Leafs talks heating up; UFA negotiations

Two weeks ago the Toronto Maple Leafs demoted Jeff Finger and his $3.5 million salary to the AHL, which served as an unofficial memo to the remaining 29 teams in the NHL: "We have $4 million in cap room now; make us your best offer."

At first, that didn't generate much action. But things have suddenly changed. I was told Tuesday night that things have heated up somewhat, although still no trade is imminent. I hear two unidentified teams have gained traction with the Leafs in talks.

Toronto's desire has been obvious for a long time: pick up another top-six forward. The lure, one that few teams in the league have, is that the Leafs can take up to $4 million in salary and send back little in salary if there's a team in desperate need of cap/budget relief.

Leafs GM Brian Burke and his trusted lieutenants Dave Nonis, Dave Poulin and Claude Loiselle are scouring the league in search of that top-six forward.

"Burkey wants badly to make that move, but he knows he's got to [be] patient," another NHL GM said this week. "He's got one shot at it with the [cap] space he got by dumping Finger. It's got to be right."

Leafs third-line winger Colby Armstrong injured his finger Tuesday night and will require surgery. He is expected to miss four to six weeks.

Backes, Blues shelve negotiations ... for now

David Backes is another benefit of the collective bargaining agreement's liberalized free-agent rules. The power winger will be eligible for unrestricted free agency July 1 and will turn 27 years old May 1.

There were preliminary talks between Backes' camp and the St. Louis Blues before the season, but those talks have since been shelved ... for now. If I'm a betting man, I believe the Blues will pick up the phone again in 2011.

"It's a dynamic situation," Backes told ESPN.com on Tuesday. "Being an unrestricted free agent, they obviously can't lose me for nothing and not get anything back. I need to have a good year to establish myself. I think they like me, and I love St. Louis. Hopefully something will get done during the season, but obviously there's a business side to this game that if we can't come to terms, then unfortunately we'll have to maybe part ways."

I don't see this guy leaving St. Louis. My money's on GM Doug Armstrong and agent Wade Arnott of Newport Sports Management figuring this out before July 1.

Panthers not talking contracts with McCabe, Vokoun

The Florida Panthers have not approached their two most notable UFAs-to-be about a new contract: veteran blueliner Bryan McCabe and star goalie Tomas Vokoun.

"We'll just see how things go," Panthers GM Dale Tallon said Tuesday, leaving things at that.

Because Tallon is looking to rebuild this team and get younger, it's going to be interesting to see what the Panthers' GM ultimately decides to do with these veteran players.

"Dale just came in, and he's building a young team," Vokoun said Tuesday. "I'm sure he's evaluating people every night. There's no reason to even go there [contract talks] right now. I'm signed for this season, and we'll see how it goes after that. You never know."

Vokoun, 34, has a $5.7 million cap hit this season. He has a no-trade clause as well, which will be key if the Panthers are outside the playoff bubble come the Feb. 28 trade deadline. It'll be up to Vokoun to decide his future.

"You know what? My future is my next game," Vokoun said. "That's how I approach it. I've learned that it doesn't happen to think about what might happen in June or July when you're still in October. I'm trying to play the best I can, and we'll see what happens."

Although I have a feeling Vokoun won't be back with the Panthers next season, McCabe may not be as clear-cut. He's the captain of this team, and as the Panthers get younger, they'll still need a leader. For him to stay, he'll need to take less than the $5.75 million cap hit he carries this season.

"We haven't spoken about it at all," McCabe told ESPN.com on Tuesday, referring to contract talks. "I'm not the type of guy to worry about that. I'm sure it'll take care of itself as long as the team does well. I love Florida, and I'd love to stay."