By HOWARD BERGER
MINNEAPOLIS (June 21) – Though he may be looking to move up in the draft order on Friday night, Maple Leafs general manager Brian Burke is not going to fill his most significant need with an 18-year-old prospect. Neither is he likely to acquire a front-line centre-man on the open market when free agency kicks in July 1 (all indications suggest Brad Richards will either stay in Dallas, or look to another U.S.-based team; he is not particularly interested in playing for the Leafs). If Burke is to land that coveted middle-man before training camp, it will almost certainly have to come via trade. And a superb commodity could be available.
A couple of sources have indicated the Colorado Avalanche are willing to discuss a trade for centre Paul Stastny and his big-ticket contract. Though he is arguably the best player on the Avalanche, Stastny has three years remaining on a deal that consumes $6.6-million in salary and cap space per season. With young Matt Duchene showing that he could easily assume the No. 1 centre’s role in Denver – and with the Avs routinely playing before crowds in excess of 5,000 below capacity – it may be a perfect time to pursue Stastny. If Burke is willing to trade perhaps two of the Leafs’ young, cheaper players, he could lure Stastny out of Colorado and not have to worry any longer about finding a No. 1 pivot.
The 25-year-old son of hall of famer Peter Stastny – the fourth-most creative player these eyes have seen (behind Bobby Orr, Wayne Gretzky and Mario Lemieux) – is close to a point-a-game player in Colorado, with career totals of 105 goals and 216 assists for 321 points in 348 regular-season matches. At 6-feet, 205 pounds, Stastny isn’t a giant, but is strong and alert with soft hands and terrific ice vision. Like the rest of his team, Stastny is coming off a sub-par campaign (22-35-57 in 74 games) but had a career-best 79 points in 2009-10 (20 goals and 59 assists). Though it is always a challenge to predict how a centre might adjust to Phil Kessel, there’s little doubt Stastny has similar play-making acumen to Marc Savard, who worked well with Kessel before his trade to Toronto.
PAUL STASTNY WOULD LOOK AWFULLY
GOOD IN TORONTO BLUE AND WHITE
Burke and his Leaf cohorts arrive here in the Twin Cities tomorrow in advance of Friday night’s opening round of the 2011 NHL draft at the Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul. The Leafs GM indicated last week that any deal of significance would have to materialize before the draft begins, suggesting such a move wouldn’t likely happen on the floor. Of course, Burke almost pulled off a Kessel-for-Tomas Kaberle trade prior to the 2009 draft in Montreal, only to have it scuttled by a disagreement over the picks involved. Ultimately, both players moved to the respective teams – Kessel in a deal for two first-rounders a year ago September; Kaberle in a smart maneuver by Burke this past February (though the Czech blue-liner just won a Stanley Cup with the Bruins).
While Kessel appears to perform optimally when moving the puck through the neutral zone, he hasn’t yet meshed with a play-making centre in Toronto. Tyler Bozak skated alongside Kessel last season but had a thoroughly miserable sophomore campaign and has yet to re-up as a pending free agent. Were Kessel to amalgamate with a creative pivot, the lengthy scoring droughts that tear his confidence to shreds may be minimized. If that were to happen, a 40 to 50-goal output could result.
WHAT WOULD IT TAKE TO GET PAUL STASTNY AWAY
FROM THE PEPSI CENTER (ABOVE) AND TO THE ACC?
Burke is also in the market for a puck-moving defenseman, and there could be a number of options available to him in free agency. Stastny would be a major coup for the Leaf boss on the trade market; any such deal would likely involve Toronto moving at least Nazem Kadri and one of its first-round picks on Friday. Burke could sweeten the pot with a player like Carl Gunnarsson, who has just re-signed a contract with the Blue & White. If Colorado GM Greg Sherman is at all determined to unload Stastny’s contract – and, again, whispers suggest that to be true – a package of Kadri, Gunnarsson and a first-rounder could get the deal done, landing Toronto one of the best young centres in the NHL.
Given Stastny’s upside; his age; his blood-line, and the fact his prime years are still ahead, the Avalanche may find ways to keep him in the fold. This is where Burke has to become aggressive. And, that’s not usually a foreign concept to the Leafs GM.