Deadline day arrived a month early for the Toronto Maple Leafs, just like it did a year ago.
And if Brian Burke gets his way, this year will see more than one trade, just like last year, when he made two major deals well before the NHL trade deadline.
"I always try to beat the trade deadline," the Toronto Maple Leafs general manager said Wednesday afternoon, shortly after he traded dependable veteran defenceman François Beauchemin to the Anaheim Ducks for forward Joffrey Lupul, defence prospect Jake Gardiner and a conditional draft pick.
The trouble with deadline day, Burke added, is "it's kind of like a stampede. It's almost like partying with a piñata. Everyone's going for one player and everyone's swinging at it."
In advance of the deadline, Burke figures you can set your own price. If you get it, fine. If not, well you won't have to worry about buyer's remorse, like the fellow at the auction sale who won a feverish bidding war for that $3,500 Victorian love seat with cracked legs.
Burke declined to get into details about his next moves but Leafs forward Kris Versteeg is more than likely the next fellow on the block, preferably for a centre. Defenceman Tomas Kaberle is a more tradable commodity, although relations between him, his agent Rick Curran and Burke are frosty right now. The other problem is that even if Kaberle waived his no-trade clause, his list of acceptable destinations has only two or three names on it, and everybody knows it, so there's still a good chance he will leave as a free agent at the end of the season.
In the meantime, Burke can say he made a trade that satisfies his objectives on several levels. By moving out Beauchemin, 30, for Lupul, 27, and Gardiner, 20, the Leafs get younger and get someone who is considered a good prospect, although Burke insisted they are not giving up on a run for this year's playoffs.
It also brings the Leafs an immediate benefit, if Lupul's back problems, as he insisted Wednesday, are behind him and he can increase his production (13 points in 26 games with the Ducks) with a bump in ice time as a top-six forward for the Leafs.
Getting younger does not mean Gardiner will leave the University of Wisconsin, where he has 30 points in 30 games, for professional hockey. He is in his third season and Burke indicated he may even stay for a fourth since it is not his policy to ask a college player to leave school early to turn pro.
Aside from Lupul, the Leafs will get younger by calling up defenceman Keith Aulie, 21, who will be promoted from the Leafs' Toronto Marlies farm team. The move has to wait until centre John Mitchell clears waivers or is claimed by noon Thursday but Aulie will probably be in the lineup for Thursday's game against the New Jersey Devils.
Less certain is whether or not Aulie will be able to take up a good portion of the 20 minutes of ice time Beauchemin logged per game. Burke said he and the coaches believe Aulie, who had a 12-game stint with the Leafs earlier this season, is ready to be a top-four defenceman.
The jury is still out on that, although Aulie won't have to log 20 minutes right away since Luke Schenn will also see his ice time increase. But if Aulie can manage the jump, this will be the delayed payoff on the Dion Phaneuf trade from a year ago, as the Calgary Flames included Aulie with Phaneuf and winger Fredrik Sjostrom in the deal.
Judged on pedigree alone, Burke scored a solid win with the trade because both Lupul and Gardiner were first-round picks in the NHL entry draft. However, Ducks GM Bob Murray got what he wanted, too, which was a steady veteran to help his young defence corps in a playoff push and some relief on his payroll by getting Burke to take Lupul's contract.
Lupul, though, has yet to live up to the expectations of going seventh overall (2002), while Gardiner's NHL years are ahead of him.
Actually, Gardiner (17th overall in 2008) was drafted by Burke when he was running the Ducks. At this point, he looks to be the prize of the trade.
Gardiner was a member of the U.S. team at the world junior hockey championship. Burke described him as a great skater and projected him as a top-four NHL defenceman. He is also said to fire a cannon from the point but Leaf fans probably won't see that for a while.