Brian Burke had another good day Thursday. The Toronto Maple Leafs general manager overpaid a bit to land the tough winger he wanted, but the important thing was his team got a bit better.
It was the second day in a row Burke landed an abrasive winger who is slightly overpaid. His signing of former Atlanta Thrashers forward Colby Armstrong for $3-million (all currency U.S.) a year for three years was preceded by a trade on Wednesday that brought winger Kris Versteeg, who is also earning $3-million a year, from the Chicago Blackhawks for Viktor Stalberg, Chris DiDomenico and Phillipe Paradis.
Say what you want about Armstrong, 25, and Versteeg, 24, being overpaid, but July 1 is the day NHL GMs traditionally overpay a lot. If you can escape by overpaying only a million or two while making your team a little younger, a little more skilled and tougher, then it was a good couple of days.
If nothing else, Leaf fans can say they were spared the tragicomedy in Calgary, where Flames GM Darryl Sutter woke up Friday morning to discover he somehow reacquired one of hockey's great underachievers, Olli Jokinen, for $6-million over the next two years. When Tim Jackman is your best signing, you know it was a bad, bad day.
Best of all for Burke, he still has his best tradable asset, defenceman Tomas Kaberle.
By the end of the day Thursday, Burke said on a conference call, he was finished "for today" because "in my mind it's time to sit back and let the dust settle a bit." But he hastened to add, "We're not done." Burke said in the coming days he will be "looking at adding a couple of depth guys and some other things."
It is the "some other things" that are intriguing. Burke would not get into details, but word around the team is that he still has his eye on Phil Kessel's former partner in scoring, Boston Bruins centre Marc Savard. Bruins GM Peter Chiarelli is said to be shopping Savard and his large, long contract. If he would settle for Leafs centre Mikhail Grabovski, and some think he might, then Burke would have the elite centre he needs, albeit a soon-to-be 33-year-old one who is coming off a major head injury.
Sutter may give Burke some competition for Savard, who once played for the Flames, but Savard has a no-trade clause in his contract. He also has a family issue and has told Chiarelli he would accept a trade only to Ottawa (his hometown) or Toronto (his wife's family is in nearby Oshawa).
If Burke can pull this off, it would still leave him the option of trading Kaberle for another young top-six forward. At this point, it looks as if the best trading partner may be the Los Angeles Kings, who need a puck-moving defenceman and can manage Kaberle's $4.25-million salary-cap hit even if they get Ilya Kovalchuk.
But even if neither of those moves comes to fruition, Burke can say as he did Thursday that come July 1, "You must improve your team and I think we did that."
Some people may complain Burke did not add a star-quality top-six forward. But both Versteeg, who is projected to play on one of the Leafs' top two lines, and Armstrong, a third-liner who can play higher in spots, bring something the Leafs desperately need.
Both players are good penalty killers. The Leafs were the worst in the league at this last season with an embarrassing success rate of 74.6 per cent. Much of this was the fault of the forwards, so adding a couple who know what they are doing should have a positive effect on the win-loss column even if Burke cannot add any more juice to the offence this summer.
Training camp will open with the prospect of the new additions plus defenceman and new captain Dion Phaneuf's first full season as a Maple Leaf, not to mention a full season with Jean-Sébastien Giguère in goal. And there will be a hot newcomer at centre in Nazem Kadri.
Add it all up with whatever moves Burke has left and it does not necessarily mean a playoff spot. Status as a serious contender is probably two years away, but the important thing is, the Leafs are headed in the right direction.