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Chicago Blackhawks' Kris Versteeg, lower left, celebrates with Duncan Keith, right, and Andrew Ladd after scoring against the Vancouver Canucks during the third period of Game 2 of an NHL hockey Western Conference second-round playoff series Monday, May 3, 2010, in Chicago. The Blackhawks won 4-2. (AP Photo/Nam Y. Huh)

Nam Y. Huh

Not content to wait until the opening of free agency on Thursday afternoon, Toronto Maple Leafs GM Brian Burke pulled the trigger on a deal with the Chicago Blackhawks to land winger Kris Versteeg on Wednesday night.

It wasn't a trade Blackhawks GM Stan Bowman wanted to make only a few weeks after his team won the Stanley Cup, but one necessitated by a salary cap crunch unlike any the NHL has seen previously.

"We weren't looking to trade anybody," Bowman said. "But that's the game that we're in today."

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In exchange for Versteeg and Colorado College prospect Bill Sweatt, the Blackhawks received three young Leafs forwards in Viktor Stalberg, Chris DiDomenico and Philippe Paradis.

Only Stalberg is expected to make the Blackhawks, meaning savings of at least a few million off of Versteeg's $3.083-million salary. With the move, Chicago should be able to begin signing some of its restricted free agents, with netminder Antti Niemi and defenceman Niklas Hjalmarsson at the front of the line.

The move comes only six days after Bowman offloaded roughly $5-million in salary in dealing Dustin Byfuglien and Brent Sopel to the Atlanta Thrashers for picks and prospects. Even with all three players gone, Chicago's cap situation is tight - and it will likely take demoting backup netminder Cristobal Huet to the minors to get under the cap come the fall.

Winger Andrew Ladd, meanwhile, is being shopped around the league and could join Versteeg, Byfuglien and Sopel in getting dealt in the near future.

"We were going to have some tough decisions to make," Bowman said Wednesday night. "I've been trying to warn our fans that this team that we've fallen in love with isn't going to stay the same. No championship team does. It's kind of the nature of the world that we're in."

The Blackhawks' loss in this case, however, is Toronto's gain. A small but versatile player who can play all three forward positions, Versteeg was a runner-up for the Calder Trophy in 2009 and is coming off of two consecutive 20-goal seasons. He has two years remaining on his contract, after which he'll become an RFA.

A regular on Chicago's penalty kill the past two seasons, Versteeg was bumped down the depth chart and received less ice time this past year due to the fact the Hawks added Marian Hossa in free agency last July.

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Given the Leafs struggles killing penalties, he'll likely reprise that role in Toronto.

"He's a good kid, he's got a good attitude," Bowman said. "I'm certain he's going to be a popular player (in Toronto).

"But we're very high on the three players that we acquired... Stalberg is an NHL player, we love his speed, size, and we think he's going to complement some of the great playmakers on our team."

Adding the 24-year-old Versteeg gives Burke a jump on a free agent class that is thin on scoring talent, but will not likely preclude Toronto from being buyers on Thursday when bidding opens at noon.

Burke still wants to add another top-six forwards and two or more gritty forwards to his bottom six. His other goal is to make his team bigger and tougher than it was a year ago, something the under-sized Versteeg doesn't help.

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