A quiet deadline day has come and gone for Brian Burke and his staff. There was no move for goaltending, toughness up front, or Rick Nash today. Brian Burke’s words in a Sportsnet interview early in the proceedings, where he seemed to show a oddly renewed sense of faith and confidence in James Reimer, were a good indication of things to come. It seemed to be a reflection of the temperature in trade negotiations; there wasn’t much to his liking out there at a price he was willing to pay.
The Leafs did make a move for the future, flipping a piece of their defensive depth in Keith Aulie for young forward Carter Ashton, a 29th overall selection in 2009.
Guy Boucher said of Ashton following a preseason game in September:
“Carter Ashton was one of our guys doing a great job in front of the net. He’s a very, very hardworking kid with an amazing attitude, I really enjoyed him. Everything we wanted to teach he wanted to do, and he wanted to do more, and I thought he did very good in the games.. a big boy too that can skate, not a lot of those guys around, they’re rare. He’s a real power forward. We use that word very often with guys that don’t really deserve that name but in this case he’s the real deal and he’s going to be a good player.”
Those promising words from the Lightning head coach were echoed by former Tampa GM Brian Lawton, who drafted Ashton 29th at the 2009 overall draft. Lawton said on the Sportsnet telecast: “Excellent trade for the Leafs. He’s a kid who will be in the NHL for 10-12 years.”
Tampa Bay wouldn’t give up a kid their coach seems to like easily or with no reason, and they were in desperate need of some depth on the blueline and some defensive stability. The Lightning will be banking on Aulie’s tour of duty on the Leafs‘ top pairing alongside Dion Phaneuf in the second half of last season being more than a flash in the pan in terms of his potential. Aulie might be a better fit in a more defensive system going forward than a run and gun system in Toronto that demanded a lot of him and made the 6’6″ blueliner look rather pylon-esque at times this season. Remember, Aulie was once the player labeled as “possibly the best asset in the Phaneuf trade,” as bad as he looked in his big league stints this season.
On the Leafs side of it, Rick Dudley told MLHS: “[Ashton has] Size, speed, pretty good puck skills, real good bite, great shot. In other words, a complete player, 3rd line, perhaps 2nd.”
Director of amateur scouting Dave Morrison added “We like Carter’s size and power potential. He is young and addresses a need for us. The development of some our young defenders with the Marlies allowed us to make this deal.”
Morrison is referring to Korbinian Holzer for one, who has won over the favour of Leafs brass and has been biding his time waiting to get into the lineup. He’s a pending restricted free agent so I’d expect the Leafs to get him into game action before season’s end to keep him interested. The tough part will be recalling Holzer and then playing him over pressbox Mike (Komisarek). I don’t have a problem with that but Burke might. Another up and comer on the Marlies‘ blueline is Jesse Blacker, who might be another year away but has had a promising start to his pro career with the Marlies.
The Leafs also turned around and swapped Dale Mitchell for an AHL defenceman with some NHL experience in Mark Fraser (in a deal with the Anaheim Ducks) to off set the loss of Aulie on the Marlies blueline. The Marlies should be better for the club’s moves today as they go on their Calder Cup bid.
A good move adding a forward with size to the prospect cupboard, but the two moves today won’t do much to deflect the heat after a terrible two weeks of results has the team in 10th place. I have a weird mix of admiration and disappointment in Burke’s decisions or lack thereof today; despite what had to feel like a ton of pressure, Burke stuck to his guns, refusing to mortgage any of his three-years work in an overpayment simply to get something done. It was obvious in Burke’s deadline postmortem presser that he was operating in a buyers market, and his best trade options, value for value, involved selling off pieces and hurting the playoff goal this season (per Dreger, he could’ve collected firsts in return for MacArthur, Grabovski, Kulemin, and Schenn). Burke was in the awkward position of wanting to add if he could to try to make the playoffs, without sacrificing too many future assets, in a buyer-heavy market.
So, Burke will have to tackle the big questions in the off season, by which point the Leafs’ situation at certain positions (particularly goaltending) should be a little clearer. Meanwhile, Leafs fans are left to hope the current group can get themselves out of this hole as quickly as they got themselves into it. The message to the team from management: “we showed faith in you by not making a change. You can forget about the deadline now and show us what you’re made of. Prove us right.”