Category archive: Toronto Maple Leafs
NEW YORK -- For one night and one night only, Dion Phaneuf wasn't on center stage.
Nope, he was just one of the thousands of fans jammed into a sold-out Yankee Stadium on Monday night to witness the new ballpark's first concert, a doozy headlined by hip-hop stars Eminem and Jay-Z.
"It was something to see," Phaneuf told ESPN.com on Tuesday. "Both those guys are icons in their own way, and for them to play that show -- it was the first concert ever held at Yankee Stadium -- it was pretty cool to be part of [the crowd] there. It was quite the show to experience and be part of, and it's one I'll never forget."
On Tuesday, Phaneuf was back in the spotlight, taping interviews with several media outlets at the onset of arguably the biggest season in his NHL career. As the new captain of the Toronto Maple Leafs, he is the face of a rebuilding franchise desperate to shed a half-decade of misery. It's a lot of pressure, but as he sat down with ESPN.com, you wouldn't know it. Phaneuf appeared comfortable in his own skin, genuinely enthused about the challenge ahead and as though he was born to wear the famous Leafs uniform with a "C" on it.
"It was an exciting summer for me personally being named captain of such an historic franchise, not only in hockey but all of professional sports," Phaneuf said. "I'm really excited about the opportunity."
This is Phaneuf's chance to press the reset button on his young career. Just three years removed from a career-high 60 points in Calgary, things got off track with the Flames, enough for GM Darryl Sutter to do this past January what he publicly said he would never do -- trade Phaneuf.
"It was definitely something that was very unexpected," Phaneuf said. "There were rumors and talk of it, then Darryl put it all to bed by saying, 'We're not moving him.' A couple of weeks later, I got a call at 8 a.m. that I'd be traded. Suddenly your life is up in shambles, you've got a house in one city, you've got five hours to pack that up and be in another.
"But as soon as the initial shock went away, I was real excited about where I was going and the team that I was going to. It's been nothing but positive and it's been a great thing for my career."
Phil Kessel is perhaps the most controversial trade to date in Toronto for Brian Burke, but it's the Phaneuf deal that will be looked back on as the GM's signature move, the acquisition of a rugged and talented offensive blueliner who embodies all the qualities the fiery Burke adores.
Sink or swim, Phaneuf and Burke are tied at the hip in this Maple Leafs adventure.
"I think everyone is involved in the journey, not just the general manager, not just me," Phaneuf said. "The last five years are in the past. This is a new season, a new team. We made a lot of moves, and it's going to be an exciting season."
Not everyone shares Phaneuf's enthusiasm for the Leafs' chances. Kris Versteeg was an excellent acquisition, but this remains a club that -- on paper, at least -- will struggle mightily to score goals.
"Our goal is to make the playoffs," Phaneuf said. "We have a very young team. We made some really good moves over the summer. We're young, which gives us the opportunity to learn and grow together. As a group, we look forward to try and prove people wrong."
"There's no truth to it," Leafs GM Brian Burke told ESPN.com on Wednesday.
That's not to say Kaberle can't end up a Bruin one day, but it won't be for Savard. Kaberle is on the trade market; Burke has been up front about that all along. But the Bruins haven't moved into the picture at this point. Burke took the time to fully update the Kaberle situation for us:
"First off, before people get too worked up, Tomas Kaberle's no-trade clause does not go away until the draft commences," Burke said. "So, this notion that he's been moved or a deal has been arranged is absurd. Two, we have not had meaningful discussions with the Boston Bruins about any one trade option.
"Three, if and when we do get to a point where we see a deal that makes sense, we're going to try to move Tomas somewhere where he wants to go, and that's if we get that far. Right now, if I had to handicap this thing, I'd say he's not going anywhere, and the draft is not a meaningful time frame for us. There's no pressure to trade him while we're there."
In a perfect world, the Leafs would like to trade Kaberle in return for a bona-fide top-six forward, but they're not going to deal him for the sake of dealing him. They're not giving one of the game's top puck movers away (Kaberle has one year left on his deal at $4.25 million).
Latest out of OttawaI checked in with Senators GM Bryan Murray on the Jason Spezza front. Nothing new there, and that's not surprising. As one NHL GM from a Western Conference club told ESPN.com this week, "I wouldn't get interested until after that bonus payment is made."
Spezza is due to receive a $4 million bonus payment July 1, just like Dany Heatley a year ago. But this time around, the Senators have no plans to pay the bonus and still make the trade.
"I guarantee you this: This situation is not what happened last year," Murray told ESPN.com on Wednesday from Los Angeles. "If we pay the money, then he's going to be playing for us for the year. We can't do that again. We just can't do that."
Spezza's no-trade clause also kicks in July 1, so clearly the clock is ticking for the talented center. He opened up this can of worms in his player exit meeting by saying he didn't like the way the fans got on him this season and would be open to a move.
"There's nothing at this point," Murray said. "I have talked to a couple of teams to see if there's anybody out there. Jason is not demanding a trade, but he said he wouldn't object to one if something happened. And that's where it is. There's nothing more to it at this point."
