Leafs' moves not part of a rebuilding process; Burke aiming for more immediate results

July, 7, 2009

A week from now, Brian Burke plans to be hooking his line into actual fish at Langara Lodge in the Queen Charlotte Islands.

He's caught a pretty good haul on the NHL front so far, so we like his chances with the real thing.

The Toronto Maple Leafs GM has his detractors for his brash style. He's the anti-David Poile. But it's hard to argue with what he's done in the past five months, adding depth from all corners of the earth to a team that desperately needed it.

The latest catch was highly sought-after netminder Jonas Gustavsson, who signed on the dotted line Tuesday after saying no to similar one-year deals from Dallas, San Jose and Colorado. He'll earn $810,000 plus bonuses next season.

"Our feeling is that Jonas Gustavsson has a chance to be a pretty special NHL player," Burke told ESPN.com from his Maple Leafs office in Toronto on Tuesday. "He has yet to play an NHL game so we want to manage expectations here, but it's not just our assessment that he ranks that highly; the number of teams that [originally] pursued him was in double digits."

For now, the Leafs are publicly saying Gustavsson, nicknamed "The Monster," will be the backup to veteran Vesa Toskala. But there's an obvious belief the Swede will push the Finn hard.

"As you know, there's two jobs where the athletes audition every night: pitchers and goalies," Burke said. "It'll be up to those two to sort it out, although it is our anticipation that Vesa will play the bulk of the games."

The signing came a day after an equally big-ticket acquisition in blueliner Francois Beauchemin, who signed a three-year, $11.4 million deal. At 29, Beauchemin has a decade of hockey in front of him. But he's not a kid, either, which makes you wonder where the Leafs are headed in their rebuilding process. If people had expected a long journey back to respectability buoyed by high draft picks -- à la the Pittsburgh, Chicago and Washington model -- guess again.

"We're not doing a traditional model here. People should figure that out," Burke said. "You look at the pre-cap rebuilding jobs, you look at Ottawa and you look at Pittsburgh, and basically the philosophy was, 'Let's finish dead last or next to dead last for 4-5 years and get top picks and we'll turn it around.' I don't see any reason to repeat that here. I don't think our fans here would be that patient. As long as they see a plan, I think they'll be patient for a retooling, but not a demolition.

"Stripping down to the chassis and rebuilding it is certainly not what ownership has asked me to do. We're not rebuilding here, we're retooling."

So a talented, two-way blueliner like Beauchemin absolutely fits into what Burke has in mind.

"I do think that Francois Beauchemin is young enough that he will be part of the turnaround and will be part of whatever success we're going to have," Burke said.

But Burke has also had an eye toward the future. Aside from his draft picks in Montreal two weeks ago, he was aggressive in scouring other venues for young talent, Gustavsson being the latest example, an unrestricted free-agent asset from Europe. Over the past five months, the Leafs also signed a pair of U.S. college free agents in Christian Hanson and Tyler Bozak, as well as Canadian junior free agent Robert Slaney.

The name of Burke's game was adding young talent to an organization thin in that area before his arrival.

"The spots on the leopard are visible; there's an underlying problem that we don't have a deep enough pool of talent here on our reserve list," Burke said. "What we've done since the end of last season with Christian Hanson coming in and playing, we've added four assets, with Jonas Gustavsson being the fourth, guys that are viewed not just as top prospects but more ready to play. These aren't 17- and 18-year-olds. I think we've added more depth to our organization than anyone else."

Add the July 1 acquisitions of blueliners Mike Komisarek and Garnet Exelby and suddenly Burke's overhaul is in full force.

"I think for the first time in a long time here, there's going to be competition for jobs," Burke said. "When I got here last year, there was no push from below. There was no one worried about losing a job from a guy from the [AHL] Marlies. He just asked the trainer what number he wanted to wear."

The additions of Komisarek, Exelby and Beauchemin (minus Pavel Kubina, who was dealt to Atlanta) to a group that already included Tomas Kaberle, Luke Schenn, Mike Van Ryn, Ian White, Jeff Finger, Jonas Frogren and Anton Stralman has led to an overflowing blue line. Which was by design.

"We've stacked up the blue line," Burke said. "Even my harshest critic would have to admit that the blue line is in the top three or four in the NHL in terms of 1 through 6. We may not have that dominant No. 1 guy like some teams have, but 1 through 6, it's a pretty good group."

But you can't carry that many defensemen on your NHL roster. The Leafs spoke to Boston about Kaberle on the eve of the draft, but that deal fell through. His no-trade clause kicks back in Aug. 15. The Leafs remain challenged up front, so any deal, whether it's Kaberle or another blueliner, must bring offensive help in return.

"We've got 10 guys stacked up on the blue line now," Burke said. "Obviously, it screams for a move to get a forward back. But I will tell you, my next priority is my fishing trip next week.

"Anyone who tries to find me will need a very good detective."

Pierre LeBrun

ESPN Senior Writer



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