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Toronto Maple Leafs Brian Burke is keeping an eye on the future with his recent move to trade right-winger Kris Versteeg to Philadelphia. CP (Frank Gunn)
Toronto Maple Leafs Brian Burke is keeping an eye on the future with his recent move to trade right-winger Kris Versteeg to Philadelphia. CP (Frank Gunn)

Leafs Beat

Burke's deal signals emphasis on July 1 Add to ...

Consider the Kris Versteeg trade the first clear sign of which direction Toronto Maple Leafs general manager Brian Burke is headed beyond this season.

Right after the biggest fish in free agency this summer.

Burke confirmed on Monday night that his unorthodox rebuild-on-the-fly will continue unabated beginning with the opening of free agency in July, where Dallas Stars centre Brad Richards is expected to be at the top of the Leafs' list.

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"We intend to be active on July 1," Burke said. "It's that simple. And this has obviously cleared up some salary in order to do that."

In the immediate hours after Burke dealt Versteeg to the Philadelphia Flyers for first- and third-round draft picks on Monday, speculation ran rampant that this was an indication the Leafs GM was finally tearing his roster down with a full youth movement.

The reality was far from that conclusion, however, as Burke indicated later that night that both draft picks were in play in potential deals and that moving Versteeg's $3.083-million salary was all part of a plan to be a player in free agency.

"Would I move it? Yes," Burke said of the first-round pick, which is likely to be 25th or later in the draft given where the Flyers are in the standings. "In the right deal it would be [available] But I haven't put it in play yet."

The third-round pick, meanwhile, could already have a taker, with a forward carrying a sizable salary expected in return.

The Versteeg trade came only five days after Burke sent veteran defenceman Francois Beauchemin to the Anaheim Ducks for Joffrey Lupul and prospect defenceman Jake Gardiner, another deal where the "right now" appeared to take a considerable hit.

But the one thing the two deals accomplished other than adding youth was to add another $3-million in salary cap space to the already $12-million or more Burke has available to spend in free agency or via trade in the coming months.

While the 2011 class in unrestricted free agency is thin, Burke believes he now has the cash to add two or three large contracts, which could mean bidding for Richards and a top free agent defenceman like Christian Ehrhoff - who played under coach Ron Wilson with the San Jose Sharks - or Kevin Bieksa.

There is also a possibility Burke could add a veteran goaltender given how many former starters will be available.

One significant factor in terms of creating cap space is the number of free agents on the Leafs roster, as Burke has seven restricted free agents to re-sign and five unrestricted ones -- including defenceman Tomas Kaberle and netminder Jean-Sebastien Giguere -- to decide on.

Penciling in reasonable contracts for those expected to stay leaves the Leafs with plenty of cap space and plenty of holes on the roster, the most glaring being a first-line centre and a top-four defenceman.

And while there are, as when he started, still two paths for Burke in Toronto, he has already made clear which one he is headed down. It'll involve big money, spending to the cap and adding veterans to the cast of youth he has already assembled.

Which may sound like a familiar story.

"I think before today we could have acquired a player with the cap space we had making $6-million," Burke said, implying the Leafs may add considerable salary even before the Feb. 28 trade deadline.

As for Versteeg, while he struggled in a top-line role alongside one of Burke's prized building blocks in Phil Kessel, he did eventually become a solid contributor over the past two months on the Leafs' third line and special teams.

What he failed to do, however, was fit into Burke's skilled top six, gritty bottom six model of team building, which made him expendable when Lupul arrived for second-line duty last week.

"That was the sequence," Burke said. "That allowed this deal to go forward."

To replace Versteeg, the Leafs recalled centre Christian Hanson from the Toronto Marlies for Tuesday's game against the Boston Bruins.

Versteeg, meanwhile, will make his Flyers debut that same night against the Tampa Bay Lightning.

Follow on Twitter: @mirtle

 

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