And finally ...• Expect Drew Doughty's agent, Don Meehan, to chat with Kings GM Dean Lombardi over the next few days in Los Angeles. Doughty has one more year left on his entry-level deal, but Lombardi wants to lock him up long-term this summer. We'll see if both sides find a fit.
"Obviously, I would love for that to happen. I would love to sign a deal in L.A. again," Doughty told ESPN.com on Wednesday. "I love playing in L.A., but nothing has happened yet and I'm just waiting in the weeds and seeing what happens."
• There have been questions surrounding Niki Filatov's future after he left the Columbus Blue Jackets, with their consent, to go play in Russia this past season. Will he return to the Jackets for 2010-11? "Yes," Jackets GM Scott Howson texted to us Wednesday.
Much of our focus will be on the playoffs during the next two months, but let's take a look at the teams that were eliminated from postseason play (as of Friday) and the work that lies ahead of them.
We'll catch up with them again at the NHL draft in June, when there could be fireworks involving these very teams. Here are the Eastern Conference nonplayoff teams. I'll be back with the West later today.
Toronto Maple Leafs: Let's get the ugly stuff out of the way so we can move on to more interesting matters. Yes, a 29th-place finish is a PR nightmare; this year's first-round pick was one of two shipped to the Boston Bruins for dynamic winger Phil Kessel this past September. The Bruins have a 67 percent chance of ending up with either Taylor Hall or Tyler Seguin depending on Tuesday's draft lottery.
"I would do it [the trade] again tomorrow," Leafs general manager Brian Burke told ESPN.com on Thursday.
In the meantime, Burke's rebuilding squad took some strides this season despite its finish. The massive turnover, which is far from over, has revealed some promising young building blocks in the likes of center Tyler Bozak, forward Nikolai Kulemin, forward Christian Hanson, goalie Jonas Gustavsson, forward Viktor Stalberg and defenseman Carl Gunnarsson. Sophomore blueliner Luke Schenn recovered from a shaky first half with a solid ending, and highly touted junior forward Nazem Kadri is on the way next season.
The trade for Dion Phaneuf remains a coup for Burke, who solidified his blue line moving forward. But the offense remains a major issue. Kessel needs help, and that's the priority this offseason.
"Our draft is July 1. We're going to go after a free agent, we're going to try and land a top-six forward," Burke said. "We might also do it in advance of July 1 through a trade."
That trade would no doubt involve veteran blueliner Tomas Kaberle, who has one year left on his deal at $4.25 million, a cheap salary for a player of his caliber. Kaberle's no-trade clause will drop this summer, so although Burke says he's not shopping him, the fact that he'll once again have a window with the no-trade clause gone compels him to at least see what is out there.
"We're going to listen," Burke said. "He's a good guy, a good player, and he's at a good number. Those are three good reasons to keep him. But I have to listen [to offers]. We're not going to shop him, but we're going to listen."
The Leafs have about 16 players returning for next season, so there's not actually that much cap room to play with. But just like that, a guy like Jeff Finger (two more years at $3.5 million per) could be dumped in the minors to create cap space. Burke understandably is taking heat for the Kessel deal, but I don't think you can say his team isn't headed in the right direction. Leafs fans certainly hope so. This is Toronto's fifth straight season without a trip to the postseason.
Florida Panthers: Nine straight seasons out of the playoffs. Believe me when I say GM Randy Sexton is on a mission. There will be changes this summer.
Although Sexton would not comment when I asked him about goalie Tomas Vokoun, other league sources believe the Czech goalie will not be back in Florida next season. Vokoun has one year left on his deal at a $5.7 million cap hit. He also has a no-movement clause, but it's expected he will waive it for a chance to win elsewhere. His trade this summer will open up room for highly touted Swedish goalie Jacob Markstrom, the 31st overall pick in the 2008 draft. If he's not ready for the NHL next season, my guess is the Panthers will have Scott Clemmensen share the net with a veteran stopgap like Manny Legace or someone of that nature while they await Markstrom's debut.
Although Sexton didn't want to speculate on his goaltending situation, he did address his problems up front; as of Friday, the team was ranked 28th overall in goals per game.
"We need more consistent scoring," Sexton told ESPN.com on Thursday. "[Stephen] Weiss could end up with 30 goals this year, [Nathan] Horton has scored 30 in the past and [David] Booth has scored 30, so we think all things being equal, those guys come back and give us a solid first line. But we need to add some scoring on our second line. We don't score goals easily."
Booth has been hit hard by two concussions this season, and that has to be a question mark moving forward. Let's hope he can fully recover.
My take? The goal in Florida is to get younger, bigger, more physical and faster. Easier said than done, but that's the goal.
Carolina Hurricanes: The season was lost in a hurry by a brutal start, but the second half of the season revealed what most of us suspected: This was a much better squad than what it showed in October and November.
All it did was make GM Jim Rutherford begin the youth movement a few months earlier, and that will remain the goal during the offseason.
"We'll continue our transition into a younger team," Rutherford told ESPN.com on Thursday. "We have a lot of good young players, and we had planned on doing it this fall regardless of how this season ended up. We started the transition a little earlier than we expected halfway through the year, but in some ways, it's been good for us because we've gotten a look at some of the young players, and they've done real well."
