Brian Burke was upfront Tuesday about his pursuit of restricted free-agent forward Phil Kessel.
The Toronto Maple Leafs general manager admits Kessel remains the apple of his eye. He believes the young, speedy right winger is the kind of player the Leafs need to upgrade their top-six content.
Kessel, who turns 22 on Oct. 2, scored 36 goals in his third NHL season with the Boston Bruins last year, but the two sides have been at an impasse all summer in contract negotiations.
When Burke reacquired the Leafs' 2010 second-round draft pick last weekend from the Chicago Blackhawks, it set the stage for the GM to sign Kessel to an offer sheet (the steep cost of such a move is a first-, second- and third-round draft choices).
Burke remarked it's not his intention right now to sign Kessel to an offer sheet, but rather work out a trade with Boston GM Peter Chiarelli. (Chiarelli has said Bruins ownership has given him the necessary consent to match any offer sheet.)
"I'm not sure what's going to happen next," said Burke, who Tuesday attended the opening of the Leafs' new practice facility, the MasterCard Centre for Hockey Excellence.
"I think everyone knows we reacquired a draft pick. It puts us in a situation to affect the chain of events for certain players. It's sort of a day-to-day thing. I'm not sure what the next step is there. I think it's clear to everyone that we're trying to upgrade our forward group. And we'll see what happens."
The New York Rangers and Nashville Predators also are reportedly interested in trading for Kessel.
The Bruins are in a tough position. They will have to move or demote a player in order to fit Kessel under the team's salary cap of $56.8-million (U.S.). Chiarelli also has to consider that centre Marc Savard will be an unrestricted free agent next summer, and youngsters Milan Lucic and Blake Wheeler will be in the same situation as Kessel after the 2009-10 season.
The Bruins and Leafs discussed a trade involving Kessel and Toronto defenceman Tomas Kaberle at the NHL entry draft last June, but the two sides couldn't agree and now the trade window in Kaberle's no-trade contract clause has closed.
If Burke does sign Kessel to an offer sheet, there no doubt will be criticism directed toward the Leafs GM.
Two years ago, Burke was publicly irate when Edmonton Oilers executive Kevin Lowe signed Anaheim Ducks youngster Dustin Penner to a five-year, $21.25-million offer sheet. The move set off a war of words between then-Ducks GM Burke and Lowe.
Burke believes the Kessel situation is different because he has been upfront with Chiarelli.
"My objection was I got blindsided by [the Penner offer]at a time that I thought was inappropriate," Burke said. "This entire process has involved dialogue with Peter Chiarelli. There has been no blindside or backdoor like Kevin Lowe did."
The only current Maple Leafs forwards who have top-six status in Burke's mind are Mikhail Grabovski and Matt Stajan. The team's goaltending situation was potentially given a boost with the addition of Swedish standout Jonas Gustavsson, and the defence was bulked up with the addition of Mike Komisarek, François Beauchemin and Garnet Exelby.
But scoring remains a question mark, even though the Leafs finished 10th in the 30-team NHL in goals last season.
"I'm not concerned about our offence, I'm concerned about our defence," said Leafs head coach Ron Wilson, whose team sported the league's worst goals-against average in 2008-09. "We let a couple of guys go [Nik Antropov and Dominic Moore, at the trade deadline]who helped us there, but from what I've seen, we have a couple young guys who can help us."
Wilson says he has been impressed with the play of former U.S. college players Tyler Bozak, Viktor Stalberg and Christian Hanson at the recent NHL rookie tournament in Kitchener, Ont.