When he took over as Maple Leafs GM last season, Brian Burke made it clear he intended to turn Toronto into a bigger, tougher and more physical team. So it shouldn't surprise anyone that he would go the extra mile -- several actually -- to sign a highly touted goalie nicknamed the "Monster."
|Toronto's well-paid goalie Vesa Toskala will have some competition from new Leaf Jonas Gustavsson. (Getty Images)|
Ultimately Gustavsson signed a one-year deal for $900,000, the maximum allowed for a player in his category. It capped a busy few days that saw the Maple Leafs beef up their lineup by adding three punishing defenseman and one of the league's better heavyweights up front. Still, the biggest coup for a team that allowed more goals than anyone last season may have been landing the Swedish netminder and penciling him in to back up $4 million man Vesa Toskala.
For now anyway.
"There are two athletes that audition every time they go out there and that's pitchers and goaltenders, so if [Gustavsson] can push him it's great," Burke said. "Our plan going in is that Vesa is No, 1 and Jonas is No. 2, but if one of them starts to play well and the other poorly that could change."
Fortunately for Burke, there is time to figure that out. The GM is still in his grace period as franchise savior and has the financial wherewithal in Toronto that few other teams enjoy. So he can afford to keep Toskala around until Gustavsson finds his NHL footing, or in case he doesn't. In the meantime, Burke is methodically recasting the Leafs in his own image, or at least, closer to the image of the Anaheim Ducks, the team he won a Stanley Cup with in 2007.
"I think people know I'm a fighting guy as far as how the game is played, but I don't need fighting as an end to itself," Burke said. "Last year though, I thought we were pushed around badly. Teams came into our building and pushed us around and actually had fun doing it and I think the changes we've made will go a long way toward reversing that. You go into a hockey game with a toolbox and one of the tools is team toughness." It was one of many ingredients lacking last November when Burke inherited a team on its way to missing the playoffs for the fourth consecutive time. The Leafs were dismal in most areas, but the biggest problem was their league-worst defense, the area Burke wanted most to improve this off season.
"I like to build from the net out and then the blue line," Burke said.
"First and foremost we needed to make ourselves bigger and change the tenor of our team," said Leafs coach Ron Wilson. "People are already thinking: 'Boy you go across the blue line against the Leafs and this is a big defense and getting bigger.'"
Probably a lot better too. The newcomers join a defense corps that has Luke Schenn, one of the league's top rookies last season, Jeff Finger and Tomas Kaberle -- if he doesn't get traded. Toronto dangled the offensively skilled Kaberle recently to Boston in an effort to trade for speedy forward Phil Kessel, but the talks stalled at the draft. They could resume now that the Leafs have added depth on defense, but if not, Burke said he will explore other options to upgrade an offense that was nearly as bad as the defense for Toronto. The Leafs were interested in the Sedin twins, so much so that Wilson may face league discipline for tampering because he was dreaming out loud about it on a radio show. But the Canucks re-signed the brothers only a couple of hours before they would have hit the free-agent market last week. Meanwhile, another high-scoring forward who might have helped the Leafs, Mike Cammalleri, went to Montreal, while Toronto was never on the radars of top-shelf talent like Marian Hossa, Marian Gaborik and Martin Havlat.
Now though, Burke believes he is better positioned to make a deal. "We've got assets other than Kaberle and draft picks we can parlay into a forward and we've still got cap room," Burke said, "but we'll probably take a deep breath now and see how things shake out.
"There are still some [free-agent] names of interest and there are going to be trade possibilities now. We're not done."