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Toronto Maple Leafs' Nick Spaling (16) celebrates with teammates after scoring as Philadelphia Flyers' Evgeny Medvedev (82) skates past during second period NHL hockey action, in Toronto on Saturday, Feb. 20, 2016. (Chris Young/THE CANADIAN PRESS)
Toronto Maple Leafs' Nick Spaling (16) celebrates with teammates after scoring as Philadelphia Flyers' Evgeny Medvedev (82) skates past during second period NHL hockey action, in Toronto on Saturday, Feb. 20, 2016. (Chris Young/THE CANADIAN PRESS)

Lamoriello earns keep by launching Leafs airlift Add to ...

For all the many nice things people will – and should – say about Roman Polak, the big defenceman is not worth a second-round pick.

Let alone two.

Yet that was the bounty that Lou Lamoriello was somehow was able to coax out of the San Jose Sharks on Monday morning for the services of Polak and depth centre Nick Spaling. And that is exactly why Toronto Maple Leafs president Brendan Shanahan – somewhat controversially – put Lamoriello in the general manager’s role last summer.

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The 73-year-old may have lost a little off his fastball after 28 years running things in New Jersey – the Devils certainly struggled with some fundamental team-building elements such as drafting and development in recent years. But the past two weeks have shown Lamoriello still has a curveball and a knuckler that allow him to grind out wins in the one area the Leafs need the most right now.

They need a hatchet man, someone who can negotiate to the max with desperate GMs of playoff-bound teams (hello Doug Wilson) and pry the best possible picks and prospects out of their coffers.

They need someone who knows the league and the 29 other personalities he is dealing with – and who can exploit their various weaknesses. They need someone with a love for the art of the deal.

Say what you will about Brian Burke’s tenure in Toronto, but he had that ability. Lamoriello showed it when he landed all-world netminder Cory Schneider in a trade with Vancouver at the 2013 draft.

In a new-school front office filled with analytics whiz kids, he is the old-school. He has his shortcomings, but they can be mitigated by Shanahan, Kyle Dubas, Mark Hunter and others on the management team who are contributing to the overall decision-making.

Lamoriello’s strengths are that he knows how to work a trade deadline, and he figures out who wants what where. He spent a lot of the past month calling up opposing GMs to do just that.

He has then spent the past two days beating the other sellers – of which there are suddenly quite a few, especially among Canadian NHL teams – by shipping out his rental players a week ahead of the Feb. 29 trade deadline.

“I always felt if you could do it a little early, it’s better,” Lamoriello said.

“The first to move always has an advantage,” another Eastern Conference executive said.

Among other things, early traders set the market. And for all the talk of it being a tough time to sell, with no first-round picks up for grabs in return, the Leafs have managed to get three second-round picks and a fourth-rounder in three trades without losing any players they wanted long-term.

The bigger benefit to the Leafs getting ahead of the herd, however, is they can now quickly move into Phase 2 of the deadline tear down.

By dealing Shawn Matthias (to Colorado in another deal on Sunday), Polak and Spaling, and only taking back Raffi Torres’s buried salary ($1.05-million, all figures U.S.), the Leafs shed $6.2-million in NHL contracts.

That means that, instead of being almost capped out heading toward deadline day, they will have up to $8-million to absorb bad contracts in trades.

So, if Chicago, for example, want to add a huge salary such as Eric Staal’s (from Carolina), the Blackhawks could ship Bryan Bickell’s $4-million deal to Toronto in order to create the necessary cap space. The Leafs would also get a high draft pick or a worthwhile prospect for their largesse.

Bickell could then be left on the fourth line to play out the final year of his deal next season. Or he could be sent to the American Hockey League’s Marlies.

A bad-contract-for-draft-pick trade like that could be enticing for a few other contending teams this season. St. Louis, Washington, Tampa Bay, Pittsburgh and Los Angeles would all like to add players for their playoff runs, but they are all extremely close to being capped out right now.

Easy money. Just give Lou another pick, and the deal can be yours.

The casualty of all this demolition will obviously be the Leafs lineup, which will look decidedly Marlies-ish against Nashville on Tuesday. Ten of the players on the roster at Monday’s practice had spent at least some time in the AHL this season, and that number will likely grow as the trades keep coming.

Some may even outplay those they’re replacing.

“We all knew this was going to happen,” coach Mike Babcock said of losing three hard-working veteran players with his team already mired in a 4-12-3 slide. “That doesn’t make it any easier. We have a plan to do the right thing for the Leafs. That’s what we’re going to continue to do.”

The right thing in this case is to trade every player who’s not part of the future by next Monday at 3 p.m. Even with several gone, there are a few still left to go, with James Reimer and P.A. Parenteau the most enticing pieces.

But the plan is right on course. And so far, they’ve gotten more in return than anyone thought possible.

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