With a relatively weak free agent pool, it was relatively obvious that if the Leafs were going to add any significant talent this offseason, Burke was probably going to have to part with something of his own. One of the few GMs that still seems to have a flair for the dramatic trade in the modern NHL, I get the feeling that Burke is always looking for the next move. However, in the eyes of most, he’s proven he’s not out to make any deal just for the sake of making a deal. He sets his target and his price, and, as a rule, generally doesn’t waver. Let’s take a look at the two deals Burke made since the end of last season.
Burke’s first move was to address the need for a puck-moving defenseman, a deal he was able to make because Tomas Kaberle and the Bruins made it to the Cup Finals. The conditional draft pick that was mostly considered irrelevant when the deal was made ended up making the Kaberle deal all the sweeter for the Leafs, once it was swapped to the Avalanche for John-Michael Liles. A legitimate puck-moving defenseman in the same vein as Kaberle, although it seems with less defensive liabilities, Liles scored 46 points last season despite playing on a team that was riddled with injuries, traded one of its top scorers away and finished in the league cellar. Injecting his veteran presence – at 30, he’s currently the oldest Leaf – and his skills with the puck will be a huge asset in helping the Leafs generate more scoring from their blueline, and hopefully will be the spark that finally turns their powerplay into something resembling an effective unit.
Playing in the final year of his contract, Liles has a chance to earn himself a hefty payday, whether or not that’s in Toronto. His presence takes a ton of pressure off Carl Gunnarsson, while removing any and all urgency in the development of Jake Gardiner and Jesse Blacker. If Liles can put up 8-10 goals and 40-45 points, something he’s done 3 times in his career already, this may turn out to be Burke’s best move of the summer.
That said, it will be tough for Burke to top the fleecing he pulled off in the deal he made with Nashville at the opening of free agency. Brett Lebda, perhaps the defenseman that’s played the worst of any of the myriad of less-than-reputable blueliners that the Leafs have had over the years, and an undrafted minor leaguer named Robert Slaney (don’t worry, I had to look him up too) somehow brought a monstrous young blueliner in the form of Cody Franson and a potential rehab project in Matthew Lombardi. Lombardi is a solid 2nd-3rd line center when he’s healthy, with great speed and a good two-way game. While he played just 2 games last season due to a serious concussion, a recent report indicated that Lombardi expects to be ready to play by training camp. Whether that proves to be true or not, getting rid of Lebda in exchange for Franson alone would still have been a great deal.
Franson is a 23-year old monster on the blueline, adding yet another massive body to a d-corps that already includes Dion Phaneuf, Keith Aulie, Luke Schenn and Mike Komisarek. At 6’5, 213, Franson’s only going to continue to get bigger. Playing 3rd or 4th fiddle on the Preds’ blueline last season, Franson still managed to rack up 8 goals and 29 points in his sophomore season. He’ll likely get a chance, along with Gunnarsson, to play on the 2nd PP unit, providing another upgrade to the Leafs’ special teams.
This summer, Burke continued to show why he’s one of the shrewdest GMs in the business, adding two clearly valuable pieces and one potentially useful player in exchange for little more than spare parts when you get right down to it. No, he didn’t go out and trade Schenn, Nazem Kadri and a couple first round picks for Steve Stamkos, and he may not have brought in a star-caliber center, but there’s no question he continued to make this team better and more completely equipped to compete for a playoff spot in 2011-12. So what do you think? Were there other players you hoped Burke would trade for? Does either Liles or Lombardi have any real future with the Leafs? What are your thoughts on Cody Franson?
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