Friday June 13th, 2008

One honor that was conspicuous by its absence from Thursday's NHL awards extravaganza was recognition of the league's top executive. That needs to change. The salary cap has leveled the playing field and created a situation that demands true excellence from the GM position, and while the work of general managers is best measured over a long term perspective, there's still an opportunity to reward excellence on a yearly basis.

In my book, the 2007-08 winner would have been Anaheim's Brian Burke.

The man who familiarized us all with the term "tagging space" did a masterful job juggling all manner of challenges with the defending Stanley Cup champs. He avoided the urge to match Edmonton's overpayment for Dustin Penner, choosing instead to take the draft picks that should have a greater impact on the success of the franchise. He filled potential holes by adding Mathieu Schneider and Todd Bertuzzi in free agency. He added NHL-caliber depth to his goaltending corps by signing Swiss stopper Jonas Hiller (recently re-signed to a two-year deal) and locked up franchise center Ryan Getzlaf long term at a below-market rate. But Burke was at his masterful best in re-jigging his lineup to accommodate the returns of truant All-Stars Scott Niedermayer and Teemu Selanne.

You can certainly argue that Burke's inability to get an asset in exchange for goalie Ilya Bryzgalov was a strike against him, but the willingness keep his word to the player even at the risk of giving him away is a testament to the kind of man Brian Burke is. That's a quality that makes working for him, and the Ducks, an alluring option for players, and that's something you can't overvalue.

Burke now faces another challenging summer, awaiting career decisions from Niedermayer and Selanne (again) and having to come up with more of that tagging space to sign RFA winger Corey Perry. The aggressive winger was Anaheim's best player in their first-round loss to Dallas, underscoring the importance of getting this deal done quickly before Perry is targeted by opposing GMs waiting in the weeds with offer sheets.

Burke went to work creating some of that space by dishing defenseman Marc-Andre Bergeron to the Wild this week for a third-rounder -- the exact price paid for him mid-season. Cutting his $1.653 million from the books helps, but if Niedermayer returns (as hoped) to play out the final year of his deal, there's still some trimming required to make room for Perry. And with five picks in the first three rounds of next week's draft, Burke expects to continue re-shaping the squad before Perry can be signed on July 1.

"All the picks are in play," Burke has said, meaning the team could be looking to add a proven NHLer, preferably a second line center, in exchange for some of those draft choices...and that means more room must be created.

Just another day at the office for Burke.

If the NHL gets its act together and commissions another trophy for 2008-09 -- named after legendary Canadiens GM Sam Pollock, perhaps? -- Burke looks to be in the running already.

The Bergeron deal makes for an intriguing addition to a Minnesota blueline that's shedding veterans Keith Carney, Petteri Nummelin and Sean Hill, and may be without the services of Kurtis Foster, who shattered his femur and is not expected to be ready until as late as January.

Bergeron's 38 goals over the past three seasons may not sound like a lofty total, but they rank him ninth among NHL defensemen during that time frame. That's an element clearly missing from the Wild, which averaged just three goals per defenseman other than the rapidly improving Brent Burns.

Of course, there's a reason three teams have deemed Bergeron expendable over the past 18 months. Though he can obviously bring some offense to the table, it'll be interesting to see how well his propensity for defensive blunders sits with Jacques Lemaire, a coach who's not afraid to curtail the ice time of someone who can't be relied upon in his own zone.

The Wild also re-signed Erik Reitz, a 25-year-old defender who should compete for one of the open roster spots, and they're expected to be in the running should players like John-Michael Liles or Brooks Orpik hit the market.

If the Ducks won't allow Selanne to play another short season, would another team extend him the courtesy? There's been buzz before linking the Finnish Flash to the Canadiens, primarily because of his relationship with Saku Koivu, and there's again a discernible hum suggesting that Selanne is interested in closing out his career in La Belle Province. The 38-year-old appears to have a little something left after scoring 26 points in 23 games with Anaheim last season, but it's hard to believe GM Bob Gainey would grant him the latitude to pick his own start date. It'd be fun to see vets Selanne and Koivu line up together in the NHL, but classify this rumor as a longshot.

Word out of Atlanta suggests the Thrashers have re-signed, or are very close to re-signing, goalie Johan Hedberg, keeping the impending UFA off the market where he likely would have earned plenty of interest.

At first glance, it's a smart move. The 35-year-old didn't dazzle statistically (14-15-0 with a 3.46 GAA and .892 save percentage), but he's regarded as an excellent backup and an ideal teammate for a young and learning netminder.

But the question left hanging is: Which young teammate will he tutor? In other words, get ready for a whole mess of Kari Lehtonen/Ondrej Pavelec trade speculation.

The 24-year-old Lehtonen has been earmarked for long-term job security ever since he was taken second overall in 2002, but recurring groin injuries have reduced both his effectiveness and his reliability. Pavelec, who just led the AHL's Chicago Wolves to the Calder Cup, also has the look of a potential No. 1 after finishing the regular season 33-16-3 with a 2.77 GAA and .911 save percentage before improving dramatically on those numbers in the postseason. And he's already had a taste of action in the NHL. When Lehtonen hit a six-week stretch on the IR early last season, the 21-year-old Pavelec flashed considerable potential in relief, going 3-3 with a 3.11 GAA and .905 save percentage.

Given his age, and the presence of Hedberg, there's no reason for the Thrashers to rush the decision. Even though he seems to have proven all he can in the minors, Pavelec certainly won't wither away if he's forced to spend another year in the AHL. But the time to fish or cut bait is coming, and the Thrashers may be thinking that moving Lehtonen while healthy -- perhaps to goalie-starved Ottawa? -- is the best use of these considerable assets.

SI Apps
We've Got Apps Too
Get expert analysis, unrivaled access, and the award-winning storytelling only SI can provide - from Peter King, Tom Verducci, Lee Jenkins, Seth Davis, and more - delivered straight to you, along with up-to-the-minute news and live scores.