By now, fans of the Maple Leafs are all aware of GM Brian Burke’s publicly-stated intentions to pursue a defenseman at or (preferably) prior to the Trade Deadline.

With Tomas Kaberle and Francois Beauchemin now wearing different uniforms, the Leafs have freed up a total of $8.05m from what was a tremendously well-compensated defense corps. However, they have also created two rather large holes to fill in the process.

While Keith Aulie has done a good job thus far filling Beauchemin’s skates, the question remains: who steps in for Tomas Kaberle? If Carl Gunnarsson is not the man for the job – and early returns indicate he may not be – another puck-mover will be essential if the Leafs are to maintain their slim playoff hopes. The question is, who should the Leafs look to target? And how much should the team be willing to give up?

There are two schools of thought on the subject of acquiring a defenseman late in the season:

1/ The Leafs could look to pick up an established top-four defender whose contract is such that his team may be looking to move him to cut costs. The advantage is a player who can step in and make an immediate impact; the disadvantage is the acquisition of such a player would likely require more than the Flyers’ 3rd round pick the Leafs are said to be dangling … and quite possibly one of the 1st rounders, depending on the player and his remaining contract length.

2/ Alternatively, the Leafs could look to spend less (monetarily and return-wise) on a ‘project’ type of player, one who has either not developed at the rate expected or who has simply been buried behind team depth. The advantage here is a lesser contractual commitment, freeing up extra dollars to add scoring up front; the disadvantage is the player’s game may not develop any further than it already has.

The sorts of players that are generally available under Option 1 tend to be either pending UFAs, or players with only a year remaining on their contracts, whose teams have decided they would rather allocate the money elsewhere and are thus seeking low-cost assets (usually picks) in return.

Option 2 can be a bit trickier. Here you are looking at depth players mostly, or players drafted just a few years ago whose development may have stalled or progressed far slower than anticipated. The challenge is to try to find that diamond in the rough whose game may take off if only given a chance to earn top-four ice time … and it is indeed a challenge.

One would have to assume the Leafs are tackling both approaches simultaneously, in order to find the best fit for their team. On the one hand, the acquisition of a bonafide top-four defender would certainly provide a boost to the team’s performance (we all saw how much Kaberle’s absence affected the offense against Ottawa), is that short-term gain worth the possible sacrifice of one of the team’s 1st round picks?

Or, would the team be further ahead to take on a depth/project player in the hopes that he can blossom with increased responsibility? The cost would be far lower, allowing the Leafs to dangle their 1st round picks for upgrades in other, equally-pressing areas. But again, odds are the player acquired would not be nearly as impactful.

Which approach would you take, and who would you target?

Note: upcoming free agents for 2011, and beyond, can be found here.

Looking forward to your thoughts as always,

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