Beauchemin Hits the Road: Happy Trails for Leafs Fans?

Beauchemin Hits the Road: Happy Trails for Leafs Fans?

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Just finished watching the Brian Burke press conference on my PVR (damn our angry Irish overlord for choosing afternoon drive time to play Meet the Press on this one).  First, a few of the press conference highlights that I noted.  Following that, I’ll share my (hurried) analysis.

Burke’s Presser

  • The basic structure of the deal (which had previously been widely reported – what an afternoon on Twitter) was confirmed, Beauchemin to Anaheim for RW Joffrey Lupul, D Jake Gardiner and a conditional draft pick;
  • Burke pointed out that Gardiner had played for Wisconsin as a true freshman, and noted “that’s hard”.  Gardiner’s schooling will not be disrupted by the Leafs until (at the very earliest) the end of the season;
  • He indicated that the deal had been in the works for more than two weeks (and at another point said it had been 3 weeks);
  • It was emphasized that moving out Beauchemin “punches a hole” in the lineup for a younger defenceman – specifically, Keith Aulie.  Burke was emphatic that as soon as a roster spot is cleared (John Mitchell was placed on waivers earlier this morning), Aulie would be called up to the big club and that management feels Aulie is ready to perform at the NHL level, though they fully anticipate he will make some mistakes;
  • Burke suggested that (in Lupul) the Leafs have added some diversity in their scoring and opined that the team had been depending too much on too small a group of players to score.  His later comments, in answering questions from the press assembled, made it clear that he believed Lupul had some upside, specifically because (according to Burke) Lupul had not been getting as much ice time on the power play as he might otherwise merit, owing to forward depth in the orgaznizations with which he’s played;
  • In answer to one question that seemed to be about why he was sure Lupul could perform (it was tough to make out the precise wording of the question), Burke said the he was not sure.  Rather, he said:
  • There’s a human element in all this.  You bet on people every time you make a trade.  That’s the bet.  If this were just buying cars or buying livestock, it’d be a lot easier.  But we’re betting on human beings.

  • When asked whether he’d had any discussions with Tomas Kaberle or his agent, Burke declined to answer, saying “You can ask Tomas Kaberle about that if you want.  I don’t think anyone is talking about Tomas’ situation and I don’t intend to”;
  • In a move guaranteed to explode the trade-speculation servers at HFBoards instantly, Burke said that although nothing was imminent, the Leafs were “not done” and that people should expect more moves.  He said at no time today did he think he had a second deal done, but “the day’s not over”;
  • Asked if a centre would be the club’s next priority, Burke deflected the question and said “We’ll see”;
  • He emphasized that this move should not be taken as signalling that the Leafs have conceded their season and insisted that the move was made because it was consistent with the overarching “twin track” plan to get “younger and better” and win a championship in the long run, but also to remain competitive in the short term.  Burke was clear that he did not think these objectives were mutually inconsistent; and
  • With respect to the timing of the deal, Burke said that he always tries to beat the deadline because it is easier to “act with clarity and purpose.”  He suggested that waiting until the actual deadline is a bit like a piñata party, analogizing he and his fellow GMs to blindfolded partygoers frantically swatting at the same player suspended from the ceiling and filled with candy (I love that image, and by the way, why is it that I’m suddenly thinking of Kyle Wellwood?).

My Thoughts

First, let me say this:  if you think this trade was about Francois Beauchemin being bad at hockey, you should stop reading now.  Go play a video game, you’ll get more enjoyment out of it.  Beauchemin had his faults and made some spectacularly ill-advised giveaways this season in particular, but anyone who’s not prepared to start by admitting the reality that Beauchemin – with the possible exception of Luke Schenn – was the most reliable and effective defensive defenceman that the Leafs had this year simply cannot participate in a reasoned and rational analysis of this trade.  To repeat: this trade isn’t and wasn’t about addition by subtraction, it’s about Anaheim wanting to acquire an important piece of a competitive puzzle and being prepared to surrender a valuable prospect (not to mention a roster player) to get it done.

