For a team that's lagging well behind the playoff race in the Eastern Conference, the Toronto Maple Leafs are attracting a lot of attention leading up to the March 4 NHL trade deadline.
You can, if you like, chalk that up to the fact that the Leafs play in the self-proclaimed centre of the hockey universe, but there are some legitimate reasons to keep an eye on Toronto from now until Wednesday.
First, it's Brian Burke's first crack at deadline dealing since being hired as the Leafs' general manager in late November. The outspoken executive has said many times that he prefers to stay above the deadline-day fray, but with a major rebuilding project on his hands and a few attractive pieces on the block, Burke may not be able to resist.
"The temptation to add to your team or take from your team at the deadline, regardless of the price, is always there," Burke admitted to reporters on a conference call Wednesday.
"But for every guy that makes a brilliant decision, there are five or six of us that made poor ones that same day. It's an awful day, it's an exciting day, it's a day full of magic, and a day full of very poor decision making."
The player most rival GMs will be calling about is Tomas Kaberle. The 30-year-old defenceman is prized for his smooth passing and reasonable contract, which has two more years left at $4.25 million US per.
Toronto's lone all-star, Kaberle hasn't played since breaking a bone in his right hand on Jan. 29, but should be back before the deadline.
The tricky thing about attempting to deal the Czech is that he holds a no-trade clause, one of several handed out during the John Ferguson era. Burke confirmed Wednesday that, while Kaberle would prefer to stay in Toronto, the player has drawn up a list of 10 teams — reportedly all in the Eastern Conference — to which he would accept a trade.
Any takers for Toskala?
Still, Burke may elect to retain his most valuable bargaining chip for now. The GM said Wednesday that Kaberle's contract stipulates that if the Leafs miss the playoffs, the no-trade clause becomes void during a window lasting from the NHL draft in June until Aug. 15.
Burke also made it clear that, if he chooses to move Kaberle, he wants a hefty package in return — something in line with what he paid for star defenceman Chris Pronger when Burke, then the Anaheim Ducks' GM, pried him from Edmonton after the 2006 season.
"The minimum would be this: a minimum of a first-round pick, a guy that can play on our team right now and a top prospect," Burke said.
If they deem that asking price too high, other GMs may inquire about some other Leafs. Burke would surely like to rid the payroll of Pavel Kubina and the $5 million he's scheduled to earn in the final year of his contract. But the veteran defenceman also has a no-trade (thanks again, Mr. Ferguson), and Burke indicated he wouldn't try to persuade him to waive it. Kubina, though, is expected to make like Kaberle and provide a list of suitable destinations.
Another player who may draw interest is Nik Antropov, who'll be an unrestricted free agent at season's end. The lanky forward doesn't appear to be in Burke's plans, as the GM has indicated he won't re-sign Antropov.
Dominic Moore, another pending unrestricted free agent, is another fairly attractive rental option. The 28-year-old centre is a solid face-off man with a career-high 39 points this season.
Then there's Vesa Toskala. It's no secret that a few teams are looking for goaltending help (Buffalo and perhaps Washington come to mind), but Toskala is owed $4 million next year and is in the midst of his worst season — see his unsightly .888 save percentage and 3.26 goals-against average. There are also whispers that he may be playing through a groin or hip injury, which bodes well for a bounce-back in 2009-10 but doesn't do much for teams eyeing the playoffs this spring.
Whatever Burke decides to do (or not do), don't expect him to take on much in the way of long-term salary obligations. Wary of the sagging economy, the GM envisions the salary cap going down for the 2010-11 season.
"Taking on contracts that carry into that season," Burke said "… doesn't make a whole lot of sense to me unless it's a player that we're absolutely confident can help our team at that point in time."