – the difference between Lebda’s and Lombardi’s contracts – generated in this trade as being worth giving up Franson for. And ultimately, that’s how this particular deal should be – must be – judged.