Rutherford moved out several veteran faces before the trade deadline but retained winger Ray Whitney, who is set to become an unrestricted free agent July 1.
"He's been a great player for us for a long time," Rutherford said. "We'll have to take a good look at that in the offseason and see what he wants to do. I still feel he's a good player, so we'll have that meeting sometime in the next few weeks."
In the meantime, the Hurricanes will hope for some luck in Tuesday's draft lottery.
"I'm pretty comfortable anywhere in the top eight," Rutherford said. "We'll get a good player whether we pick anywhere from one to eight."
This team is going young but with good players. Be excited if you're a Hurricanes fan.
Atlanta Thrashers: One playoff berth in 10 seasons is a tough sell on even the most loyal fan. But I truly believe the Thrashers are on the right track with the young players they are building this version of the team around, most notably Evander Kane, Ondrej Pavelec, Niclas Bergfors, Zach Bogosian and Bryan Little.
"The one thing we really like is the direction we're going with the youth of our team, and we're going to continue that," Thrashers GM Don Waddell told ESPN.com on Thursday. "We've got six guys under the age of 24 and another seven guys under the age of 29. We have other young guys who are close and who will compete for jobs next year. We're going to hang in there with those guys and let them grow together here."
Waddell did the best he could with a brutal situation: star winger Ilya Kovalchuk refusing to sign an extension that could have afforded him enough money to buy a small island. So, Waddell got the best possible deal out of New Jersey, and Atlanta actually rallied after Kovalchuk's departure to fall just short of a playoff spot.
"The hope would be to sit down and talk with them over the next few weeks," Waddell said. "If there's something that makes some sense, we'd like to bring them back."
Tampa Bay Lightning: I didn't think it was wise to reach out to Bolts GM Brian Lawton because who knows whether he'll be back next season under new owner Jeff Vinik.
This team is enigmatic. Despite having big-time offensive contributors in Steven Stamkos, Martin St. Louis, Vincent Lecavalier and Steve Downie, the Bolts ranked 23rd in NHL offense as of Friday. Bizarre. What's not surprising is where they ranked defensively: 28th in goals against per game. The blue line and goaltending aren't up to snuff, and no matter who is the GM, that's where you start.
But first, Lawton's future.
"Speculation has been rampant since new owner Jeff Vinik took over that general manager Brian Lawton will not be back next season," Tampa Tribune hockey writer Erik Erlendsson wrote to me via e-mail Friday. "Lawton's contract expires on June 1, and by virtue of the fact he has not been given a contract extension, at this point it's not a question of if, but when he will officially be let go. In his two years at the helm of the Lightning, Lawton has found some success with the likes of Downie, Antero Niittymaki and Kurtis Foster.
"But when he's missed, it's been a Reggie Jackson-esque spinning whiff with the acquisition of Andrej Meszaros for Filip Kuba, Alexandre Picard and the first-round pick previously acquired from San Jose for Dan Boyle. And it's difficult not to point at the oustings of Jussi Jokinen (30 goals for Carolina this season), Radim Vrbata (20-goal scorer for Phoenix) and the buyout of Vinny Prospal, who will count against the Lightning salary cap for five more years following a season in which a lack of secondary scoring was a season-long issue."
Coach Rick Tocchet has one year left on his deal and would be in limbo if Lawton is gone. A new GM usually wants his own man.
Downie has had a breakout season and is the key restricted free agent who needs a new deal along with Foster. Niittymaki, who outplayed Mike Smith in net this season, will be a UFA. Meanwhile, my colleague Erlendsson believes that whoever is in charge of the Lightning needs to also look ahead to two players who are one year away from free agency.
"Tampa Bay would be wise to begin extension talks for both Marty St. Louis (unrestricted) and Steven Stamkos (restricted) and not let either of those players go through the season without a contract beyond next season," he said. "St. Louis, in particular, while still productive at age 34 with the third 90-point season of his career, continues to be the heart and soul of the team and a real driving force, not only on the ice but in the locker room."
No shortage of work this offseason in Tampa.
New York Islanders: For the fourth time in five postlockout seasons, the Islanders failed to reach the postseason. It wasn't a surprise this season, as the team focused on a youth movement that has showed signs of promise.
Star rookie John Tavares had a solid first campaign, and his supporting cast is building in strength, led by Kyle Okposo, Matt Moulson, Frans Nielsen, Blake Comeau, Josh Bailey, Jack Hillen, Trevor Gillies and more to come up from the farm system. This on top of a possible good draft pick in June depending on Tuesday's draft lottery.
The key question for the Isles is in goal. Martin Biron will be an unrestricted free agent, Dwayne Roloson has another year left but will be 41 in October and Rick DiPietro played just eight games this season, once again felled by injury (knee). This is GM Garth Snow's biggest offseason decision: who plays goal for him next season and beyond. (Snow did not immediately return a call from ESPN.com.)
Otherwise, believe it or not, Isles fans, the future looks bright (wherever the team ends up playing).
