Restraint Was The Leafs Best Ally

By HOWARD BERGER

 

TORONTO (July 2) – On a day in which I had lots of fun with my growing list of Twitter subjects (how is it that a guy gets fired by the biggest all-sports radio station in the country after 23 years and gains 700 followers in the first month?), the most forthright exchange occurred late Friday evening when I asked for an honest reply to this question:

 

“Of all the signings on the first day of free agency (factoring in money and term), which would you have made if you were Brian Burke?”

 

The overwhelming majority of 150 or so respondents answered “none.” Except for a peculiar fascination with Scottie Upshall, every other move was given a thumbs-down by those that communicated with me via Twitter or email. This shows that Burke functioned as prudently half-way around the world in Afghanistan as he would have in his Air Canada Centre lair… optics be damned.

 

Did it look a bit crummy for the Leafs’ general manager to be visiting our troops on July 1st? I suppose you can make that argument, but there’s no way of avoiding the fact that Canada Day and free agency happen at the same time, and Burke clearly was involved in an activity an objective person would consider far more poignant than anything hockey-related. Without making a direct comparison, would we be questioning Brian if he had visited patients at Sick Kids Hospital yesterday instead of Canadian citizens in battle gear? Both have obvious merit.

 

Moreover, Brian could have been on Mars and taken a pass on Friday’s lunacy. Several teams may have improved themselves in the short run but most will be swallowing contracts left, right and center. It wasn’t so much the players involved, or even the money (which is always outrageous). It’s the term some of these third and fourth-liners received.

 

Ville Leino for six years? Sabre fans will be tossing their cookies after one-third of that contract. As much as I admire Erik Cole, what part of his game suggests he’ll be putting up numbers for the Canadiens three or four seasons from now? How about Sean Bergenheim for four years in Florida? If you’re asking yourself, “who is Sean Bergenheim?” you may not be alone. Upshall and Ed Jovanovski also got four-year commitments from the Panthers. Jovo will be eligible for senior citizen discounts when his deal is up and Upshall may be the most one-dimensional player in the league.

 

Burke had plenty of interest in big Mike Rupp, though not for three years (the term he got from the Rangers). Would any Leaf fan truly be celebrating today if Burke had given Max Talbot (career highs 13 goals and 26 points) a five-year contract as Philadelphia chose to?

 

The only move that made sense was Florida signing Tomas Fleischmann for four years and $18 million, but I don’t feel such an acquisition would have benefited the Leafs. Fleischmann may be slightly better than anything Toronto has in the middle right now (though Mikhail Grabovski looked just fine last season), and he is still only 27. But, the Czech native is also a 50 to 60-point player; a No. 1 centre on a contending team should provide 80 to 90 points. So, why spend $4.5-million a year for Fleischmann when Grabovski can give you roughly the same numbers and will have to be re-signed, himself, before hitting the open market next summer?

 

I also didn’t mind the two-year, $5-million deal San Jose gave Michal Handzus, who wanted to stay in the west (he moved north from Los Angeles). His size would have augmented the Leafs in a second or third-line role; the Sharks yielded sensible money and term for the veteran pivot.

 

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DURING THE FREE AGENT INSANITY ON FRIDAY, I WAS SAILING ON TORONTO HARBOUR, WATCHING ON MY BLACKBERRY AS LEAF FANS PANICKED OVER THE CLUB’S LACK OF ACTIVITY. AS I’VE SAID A NUMBER OF TIMES, YOU DON’T HAVE TO SIGN A PLAYERS JUST BECAUSE IT’S JULY 1st. LEAFS WERE WISE TO STAY CLEAR OF THIS FIELD.

 

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IT WAS ABSOLUTELY SPECTACULAR ON THE WATER FRIDAY – THE FIRST TIME IN YEARS I’VE BEEN ABLE TO ENJOY MY FAMILY ON CANADA DAY.

 

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THE RELAXED ENVIRONMENT AT HARBOURFRONT CLEARLY CONTRASTED WITH THE ANGST AMONG FANS OF THE MAPLE LEAFS, WHO WATCHED A PARADE OF MOSTLY THIRD AND FOURTH-LINE PLAYERS SIGN WITH OTHER TEAMS.

 

As for the Brad Richards sweepstakes, he has narrowed his list to four clubs: New York Rangers, Tampa Bay, Los Angeles and Toronto – all of which made presentations in the Mississauga office of his agent, Pat Morris, on Friday. From my information, Brad is the Rangers’ player to lose; he has apparently told his family and friends for months he’d like to play in New York. If it were that simple, however, he would have signed with the Blueshirts at the opening bell yesterday.

 

I’m told the Kings really blew him away with their package, which included a video nudge from Wayne Gretzky and Lakers basketball star Kobe Bryant. The hunch I have is that Richards was set to choose the Rangers – as per his initial plan – until the Los Angeles entourage got his rapt attention. Many believe the Kings are a better team than New York and there are many worse places to live during the teeth of winter than southern California.

 

WILL BRAD RICHARDS OPT FOR THE BRIGHT LIGHTS OF MANHATTAN…

 

THE SPLENDOR OF LOS ANGELES…

 

OR THE HOCKEY MANIA IN OUR CITY?

 

Richards will make his decision early today, before noon EDT. He emphasizes that stable ownership be part of his destination and all four finalists provide that. I’m staying with my prediction of the Rangers, but I wouldn’t be shocked if the Kings have swayed him, big time. Neither am I certain the Leafs – at this stage of their development – could have made Richards an offer that would prompt him to chose Toronto over New York or L.A. That’s why we’ve been saying that Burke will likely have to trade for the No. 1 centre he covets.

 

But, let’s wait for the final call. We’ve been surprised before, haven’t we?

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