Brian Burke may be trying to soft-pedal the importance of acquiring a veteran goaltender but make no mistake – it is the move most crucial to the rest of his reign as president and general manager of the Toronto Maple Leafs.
Despite a lot of creative moves since he took the job in November, 2008, that improved the team's pool of young talent, they have not brought much of a change in the NHL standing. The Leafs still haven't made the playoffs during Burke's tenure, running their streak of postseason futility to eight years.
The 2012-13 season will be Burke's fourth full campaign in charge of the Maple Leafs. He has to show marked improvement this fall and winter, presuming the labour situation allows for at least part of a season, or Burke will have to do some fast talking to the Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment board of directors.
By September, Rogers Communications Inc., and BCE Inc., will have closed their purchase of MLSE (the NHL governors put their rubber stamp on the deal this week). Assuming they keep the MLSE board at seven directors, five new ones will join chairman Larry Tanenbaum and Dale Lastman. Give one spot to the successor to now-retired MLSE president Richard Peddie and it would work out that Rogers and BCE would each name two directors.
By that time, if indeed they haven't already, Tanenbaum and Lastman should be asking themselves and others they respect in the hockey and business worlds what they should do when Burke's contract enters its final lap in the 2013-14 season. This may seem a tad premature (but not to the many Burke bashers in Leafs Nation) but it is only prudent with five new board colleagues coming in.
Burke, then, needs to make a solid impression with his new bosses this season. Fortunately for him, this does not mean taking a big swing in the usual vain hope (at least where his predecessors were concerned) of hitting a playoff home run. A lot of NHL types agree with former Leafs director of player personnel Rick Dudley, who said as he departed for the Montreal Canadiens that all the Leafs need to finally get on the right track is a reliable, veteran goaltender.
Thus the slow-motion chase for Roberto Luongo of the Vancouver Canucks. He is the best goaltender available in a slim market but Canucks GM Mike Gillis is keeping quiet about his asking price. Neither the Leafs nor the Florida Panthers, the only other team with more than a lukewarm interest in Luongo, have been able to get Gillis to say just what he wants. But some progress was reported by Thursday night.
This transaction, by the way, should not be regarded as having anything to do with the Leafs' fifth pick overall in Friday night's NHL entry draft. Burke has made it clear he does not plan to overpay for Luongo and that pick is not part of the equation.
Panthers GM Dale Tallon feels the same way, those who have spoken to him say, so the difficulty in making this trade is waiting until Gillis decides he is not going to make a big score with Luongo, 33, because of the 10 years and $47.2-million (all currency U.S.) in actual salary left on his contract. The big score for the Canucks should be getting that $5.33-million salary-cap hit over 10 years off the books.
Burke made a point of saying the other day he is willing to go into next season with youngsters James Reimer and Ben Scrivens as the Leaf goaltenders. That, not to put too fine a point on it, would be madness. But it does not behove Burke to say otherwise if he wants Gillis to ask a reasonable price for Luongo.
With just the Panthers and Leafs serious about Luongo, chances are he will move at a decent price. But if, say, the Winnipeg Jets or Washington Capitals decide to change their incumbents, Burke will have to tread carefully.
Not getting Luongo will not be the end of the world for Burke but it would make his most important move much, much harder.