The Toronto Maple Leafs defenseman skated hard in practice Tuesday, and was one of the last players off the ice at Air Canada Centre. But it will all likely come down to one last medical test with doctors Wednesday. His Olympic dreams hang in the balance.
"I'm itching, I want to get in there," Komisarek, sweat pouring down his brow, said after the pregame skate. "Just waiting for that approval. I've got one more test tomorrow. I'm looking forward to not only helping the Leafs again, but obviously with the Olympics coming, you definitely need 4-5 games to get in there and feel comfortable and confident and be ready to go."
Komisarek has been sidelined since Jan. 2 with a suspected shoulder injury. He's avoided surgery so far, with the hope rehab will be enough for him. He'll find out Wednesday.
"I have jump, I want to play," said Komisarek. "I just need the final clearance from the doctors."
"According to what the doctor said, he had an injury that could be normally 4-6 weeks and we're on four weeks now," Leafs and Team USA coach Ron Wilson said Tuesday. "So we just have to do some testing tomorrow and see if the rehab is working properly."
Komisarek still has hope, Martin does not. The talented Devils blueliner, out since Oct. 24 with a broken arm, had to pull out from the Olympic team Monday. He had promised Team USA if he wasn't back playing for 4-5 games and at a top level, he wouldn't take a roster spot. He was true to his word, but talk about a brutal decision to make.
"I'm very disappointed for him," Devils teammate and Team USA captain Jamie Langenbrunner said after New Jersey's morning skate here Tuesday. "It's something that I'm sure he's going to have lots of regrets about for a long time."
It's the situation Komisarek now faces in the next day or so.
"It's never an easy thing," said Komisarek. "With that much at stake, obviously you want to be 100 percent going into something like that. It's an opportunity of a lifetime. You don't have many chances to represent your country on the Olympic stage. You do everything you can to prepare yourself, but at the end of it, you want to make sure you're 100 percent and you're not taking somebody else's spot."
Martin, when healthy, was looking like the best blueliner for Team USA. It's a big hole to fill.
"We lose, had he played all season long, our most reliable defenseman, I would think. He can play in every situation," said Wilson.
"He was picked basically without playing all year and that's because he's a great player," said Langenbrunner. "... It just shows how highly he's thought of. It definitely hurts [losing him]. It'll give someone else and opportunity, though, and the one thing now with USA Hockey is that they do have some depth and some guys that in the past might have been harder to find to fill in."
I suspect Ryan Whitney of the Anaheim Ducks is the most logical replacement for Martin, a puck-mover for a puck-mover. If the bruiser Komisarek is out, my money would be on Tim Gleason of the Carolina Hurricanes, Ron Hainsey of the Atlanta Thrashers or Rob Scuderi of the Los Angeles Kings.
Team USA GM Brian Burke was slated to discuss Martin's replacement and possibly Komisarek's situation with the rest of his management team either later Tuesday or Wednesday.
The Leafs have four games left before the Olympics. Komisarek has to play in all four, in my mind, to keep his Olympic roster spot. And that means getting cleared by docs Wednesday. Talk about a stressful 24 hours.
"As a young hockey player, you dream about winning the Stanley Cup and you dream about winning a gold medal and representing your country in the Olympics," said Komisarek. "Being a proud American hockey player, we all witnessed and watched it many times with the "Miracle On Ice". This being the 30-year anniversary of that, you want to part of that. But at the same time, my priority and responsibility is to the Toronto Maple Leafs. I have a long-term commitment here. My long-term health is more important to this team than just having my selfish reasons to play in the Olympics, as much as I want to go."
Martin no longer has to worry about that.
"I'm sure he's devastated about the situation he's in, especially for a broken bone to be out so long," said Devils teammate and Team Canada goalie Martin Brodeur. "It's tough. He's in the last year of his contract, there's the Olympics. It was a big year for him. Now it's been altered big time. "Hopefully he'll come back healthy and give us a great push for the end of the season."
TORONTO -- The NHL's trade market isn't heavy on quality, puck-moving defensemen, and it will be a lot lighter if Tomas Kaberle is not available.
Toronto Maple Leafs GM Brian Burke repeated once again Sunday that he would not ask the 31-year-old Czech blueliner to waive his no-trade clause.
"No, nothing is going to change there," Burke said. "I don't know why people keep asking. Let's all agree that no one will ask me again. I'm not going to ask Tomas Kaberle to waive his no-trade. It's not going to happen."
Burke directed the media to ask Kaberle's agent, veteran Rick Curran of the Orr Hockey Group, what the defenseman's next move would be ahead of the March 3 trade deadline. In other words, the onus is on Curran and Kaberle to decide whether they want to provide Burke with a list of teams they would approve trades to or do nothing and stay put.
"It's actually quite simple," Curran told ESPN.com on Monday. "Tomas Kaberle has been a Maple Leaf since the day he was drafted and would prefer to remain in Toronto to help turn things around there, rather than try to win somewhere else. As indicated a number of times both publically and privately, Brian Burke will respect the provision of his contract that assures Tomas, for the moment anyway, of that opportunity to stay and prevail as a Leaf."
