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Brian Burke, whose son Brendan was one of hockey's few openly gay players, has joined an anti-homophobia campaign. (Reuters)
Brian Burke, whose son Brendan was one of hockey's few openly gay players, has joined an anti-homophobia campaign. (Reuters)

Maple Leafs bank on prospect, not picks Add to ...

As is often the case with the Toronto Maple Leafs general manager, Brian Burke was rather blunt in assessing his NHL team's trade deadline day.

What was a little more unusual was his use of one, monosyllabic word to describe the situation.

"Being a seller sucks," Burke said. "I'd much rather be a buyer."

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Looking worn out from a long few weeks that have included the tragic death of his son, a successful stint with the U.S. Olympic men's hockey team and then all of yesterday's activity, Burke didn't mince words when asked for his thoughts on what's become an annual tradition in the NHL.

He's not a fan - and especially not of the giving end.

Much of the problem yesterday was the Leafs simply had little to peddle, with no rental players of note and a lone marquee asset in defenceman Tomas Kaberle, whose no-trade clause has proven a hurdle all season.

After Burke dealt his only sought-after rental in winger Alexei Ponikarovsky last Tuesday, all that was left was shipping out various roster flotsam in Lee Stempniak, Joey MacDonald and Martin Skoula for four picks in the No. 100-plus range - the point at which the NHL draft is akin to taking shots in the dark. (Only roughly one in 20 players picked in the fourth round and beyond, after all, goes on to play 200 career games in the NHL.)

A bigger, last-minute play was potentially there after Kaberle provided three destinations he would consider a move to, but Burke wasn't able to make the pieces fit.

"There wasn't a deal to be made and that was the end of it," the GM said. "We were truthful. We never got a list, but we did explore three avenues that the player's agent asked us to explore as recently as this morning."

The Ponikarovsky deal, meanwhile, illustrated nicely Burke's unique approach to rebuilding his 29th-place franchise. While another team - believed to be the Los Angeles Kings - had offered second- and fourth-round picks for the long-time Leaf, Burke opted to instead take prospect Luca Caputi and Skoula from the Pittsburgh Penguins in return.

Given his organizational philosophy is focused on a quick turnaround, Caputi was the key move of the week. The Leafs GM said he considers the 21-year-old far-more valuable than a yet-to-be-picked teenager in spots No. 50 or beyond.

"We turned down two picks for Poni because we liked the prospect better," Burke said. "A prospect is farther along the food chain, as far as development. This is a guy who's a second-year pro, has played in the NHL, a guy we really liked in junior, a guy we really like as a pro - that to me has far greater value than a draft pick that I'm not going to see for three years, if I ever see him at all.

"You can see with the [Phil]Kessel deal [in which Toronto gave up two first-round picks last September] we are not interested in a five-year rebuilding plan. We're trying to improve this team on a much more rapid time frame. You saw in [Burke's previous GM job in]Anaheim that it didn't take five years. That's what we're trying to do here."

Burke's task with the Anaheim Ducks, however, was an easier one given the talent he inherited. Even so, through savvy trades and free-agent signings, he renovated that franchise's roster lightning-quick, transforming it from a non-playoff team into a Stanley Cup-winning one in less than two years.

Given the state of affairs, no one expects such miracles in Toronto.

His two-year anniversary with the Leafs is nine months away, and it's taken 15 to essentially tear down to the foundation. And, unlike the model followed by many in the game, Burke said days like yesterday's annual frenzy are far from essential to his plan.

"I'm not a big trade deadline guy," he said. "I view it as, if you've got to make major adjustments to your team in March, then I think you've screwed up badly on the fundamental structure of the team before that. If you look at my pattern, I try and get my team intact some time in December, and leave them alone with some minor tweaking, and that's how I've always done it.

"I've never been a big deadline guy. I don't like being a seller. I'd much rather be adding assets and gearing up for a playoff run. I don't like this and I'm not comfortable with it."

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