As always, I think it’s difficult to take all of what Burke said in this press conference at face value without fully considering what he’s said and the subject he’s addressing.  For a start, consider the issue of whether this trade signals a “concession” that the present team won’t make the playoffs.  Burke says it isn’t, but that is at first difficult to reconcile with the obvious truth that any team that replaces one of its top two defensive defencemen, a horse for the big and tough minutes against the opponents’ most talented opposition with a rookie blueliner must surely be getting weaker and more vulnerable.  Lupul may represent some added diversity in scoring, and he is (may the hockey gods be willing) almost certainly an upgrade over Joey Crabb as a top-six forward, but with Lupul’s injury concerns and his notable struggles elsewhere, he is not the type of dynamic offensive player whose contribution to the team will dramatically offset the loss of Beauchemin.  That is to say that – in the short run – the Leafs are probably not a better team.   That doesn’t necessarily mean that Burke is gilding the lily when he says it’s not a “concession” of the present season;  he is probably thinking to himself (with some justification) that this Leaf team was already in such a deep hole that its chances of making the playoffs are not appreciably different today than they were yesterday.  He did allude to the Leafs having put themselves in a very deep hole and declined to handicap his team’s chances of making the postseason, simply offering the platitude that if they continued to play as they had in the last 4 or 5 games, they could make the playoffs – which is pretty much the same thing as saying that if they continue to win, they can make the playoffs.

I personally don’t think any GM can really ever come out and bluntly say, “We’re screwed and we’ve given up.”  So nobody should be surprised that Burke’s pronouncements about the short term prospects of his team are more difficult to square with reality.

On the other hand, I would suggest that there’s no reason to doubt him when he talks about this trade being consistent with an overarching plan to build a championship team.  It is clear at this point, in my estimation, that the Leafs won’t be contending for a Stanley Cup this year or next, and probably not the year after either.  Lupul may or may not remain with the Leafs beyond that time frame;  whatever, it’s likely irrelevant.  Instead, this move frees a roster spot so that Keith Aulie can continue to develop as an NHL defenceman and stocks the cupboard with another excellent prospect and a draft pick.  I read somewhere on Twitter today – with apologies to the source, I just can’t remember who it was – that Gardiner was ranked second only to Cam Fowler among Anaheim’s prospects.  The Leafs get younger;  the Leafs get better.

Last summer, in an article I wrote for the Maple Leafs Annual, I suggested that the acquisition of Dion Phaneuf in mid-season may have been seen by Leafs management as a bit of an unplanned upgrade on the blueline that, combined with uncertainty over the status of Tomas Kaberle, had created a problem on defence:

There are five bodies who ought to be playing top four minutes, so someone has to go.  It won’t be Dion Phaneuf, newly appointed captain and carrying an exaggerated cap hit of $6.5 million through 2014.  The Leafs’s first round draft pick in 2008, Luke Schenn and his relatively affordable entry level deal are similarly unlikely to depart.  That means that one of Kaberle, Beauchemin or Komisarek is the odd man out.  The four years remaining on Komisarek’s large-ish $4.5 million cap hit ($6 million actual salary), coupled with his recent injury woes and unimpressive play last season make him unattractive to potential trade partners at this time.  It’s really down, therefore, to a choice between Kaberle or Beauchemin.

I went on to suggest that although Kaberle was the more obvious trade bait owing to age and contract status, that

a Leafs defence witout Kaberle would be lacking a talented puck-mover and passer…All things being equal, Beauchemin is probably the more expendable player in the sense that his skills are more generic and may be more immediately replaced by either Schenn or Phaneuf.  Partly for that reason and partly because of Beauchemin’s poor start last year, it is Kaberle rather than Beauchemin who would likely command the most in return.  However, unless trading Kaberle will result in a significant upgrade to the Leafs’ youthful offence, it may be wiser for Burke to move Beauchemin.