Curran is saying his camp won't provide Burke with a list, but I don't think it's that cut and dry. First, keep in mind there's a provision in Kaberle's contract that knocks down his no-trade clause for a specific window during the summer if the Leafs miss the playoffs. Well, consider that a certainty.
The star defenseman knows he could very likely be in play again this summer. Burke already tried to trade Kaberle last June at the NHL draft in Montreal during that same summer window, a deal with Boston that fell through over confusion regarding which team would be getting a first-round pick.
With a blue line that now includes Dion Phaneuf, Francois Beauchemin, Mike Komisarek and Luke Schenn, I suspect Burke will again look at what's out there when Kaberle's no-trade drops, as the Leafs are more desperate than ever to add some pieces to a barren forward group. Kaberle, who leads the Leafs in scoring with 43 points (5-38) in 56 games, has one more year left on his deal at $4.25 million next season (major bargain). He becomes an unrestricted free agent in July 2011.
Which leads me to this guess work: Even though Curran says there won't be a list and Kaberle wants to finish his career in Toronto, I suspect if a top contender like Chicago or San Jose, for example, phoned Burke and offered him a deal, the Kaberle camp would have to carefully consider that. If Burke might trade you anyway come the summer, why not take a chance at possibly winning a Cup?
Food for thought. For now, Kaberle is officially not on the trade market. But if the right team phones Toronto, I'm not so sure he wouldn't move.
It was a franchise-altering blockbuster by former GM Cliff Fletcher that will go down as one of the greatest deals by the Leafs, a move that would pave the way for a pair of spring runs no one here will ever forget, either.
Andy Devlin/NHLI/Getty ImagesLeafs GM Brian Burke on Dion Phaneuf: "This is a guy that likes it crude and likes it black and blue, and that's how we want him to play."
On Sunday, it was current Leafs GM Brian Burke who pulled off the jaw-dropping trade, a seven-player deal with Calgary that has the potential to finally put this franchise back on the right track. Toronto acquired Dion Phaneuf, right winger Fredrik Sjostrom and defenseman Keith Aulie in exchange for defenseman Ian White, center Matt Stajan, left winger Niklas Hagman and right winger Jamal Mayers.
"Putting a seven-player deal together today is unbelievably difficult," Fletcher, now a senior adviser with the Leafs, told ESPN.com on Sunday. "Back when I did that deal with Calgary, there were no financial considerations at all. It was just players for players. This was so much difficult. But we think today we got a player we can really build around in Dion Phaneuf."
But forget all the other players that changed teams in Calgary, Toronto and Anaheim -- this trade is really all about one player, Phaneuf.
"Phaneuf is a gamble, but if he hits, they will win this deal huge," a GM who requested anonymity told ESPN.com on Sunday.
"It's about getting an A-lister, and Burkie did that today," added another unnamed GM.
Now he's got two.
"In the last four months, we've added Phil Kessel, who is an elite player, and Dion Phaneuf, who I view as an elite player," Burke told a packed news conference at Air Canada Centre. "So I think it's a very important day for us."
Listen, Phaneuf doesn't arrive without question marks. He has yet to match the 20 goals from his rookie season in 2005-06 and his exit couldn't come fast enough for members of the Calgary media, who thought he was overrated. But a pair of 17-goal campaigns is a reminder that his potential hasn't gone away -- he's a bona fide offensive blueliner with a physical game that had Burke drooling from the first day he thought he might have a shot at him.
"This is a guy that likes it crude and likes it black and blue, and that's how we want him to play," said Burke.
At first, Burke's advances to Flames GM Darryl Sutter got the cold shoulder. Sutter, as he told me earlier this month, had no desire to move Phaneuf. But an ensuing nine-game winless streak changed all that. The pressure was on for Sutter to make a move, and Burke made sure to exploit that.
This is why Burke was brought in to run this sad-sack franchise -- because he had the reputation and acumen of a GM who could pull off these types of moves. Kessel was also a big acquisition, but a move that right now looks decidedly tilted in favor of the Bruins thanks to a pair of first-round picks going Boston's way, and the June 2010 pick looking like a top-three overall selection.
But there isn't a sense that Burke overpaid this time around. No offense to Stajan, Hagman, Mayers and White, but they are complementary players.
The kicker in all this is some people believe the prospect Toronto got in the deal, the 6-foot-6, 20-year-old defenseman Aulie, is headed for a good NHL career. "He's going to play 15 years in the NHL," said one NHL executive Sunday.
But again, this trade is about Phaneuf, and about Burke showing once again he loves stud blueliners. He added Mike Komisarek and Francois Beauchemin this past summer via free agency. Throw in incumbent Tomas Kaberle, and you've got an impressive top four. Remember Burke's blue line on the Cup-champion Anaheim squad from 2007: Scott Niedermayer, Chris Pronger and Beauchemin.
"My philosophy is building from the net out," said Burke. "It's like pitching in baseball. If you don't have good defensemen, you're not going to win, it doesn't matter how good your forwards are. And it's been a hallmark of all my teams. I try to build up the defense, and that's exactly what happened here today. We added an elite defenseman and a guy that plays our kind of hockey."
