With heightened anticipation surrounding the Toronto Maple Leafs heading towards July 1st, President and General Manager Brian Burke had heavy expectations placed on his shoulders to significantly improve the roster and construct the team into a perennial playoff contender. The infamous terms of “truculence, belligerence, pugnacity and testosterone” were emphasized and prioritized by Burke. He was seeking players who displayed those characteristics and reeked character. As the dust settles, the evaluation process is underway as to whether the Leafs made the right moves on the opening day of free agency.
The Leafs kicked off the frenzy on the eve of July 1st, when they swung a multi-player trade to bring in 24-year old winger Kris Versteeg, who played a complementary role for the Chicago Blackhawks during their Stanley Cup run last season. Versteeg notched 20 goals and 24 assists in 79 games last season, to go along with 35 penalty minutes. He also added 14 points (6 goals, 8 assists) in 22 playoff games for the Hawks. Versteeg is a relatively young player who will play a prominent top-six role for the blue and white next season. Only standing 5-foot-10, ‘Steeger’ as Chicago fans like to refer to him as, is a scrappy player who forechecks hard and plays a strong two-way game. He is also very versatile, which is evidenced by his ability to play all three forward positions. This addition will pay significant dividends in the scoring area, where the Leafs only boasted one 20+ goal scorer last season in Phil Kessel (30) at the end of last season. Along with Versteeg came 21-year old speedster Bill Sweatt. Sweatt was a former second round pick (38th overall) of the Chicago Blackhawks in 2007 who has played for Colorado College the past four seasons. The 6-foot, 180 pound winger scored 33 points in 39 college appearances last season. He will ply his trade for the Toronto Marlies of the American Hockey League next season, before vying for a full-time role with the Leafs the following year. Sweatt projects as a top-six scoring forward in the NHL, who will replace the speed that was lost in Stalberg following this trade.
Heading to Chicago in the deal is 24-year old Viktor Stalberg, former first round pick Philippe Paradis and Chris DiDomenico. Stalberg has all the tools to become a solid NHLer, although Versteeg will help the Leafs win immediately. The speed that is lost in Stalberg will be replaced by Bill Sweatt. Philippe Paradis was once considered a power forward with impressive size and skill is now going to his third team in two years. His future role in the NHL remains to be determined, but from all indications, it appears that his career potential lies as a fourth line checker. The forgotten player involved in the trade is Chris DiDomenico, who was a former sixth rounder who was never drafted into the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League. He requested a tryout with the Saint John’s Sea Dogs and made good on his opportunity by leading his team in scoring as a rookie with 75 points in 70 games. After improving his point totals to 95 points the following season, DiDomenico made the Team Canada World Junior roster in 2009 and played a prominent role playing mostly alongside John Tavares on Canada’s first line. DiDomenico suffered a broken thigh bone in his left leg during the 2009 QMJHL playoffs, keeping him out for over 5 months. Upon returning to play, he lit up the scoring with 22 points in 12 regular season games, plus 21 points in 14 playoff games. He looks to have successfully rehabilitated from a potential career-threatening injury, although may never regain the same foot speed that he held prior to the injury. Projecting as a third line grinder in the NHL, DiDomenico is an interesting throw-in to the Versteeg trade that could pay dividends if he regains full strength in his leg.
Fans of the blue and white approved of the Versteeg trade with Chicago, although expected more out of Brian Burke on the opening of free agency. Predicting what transactions would occur on the opening day was a difficult task, as some online reports suggested the Leafs would make an unexpected run at the prized free agent possession, Ilya Kovalchuk. Burke once again denied these rumors and restated his claim that the club would go after players that would upgrade their core of forwards. Burke did not disappoint by signing 28-year old pesky winger Colby Armstrong to a 3 year deal worth $9 million. Armstrong is the ‘prototypical Burke player’ with his agitating presence. Not only can he throw big hits, he has shown a scoring ability around the net. Having previously scored 22 goals during the ’08-09 season, Armstrong will be relied on to chip in some goals for a weak Toronto offence. Armstrong was the only player signed by the Leafs on the opening day of the market (unless you count minor league signing Joey Crabb), but progress was made nonetheless.
Now eight days into the free agent market, there are more moves expected in the coming days-to-weeks. Things on the agenda include acquiring at least one more top six-forward, preferably in exchange for Tomas Kaberle. The popular name being bandied in newspapers, blogs and trending on Twitter is Bobby Ryan, who has so far been unable to re-sign with the Anaheim Ducks. There is no question that Brian Burke would have interest in such a player, who is coming off back-to-back 30-goal seasons and displays a package of size and skill. Did we mention he is only 23 years old? There is a possibility that a deal is consummated, but it would come at the expense of former fifth overall pick Luke Schenn, who is a tantalizing prospect in the eyes of scouts around the NHL. You can bet that he is going the other way if Bobby Ryan comes to Toronto. There are other players who could be had at a cheaper price including James Neal of the Dallas Stars or Dustin Brown of the Los Angeles Kings. All signs point to Kaberle being traded, it just remains to be seen when and to what team.
Yesterday's signing of Brett Lebda brings another defenceman into the organization - bringing the total to eight NHL defenceman. This paves the way for longtime Leaf Tomas Kaberle to be moved. The 28-year old Lebda is small in stature at 5-foot-9 and 195 pounds, but is a slick skater with decent puck moving abilities. He posted 8 points for the Detroit Red Wings last season. Burke wanted to sign another defenceman for other reasons than replacing Kaberle. He brought in Lebda to provide insurance in the chance that one of his top-four defenceman is injured - like Mike Komisarek was for the majority of last season.
The off-season work for Brian Burke and Co. has just begun. The work that has been completed thus far is encouraging, but there is still quite a ways to go before having a legitimate hope of making the playoffs. The chances of cementing a playoff berth next season will ultimately be decided based on the level of activity the Leafs have on the open market the next few weeks. Let’s hope things aren’t as quiet as they have been the last couple of days. The calm before the storm is concluding and the promise for activity is on the horizon.