Brian Burke gave another of his masterful performances at the podium yesterday in wrapping up his hockey team's lousy season and pointing (once more) to a playoff finish next year.
Through a shower of hilarious rants - "I'm not interested in a five-year rebuild. You say Pittsburgh? Well Pittsburgh picked a ball out of a drum to get Sidney Crosby. Don't tell me there's skill there. They won a goddamn lottery." - the Toronto Maple Leafs general manager dissected where things went wrong this season (Vesa Toskala's goaltending) and how he expects the team to make the playoffs next year with the addition of a couple of forwards and the beefing up of a few already on the roster.
To that end, it is fair to say that Mikhail Grabovski has probably played his last game as a Maple Leaf while Tomas Kaberle, subject of so much trade speculation, has not.
While Burke said he will listen to offers for Kaberle once the no-movement clause in the defenceman's contract lifts for the summer, he will not actively look for buyers. "My job is to listen," Burke said. "We're going to take advantage of the window, but we're not going to shop him around."
Kaberle, 32, has one year left on his contract at $4.25-million (all currency U.S.), a good number for the salary cap. Burke said he told Kaberle discussions on an extension "is the next possibility" and that Kaberle "made it clear he wants to stay."
Kaberle will stay if Burke cannot get the price he wants. Burke is looking for a first-round pick in the entry draft and a top-six forward. However, since Kaberle played so poorly during the last couple of months of the season, Burke will have a difficult time getting his price.
Burke will enter his third training camp and second full season as GM in September. He reiterated yesterday he has employed the same philosophy with the Leafs as he has in his previous three NHL stops as a general manager.
"I want skilled, belligerent teams built from the net out," he said. "I'm not interested in a five-year rebuild."
Burke said the goaltending is set with Jean-Sébastien Giguère and Jonas Gustavsson. The latter will be a restricted free agent July 1 but Burke says he expects to re-sign him and forward Nikolai Kulemin, who is in the same category. With the defence set, Burke said his goal is to add a top-six forward through a trade or free agency plus a couple of tough customers to play among his bottom six forwards. And he would like to regain at least one of the first-round picks he traded for Phil Kessel but, please, let's not get on that discussion again.
Which brings us to Mr. Grabovski. He is a smallish, one-dimensional centre who does not score nearly enough (34 points in 55 games) to justify his $2.9-million stipend, which has two years left to run. Burke would not comment, but those who know him insist there will be no room on the Leafs for three centres on the small side and especially no room on their payroll, which is at $49.7-million for next season.
Tyler Bozak, who has been told to hit the weight room this summer along with Luca Caputi and Kessel, will be one of the Leafs' top two centres next season, and Nazem Kadri is expected to be the other.
Burke stopped short, however, of guaranteeing Kadri will make the jump from junior hockey.
"Hell no," the GM said when someone asked if he will be a lock.
However, all concerned dearly hope Kadri picks up where he left off in this year's Ontario Hockey League playoffs next fall and there is no reason to think otherwise. That means a pink slip for Grabovski. Burke will not be asking for much in return, certainly not the second-round pick interim GM Cliff Fletcher gave up for him a couple of years ago. The benefit here will be the cap room that will allow Burke more flexibility to finish tinkering with the roster.
Another player targeted for a pink slip is defenceman Jeff Finger. The part-time player has two years left on a contract that pays $3.5-million annually. That guarantees he cannot be traded, so unless Finger turns into Bobby Orr at training camp, he is bound to be the highest-paid Toronto Marlie (if not the highest-paid player in the American Hockey League).
Also on the bubble are centres Wayne Primeau and Rickard Wallin. They are set to be unrestricted free agents, and Burke said he told both of them he doesn't know if he will offer them new contracts. That will depend on his success at upgrading his bottom-six forwards.