The second trade Sunday is of lesser importance, but it does shore up Toronto's goaltending for the next year and a half. Giguere, in my mind, remains a top-level netminder; he's 32, not 38. But his $7 million price tag for next season scared off everyone else in the NHL ever since the Ducks first made him available in June.
Give Ducks GM Bob Murray a ton of credit here; from what I'm told, he stayed on Toronto's tail all season long, urging them to give this some thought. The hook all along was Giguere would be reunited with goalie coach Francois Allaire here in Toronto and could provide Jonas Gustavsson excellent mentorship. After all, it worked in Anaheim with Jonas Hiller.
As I first speculated back in November, the plan was sound, but the Leafs balked at the $7 million salary for next season. Once Anaheim was willing to take back money, things changed. Toronto would have preferred to send Jeff Finger back in the deal along with Toskala, but the Ducks asked for Blake instead. Fair enough. Done deal.
Here's why the Giguere deal is also possibly a good thing for Toronto: The Leafs have no desire to be 29th in the standings again next season. They want Giguere to win games for them. The Bruins, after all, also have Toronto's first-round pick next season. Hence, Giguere has a useful short-term role here.
So, six players emptied their dressing room stalls at the Air Canada Centre on Sunday, and Burke is still working the phones.
"We're still open for business. We're not done," Burke said.
Suddenly hot winger Alexei Ponikarovsky is garnering more and more attention, and he's an unrestricted free agent July 1. He's a goner. So are a few more Leafs. Those deals, however, won't have the impact of Sunday's acquisition of Phaneuf.
This is a franchise that last hosted an NHL playoff game in April 2004. The playoff drought will be at least six seasons and counting. The Cup drought will be 43 years and counting.
On Sunday, what the die-hard members of Leaf Nation finally got for the first time in a long, long time, was hope.
There was a fresh new wave of Vincent Lecavalier trade rumors last week, with the New York Rangers again linked to the star center. But the owner of the Tampa Bay Lightning wants everyone to know there's absolutely nothing to them.
"We have never talked to the Rangers about Vinny," Oren Koules told ESPN.com on Saturday morning. "And by the way, Vinny has 50 points; he's not having a bad year. He's having a great year."
As I've written before, Lecavalier has a no-movement clause, so he alone will decide his NHL future, not the Lightning. There's no point worrying about it until then.
In the meantime, Koules made an interesting point about Lecavalier's production. When he had a slow start in October, Lecavalier was largely written off, and it certainly didn't help when Team Canada skipped over him for the Olympics on Dec. 30. But Lecavalier has come on of late. He entered Saturday's play 15th in NHL scoring, ahead of the likes of Zach Parise, Corey Perry, Ryan Getzlaf, Rick Nash, Anze Kopitar, Alexander Semin and Jarome Iginla.
Lecavalier is on pace for 82 points; still, not really worth the $10 million he's earning this season, but certainly not a bad year at all.
Meanwhile, I also asked Koules about the reports regarding the team's financial problems. While he confirmed the league is assisting him in actively trying to find a buyer or investor, he denied that the Lightning has been forwarded an advance share of revenue sharing to help pay the bills.
It's clear the league wants to find a buyer/investor ASAP for the Lightning.
The 28th-ranked Toronto Maple Leafs will be sellers ahead of the March 3 trade deadline, but they'll be in a unique position compared to any other club in the NHL. They've got cap space to sell, but more importantly, budget room.
In other words, they may be sellers and buyers at the same time. Confused? Unlike, say, Carolina or Edmonton (teams that solely want to shed salary like traditional sellers would), the Leafs are ready to take on huge contracts if the deals include draft picks or prospects in the process. And that's exactly the message being sent to the buyers around the league right now by GM Brian Burke and assistant GM Dave Nonis.
Burke has had this financial muscle at his disposal all along, but has been waiting for the right time. That time is coming.
For example, pretend you're a Cup contender. You want to make a deal to help your team March 3, but you don't have enough cap room. The Leafs are telling those types of clubs they'll take a contract off their hands for a pick or prospect. No other seller, in all likelihood, will offer that scenario to buyers because no other seller is willing to park big money in the AHL to make these deals happen. This is where the Leafs hope to start recouping some assets, especially after dropping a pair of first-rounders to Boston for Phil Kessel.
In the meantime, the Leafs are getting feelers for pending free agents, such as Alexei Ponikarovsky and Matt Stajan, and even guys under contract past this season like Niklas Hagman (two more seasons at $3 million per). A handful of the free agents will almost surely be moved out. Ponikarovsky, hot of late, could be a fetching pickup for a team looking for second-line offense.
The Leafs' pro scouting staff, led by vice president of hockey operations Dave Poulin, met Friday and Saturday in Ft. Lauderdale, Fla., to prepare for the March 3 trade deadline. Burke joined them Saturday. The staff ranked every player on all 30 teams over the two-day period so Burke and Nonis can quickly pull up those individual reports once trade talks heat up.
Know this: The Leafs' desire is to be extremely busy from now to March 3. We'll see if they find willing partners.
Any player headed for unrestricted free agency is available in Carolina, but the Hurricanes are getting lots of calls on a player that's under contract for next season.
