Monday, February 01, 2010

The Morning After: Thoughts on Brian Burke's Day of Dealing

In retrospect, Sunday wasn't the best day to virtually go into hiding. Instead of just letting the hockey world get by with one easy, news-free day, Toronto Maple Leafs general manager Brian Burke went crazy.

Saddled with a low-rung team in the Eastern Conference, Burke -- who famously stated he "wouldn't watch this again" after Toronto finished 12th in the East last year -- saw enough of mediocrity, and he attacked this team's biggest weakness.

In two moves, Burke performed a bigger shakeup than any we've seen on one day in the NHL in a long time, definitely since the salary cap came into play after the lockout.

Joining him in the "Enough is enough" line was Calgary Flames general manager Darryl Sutter.

Calgary trades defenseman Dion Phaneuf to Toronto in seven-player swap.

It was the first major deal announced Sunday, and it's definitely the biggest. Burke saw enough of his team not being tough enough in their own zone, and he dealt away forwards he wasn't likely to bring back next season, anyway.

Niklas Hagman and Matt Stajan are capable players, but they aren't superstars. It's clear that Burke thinks highly of youngster Tyler Bozak, and he already has his top scoring winger in Phil Kessel.

Impending free agent defenseman Ian White joins Hagman and Stajan in Calgary, as does veteran forward Jamal Mayers, who wanted out anyway, and he played like it Saturday against Vancouver, lazily playing defense on Daniel Sedin while the latter scored the game-winning goal.

While this looks like a good move for both teams, it's more intriguing for Calgary than it is good for Toronto.

The move keeps the Flames positioned as a strong defensive team. As Bob McKenzie notes, White is no slouch, even if he's not necessarily as well-known as Phaneuf. With that said, White is a free agent (restricted) after the season, so it's not a total lock he'll be back.

Stajan and Hagman upgrade the offense, giving them more depth across their lines, something they haven't had much of. It doesn't help them at all that Olli Jokinen hasn't fulfilled his potential there, and they haven't found anyone to center Jarome Iginla the way Mike Cammalleri did last year.

However, is this a move that sets up something potentially (much) bigger?

Last week, McKenzie noted that Calgary was potentially interested in Ilya Kovalchuk, a free-agent-to-be superstar in Atlanta. The Thrashers are trying desperately to re-sign Kovalchuk, but let's not be stupid. This is a long shot.

(Yes, McKenzie mentions Phaneuf in his report, but let's play along for a moment.)

It could be said he belongs somewhere that will take hockey seriously, instead of playing in front of third-full buildings (if that) in Atlanta. Of course, the Thrashers are improving, and they need Kovalchuk to be a part of the effort to make this franchise viable.

Either way, Atlanta has to trade him by March 3 if they can't re-sign him. It's either that or let his negotiating rights go for a draft pick after the Stanley Cup Finals. This is a much more attractive option, because it gives them a chance to pick up some talent in return.

Now, Calgary has some assets they could afford to flip for Kovalchuk, should they choose to be aggressive. The beauty of this is that Sutter can wait through nearly two more weeks of games to see how the new guys come along, and he can play around with numbers and trade possibilities during the two-week Olympic break before he has to make a decision.

Chances are Atlanta would want NHL-level players, a top prospect, and/or a draft pick for Kovalchuk. The draft pick is less valuable because you're dealing Kovalchuk to a contender, so the pick is in the bottom third of the first round.

Instead, Atlanta is better off taking players, even if they're guys like White and Dustin Boyd, who are RFAs after the season. You could envision the Flames flipping Hagman, who has two reasonably-priced years left on his deal, or Stajan, who would be reunited with former Leaf mates Nik Antropov and Pavel Kubina in Atlanta.

You can't replace guys like Kovalchuk, but the Thrashers have to get NHL value for him, as they are still in the thick of the East playoff race. With the break coming, it's unlikely Atlanta will fall off the map before the trade deadline.

Burke gets his big, bruising defenseman who has a big name. Phaneuf upgrades a bad defensive team, and he also brings the kind of edge that Burke loves. One thing that is driving Burke nuts is how easily his team gets pushed around, and he's been trying to change that for a while. The Mike Komisarek signing backfired because of injury, and holdover Jeff Finger hasn't been very good this year.

Short-term, the Leafs win. They make a big splash when Burke needed to shake things up, and he gets a long-term solution in Phaneuf -- who's only 24, by the way -- in exchange for three impending free agents and Hagman.

Oh, and Burke also got the best young player in the deal, because he wrestled prospect defenseman Keith Aulie from the Flames, too.

Sutter's team was short on scoring and depth, and he actually looks like the more desperate guy in the deal, giving up two big young blue-liners for a guys who might not be around past this spring.

Anaheim swaps Jean-Sebastien Giguere for Jason Blake and Vesa Toskala from Toronto.

This is much simpler. Giguere needs to get his mojo back if he is ever going to come close to justifying his huge contract. This move reunites him with Burke and Francois Allaire, Giguere's longtime goaltending coach.

He wasn't going to play much in Anaheim, as the Ducks had just made a four-year, multi-million dollar deal with Jonas Hiller. He is their guy moving forward, and Giguere had to go.

Burke, meanwhile, was tired of watching Toskala look fantastic one night and incompetent the next. Now, youngster Jonas Gustavsson gets a high-quality on-ice mentor in Giguere, and the Leafs get a guy who is actually capable of being a No. 1 goaltender. This is a no-lose for both sides.

Blake wasn't exactly lighting it up in Toronto, with ten goals and 26 points in 56 games. Now he gets a change of scenery, and he joins a forward group in Anaheim that includes tough veterans like Saku Koivu and Teemu Selanne.

The Ducks get future cap flexibility, and they rid themselves of a $7 million backup goalie. Good deal for them. Having to take on Toskala's salary is a small price for shipping Giguere north.

It was a big Sunday for the Maple Leafs, who might be in last place in the Eastern Conference, but they're still not dead, and now they get a chance to prove that.

One thing is certain: If they continue to play like they've been, Burke will find more deals to make before the March 3 deadline. He's not really good at "standing pat" or "being patient."

1 comment:

James W said...

Atlanta would be much better off trying to get Chicago to part with some of their mid-level contract guys that need to get moved due to the Big 3s contract extensions kicking in next season than they are trading with the Flames.

Guys like Sharp, Versteeg, Byfuglien, and Barker are immensely better than what the Flames could offer up.