On February 14, 2011, the Toronto Maple Leafs traded Kris Versteeg to the Philadelphia Flyers for a first round and a third round pick in the 2011 NHL entry draft; and many fans have been left with more questions than answers.
Was it a good trade?
Probably. Although a lot of Leaf fans might have difficulty seeing this.
Versteeg was not able to establish himself as a top six forward on a Toronto Maple Leafs team which is notoriously starved for offensive talent. Getting a first round pick (not to mention an additional third round pick) for a player who has seemingly established himself as a career third line forward (with a salary inflated over his production on-ice due to a fax machine mishap while in Chicago) is excellent value.
Even if one wanted to take a step back further, the price Toronto paid for Versteeg was a pair of prospects (neither of whom are likely to ever play over 100 games in the NHL. Hockey’s future rates Philippe Paradis at 6.5C and Chris DiDomenico as a 7.0D — both of which are sufficiently low ratings that neither prospect is even seen as being within the top 15 in the organization or likely to ever make an impact in the NHL) and Viktor Stalberg (whose play has not shown that he can even become a consistent third line talent in the NHL)
Even if Versteeg has many more productive NHL seasons in him and even though he will be a very valuable addition to a Stanley cup contender (like Philly is), Kris Versteeg is not what can be considered a core player in an NHL franchise.
In simple terms, a third line player is a third line player.
And third line players have limited value (especially with the aforementioned over-paid salary problem), and having a good third line player without having two strong forward lines in front of him (as was his situation in Toronto) is kind of useless. Even a late first round pick is MUCH higher than expected value — third line players, even good ones, are just not very hard to find.
Did the trade make sense?
Well… no. That is, at least, not on the surface. Brian Burke has made a point of targeting young players and prospects in his trades while avoiding offers of high draft picks.
So, especially this far along in his rebuilding process, why trade for picks now?
My answer? It is simple: to make it abundantly clear (without violating NHL policy) to Brad Richards that Toronto has a wonderful home with a lot of money waiting just for him.
It is no secret that Toronto has a desperate need for a number one center, something that Brad Richards has proven himself to be. It is also no secret that the ownership in Dallas has very little interest in offering Brad Richards a huge salary similar to the 7.8 million he is currently making.
While it has also been clear that the New York Rangers will be very interested, and will be willing to free up as much cap space as they possibly can; the reality is that with the decent play of some of their own restricted free agents this year, the salary cap room might not be quite deep enough to survive what the Leafs can now offer. That is, unless the Rangers want to sacrifice their current playoff aspirations by dumping salary for the chance to be competitive with the Leafs.
Who would have thought that being a competitive team in the playoff hunt could be a potential liability?
Probably not Glen Sather, but who really knows what he thinks anymore.
Now, there is no such thing as a perfect world. Brad Richards could very well sign with Dallas, despite owner Tom Hicks’ desperate attempts to avoid having paying out the big bucks. Or he could just avoid signing with the Toronto Maple Leafs because he feels that the chance to compete just won’t be there for him; or even just because maybe he likes the idea of being in New York City.
But, the cap space won’t magically vanish even if Brad Richards does. There will still be many attractive free agents on the market, from veteran defencemen like Ed Jovanovski and Eric Brewer; to talented scoring forwards like Simon Gagne and Tim Connoly; to the under 30 crowd with guys like Joni Pitkanen, James Wisniewski, Christian Erhoff, Tomas Fleischman or Brooks Laich.
Now, there will be fans who shall now shout quite vibrantly about the signing of Mike Komisarek as a free agent by Brian Burke.
However, it will be these same fans who will often ignore free agent signings such as Francois Beauchemin (whose trade returned a pick and a very nice prospect thank-you-very-much) or Clarke MacArthur (whose offensive output has thrilled many Leafs fans, some of whom have embraced him as a large part of the solution moving forward).
I, personally, would add Colby Armstrong to that list. His strong defensive efforts on the third line and penalty kill have been more important to the Leafs than Versteeg’s production was, and his gritty style of pesky forechecking (which other NHL teams hate to play against, just ask Ben Eager) is something that most NHL teams could use more of; especially since he does not frequently cross the Matt Cooke line while doing so.
Any which way a Leafs fan might look at it, Kris Versteeg’s three million dollars can easily be used in free agency to replace a third line player on a team whose performance was less than impressive. So, for the penalty of missing a good third line player for all of 26 games or so, the Leafs have grabbed a first and a third round pick.
In other terms, for an identical price of a six-week injury to a top 9 forward, Brian Burke got himself two free draft picks, one of which is in the first round.
While the Kris Versteeg trade might be good value in and of itself, for a variety of reasons, the end result of this trade might very well be that removing over 3 million dollars of salary cap space may realistically result in the Leafs defaulting themselves into the sole serious bidder for Brad Richards services. As such, the final pieces of this trade are not likely be shown to Leafs Nation until after July 1.