Joni Pitkanen has another year on his deal at $4.5 million for next season. The Canes like him a lot and are not trying to move him in any way. Yet, the interest from other teams is so high for the puck-mover, one wonders if Carolina will be able to say no before March 3 if the offers are too good to resist. The 26-year-old leads all NHL players in ice time per game, averaging just over 27 minutes. There won't be many top-four defensemen moving before March 3, so the high interest in Pitkanen is reflective of a barren marketplace for that position.
One player who will very likely move if he allows it with his no-trade clause is winger Ray Whitney, as I mentioned last week. To me, Pittsburgh and Calgary are screaming for this kind of move, as both clubs need offensive help and a boost to their power plays.
Here's the thing: He's cheaper to acquire now than on March 3. If the Hurricanes could unload him now, they'd save on their payroll. Come March 3, there's only five and half weeks left on Whitney's $3.55 million salary, so the Hurricanes wouldn't be saving nearly as much. In the meantime, teams will be scrambling for his services that day and the price will go up. Either way, the Hurricanes are hoping to recoup a first- or second-round pick and a prospect for Whitney.
The Rangers, understandably, weren't happy when their star player, Marian Gaborik, got beat up by Flyers agitator/tough guy Daniel Carcillo on Thursday night. I don't blame them. I can just imagine their anger Friday when these Twitter posts were sent out by the Flyers:
Sent: Jan 22, 2010 1:06p
In case you missed it, here's video of the Carcillo/Gaborik fight from last night.
sent via TweetDeck
Sent: Jan 22, 2010 9:44a
Check out last night's media availability following the game, inc. Carcillo's "licking his chops" comment (video): http://bit.ly/71Pv6V
sent via TweetDeck
"I can't say I was aware they were doing this," NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly told ESPN.com via e-mail Saturday. "It's not in violation of any existing policy we have."
There are no rules against it, but it's in poor taste, in my mind.
This and that
• The phone calls keep rolling in to Atlanta with inquiries about Ilya Kovalchuk, and it's going to get more serious over the next two weeks. Meanwhile, a source described contract talks with Kovalchuk as "pretty quiet" of late. I think a trade is inevitable at this point.
• Had a chance to touch base this week with Finland Olympic GM Jari Kurri. The former Oilers great said he couldn't believe it when both Saku Koivu and Teemu Selanne went down with injuries in back-to-back games recently. But Koivu is slated to return this week, and Kurri said he was confident the "Finnish Flash" would also be ready for the Olympics. "He should be OK," Kurri told ESPN.com. "Our understanding is that he'll be back in time, but it's going to be close, for sure."
• The Phoenix Coyotes are on the lookout for cheap offensive help; they can't take on too much of a payroll bump. Ideally, they're looking to make a dollar-for-dollar move. That's not an easy thing to do in this market right now, although that's exactly what Minnesota and Montreal pulled off in the Guillaume Latendresse-Benoit Pouliot deal (both players are earning the exact same salary).
• The New York Islanders continue to cast their fishing lines around the league in an attempt to move goalie Martin Biron ($1.4 million salary, UFA July 1). The Isles are pretty open to what they'd want in return: a draft pick, a defenseman or a left winger. Any one of those three apparently will do.
I have the strangest memory of Michael Peca.
It was the 2001 world championships in Hannover, Germany, and Peca was sitting on a hotel bed looking as though the world had crashed down on him. It was pretty close to that. Nearing the end of a yearlong contract dispute with the Buffalo Sabres, Peca had come overseas to salvage his season by playing for Canada at the worlds. He was the team's captain.
But halfway through the tournament, he fractured his cheekbone. Tournament over. I was the only Canadian reporter covering the event and was summoned to his room to interview the poor soul. Imagine seeing someone after his dog was run over by a car, and that was the picture that night.
"It was unfortunate I fractured my cheekbone," Peca recalled to me Tuesday, the day he announced his retirement from the NHL. "But you know what? I was extremely thankful to [GM] Lanny McDonald and everyone at Hockey Canada for giving me an opportunity to play some meaningful hockey that year. I guess I did enough before I got hurt to earn an invite to the Olympic camp in September that year, so despite the injury at the worlds, it was well worth it from that standpoint.
"And besides," Peca added with a chuckle, "me being knocked out elevated Ryan Smyth to captain of the team, and that was the birth of Captain Canada."
There's always a silver lining, right? The real payoff for Peca came less than a year later, when he was an associate captain for Team Canada as it ended a 50-year gold-medal drought at the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City.
"For me, the gold medal was almost just to be part of that team," Peca said. "I had to get over the way I felt about being selected for the team and playing with Steve Yzerman, a guy that I idolized growing up. Mario Lemieux was on the team, Joe Nieuwendyk, Brendan Shanahan, Al MacInnis, the list went on and on; and Wayne Gretzky was at the head of the management team. It was amazing.
"And really, when it was actually happening, the schedule was so compact that you really didn't enjoy it fully at the time. But looking back, you enjoy and embrace it more. Winning an Olympic gold medal is a great achievement in sport."