Re-reading these passages, it occurs to me that I correctly predicted the result, but perhaps not for all the right reasons.  Komisarek’s exceptionally poor play this year diminished the pressure to move one of these five, as it was evident to anyone with eyes (which, parenthetically, would appear to exclude Vesa Toskala) that Komisarek hadn’t bounced back from a subpar campaign last year at all and simply could not be depended upon to play top four minutes*.    In addition, certain crucial pieces of the ultimate puzzle seemed to slow – or slightly regress -  in development this year; in particular, Tyler Bozak’s sophomore slump and the related continuing search for a centre who is effective when paired with Phil Kessel  have made it clear that the team may have further to travel along the road to a championship than we might have hoped, undermining the logic for retaining the team’s elder statesman Tomas Kaberle.    Last, but not least, Dion Phaneuf’s own struggles (both defensively and in contributing on the scoresheet, especially when shooting from the point on the powerplay) make it clear that if Beauchemin’s skills are to be replaced from within, it will (at least for the moment) have to be Luke Schenn doing the job.   These three things, then – Komisarek’s regression, the disappointing pace of development at centre and the continuing difficulties of Dion Phaneuf – have all made it less obvious that it was time to part with Francois Beauchemin.

As much as it pains me to say it, I now think it’s unlikely that Kaberle ought to be counted on to contribute when the Leafs are ready to compete, as that day is likely still three years down the road, making Kaberle 35 years old at least.  I know that I tweeted earlier today that I believed Kaberle would not be traded and would re-sign with the team.    Looking at the cold hard facts, though, I have changed my view.  It’s hard to imagine that the window of competitiveness will open for the Leafs until it’s too late for the talented Czech to be depended upon.  One thought that struck me as I thought about Beauchemin going back to the Ducks was that – especially in the highly competitive Western conference – the demand for Kaberle may have been indirectly enhanced.  It may be that a team like San Jose, for example, competing directly with Anaheim for a berth in the postseason, may feel it more important today to add a puck-moving offensive defenceman than they did yesterday.

With Burke telling Leaf fans to expect further moves, it’s difficult not to speculate what might be coming next.  Obviously, Kris Versteeg has been identified by Pierre LeBrun as one player whose name is in play.   I would hope that if Versteeg is moved, it’s part of a multi-player deal that nets the Leafs an impact centre, someone youthful and capable of working with Phil Kessel.  One other thought that occurred to me as I watched my Twitter feed this morning was that a trade involving J.S. Giguere may be on the immediate horizon.   This one is much more of a stretch, but it makes a certain sense:  a second trade was widely rumoured to be imminent – both James Mirtle and other, less reputable, sources were talking about it – but that deal seemed suddenly to be on hold at or around the exact same time that news was breaking of Jonas Gustavsson’s “elevated heart rate” during his game with the Marlies today.  Coincidence?

At the end of the day, my take on the trade is that it seems generally consistent with the plan:  as Burke says, get younger;  get better.  Make room for Keith Aulie and add some more substantial prospect talent to the cupboard. Joffrey Lupul may work out, he may not, but (as several people pointed out on Twitter) he only has to be better than Joey Crabb in the short term.

If you have any doubt that this deal was primarily about the prospects – Burke’s insistence on his continued interest in Lupul notwithstanding – look no further than Burke’s response to one reporter’s question about the timing of the deal:

These are assets that we feel would be difficult to replicate at the trade deadline.  If you look at the deadline prices you get for players you don’t usually get a 19th overall pick.”

Burke’s reference to Gardiner (erroneous as it was – Gardiner was taken 17th overall) rather than Lupul as the “price” paid for Beauchemin suggests very strongly that the acquisition of Lupul was very much a subsidiary concern, a way to make the deal make sense financially for Anaheim.  The good news takeaway from this for Leafs fans is that your General Manager seems to have his feet firmly planted  in the “build for the future” mode, Kessel trade detractors notwithstanding.

Looking forward to your thoughts as always.

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* Just reading the passage from the Annual in which I was clearly treating Komisarek as a top four D-man was a bit shocking, a rough reminder of just how disappointing his play this year has been.  At the end of last year, I was obviously prepared to believe that Komisarek’s injuries and new team had left a bad impression, but that he would be able to bounce back and contribute in a significant way.  That has been far from the truth so far this season.   The bad news of this trade is that the Leafs are now much more dependent upon him, a fact that will have deleterious consequences upon the play of the team unless Komisarek has a miraculous turnaround.  Unfortunately, at this point, the likelihood of such a turnaround is miniscule and not a great bet for the Leafs.  Expect them to have to find a solution for that problem in the longer term.

Follow me on Twitter – @warwalker

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