Peca last played with Columbus during the 2008-09 season, and although he kept his options open through agent Don Meehan this past fall, he said he called it quits a while back.
"I really came to this decision months back, but it's been a case where I've been so busy with other things and enjoying myself that I didn't realize I had to come out and formally announce anything to consider myself retired," Peca said. "But I guess people will stop asking me now when they see me after reading about it."
Peca made it official in a release put out by the NHL Players' Association. No news conference or conference call. The two-time Selke Trophy winner and one of the game's premier two-way centers during his heyday, Peca didn't want to make a big deal of it. "I've never been a guy for big bells and whistles," he said.
No, but he's a guy who used every inch of his body to block shots, win faceoffs and earn room on the ice.
For me, he'll forever be remembered as a Buffalo Sabre, the leader of a young, blue-collar team in the late 1990s with superstar Dominik Hasek in net. That's when Peca was at his best, a force at both ends of the ice with clutch goals and key blocks. One night, he'd shut down the opposing team's top offensive threat; the next, he'd score a big goal.
"Nothing but great memories in Buffalo, even despite the way I ended up moving to the Islanders [after the yearlong contract dispute]," Peca said. "It's a place that really gave me the opportunity to get my career going and establish myself as a player. A lot of that is Ted Nolan and Lindy Ruff, and of course John Muckler bringing me in."
His heart always stayed in Buffalo, even if his skates didn't. Today, he lives there with his wife and two kids.
"Buffalo is the kind of town a person like me loves to live in because it's a great people-loving community," said Peca, who will turn 36 in March. "It's a city with small-town values, and it's a great place to live."
I met Peca when he was a junior star with the OHL's Ottawa 67's in the early 1990s. The Vancouver Canucks chose him in the second round (40th overall) of the 1992 draft.
His stay in Vancouver would last but one full NHL season, as the Canucks moved him to Buffalo in a blockbuster deal. The July 1995 trade saw the great Alexander Mogilny and a fifth-round draft choice (Todd Norman) go to Vancouver in exchange for Peca, Mike Wilson and Vancouver's first-round choice (Jay McKee).
"It's something that kind of caught me by surprise," Peca recalled. "I thought things were going well, so I was pretty surprised when I was traded out of Vancouver. But obviously Mogilny was going the other way, so I when I look back I guess I did have value to the Canucks organization, and they viewed me that way.
"When I got to Buffalo, Mogilny was obviously gone, [Dale] Hawerchuk was gone, a lot of veterans were moving on and the team was going in the youth direction. I knew it was a chance for me to establish myself."
The highlight was the 1999 Cup run, a magical spring that ended bitterly on Brett Hull's controversial in-the-crease triple-overtime goal in Game 6.
"That was a very difficult moment," Peca said of Hull's goal. "It's a blue-collar town. It wasn't just the players that enjoyed that great ride, but the community as well. The Bills had their four straight Super Bowl defeats, so Buffalo was looking at their first pro championship for the city, and unfortunately things ended the way they did. But still very good memories."
His 2000-01 contract dispute finally got resolved with a June trade. Peca was sent to the Islanders for Tim Connolly and Taylor Pyatt. He was named captain and helped lead the team back into the playoffs after a seven-season dry patch.
"[Owner] Charles Wang was real eager to put that team back on the map," Peca said. "As much as I love Buffalo, this guy really loves Long Island and wanted to do something special for Long Island. Bringing in Peter Laviolette, I have the utmost respect for him as a coach. We were able to do something that first year. It was great to see. Long Island is a great place, and the fan base is extremely passionate, and I was happy we were able to get people excited."
The Isles made the playoffs all three seasons Peca was there. After the 2004-05 lockout, he was dealt to Edmonton for Mike York and a fourth-round draft choice (later traded to Colorado). Peca spent only one season in Edmonton, but what a season it was. Edmonton went all the way to the seventh and deciding game of the June 2006 Cup finals against Carolina.
"That was one of those rides; I try to explain that playoff run to people," Peca said. "That year in Edmonton really emblemized what a run is about -- it's about guys really believing in themselves. No. 8 seed against No. 1 seed, Edmonton taking on Detroit. Once we beat the Wings, you slowly saw the confidence grow and guys really believing in each other."
Then, a boyhood dream was fulfilled in the summer of 2006, as the free-agent Peca signed on with his hometown Maple Leafs. It was an injury-shortened season, but wearing the logo he had grown up watching was special.
"I obviously wish I could have extended that stay for many years," Peca said. "But unfortunately I broke my leg, and I can't blame them for wanting to go another way. But it's one of the greatest organizations in professional sports. It's really top-notch, and they look after the players there. I had lots of fun even though it was short-lived."
Peca played his final two seasons in Columbus and helped the team clinch its first playoff berth last season. Now, the only hockey in his life involves coaching his son's minor team.
"I've had just a lot of fun with that," said Peca, although that doesn't mean he has the pro-coaching bug. "I don't think so, because the part I like now is not traveling. I don't really see myself getting into that."
Family time rocks. He's at peace with himself. It was one heck of a ride.
"I don't think I'll ever stop reminiscing," he said. "The game has given me everything I've got. I'll be forever thankful."