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Maple Leafs GM Burke has a fine blueline mess on his hands


Listening to the parties involved, you'd think that the inability of the Toronto Maple Leafs to swap marquee defenseman Tomas Kaberle before his no-trade clause went into effect on Sunday evening was the best possible outcome to this long-running drama for both sides.

"While a number of clubs made offers to trade for Tomas, none of them reflected Tomas' value to our team," said Leafs GM Brian Burke in a prepared statement. "We are pleased that there is a resolution, and we can all continue to prepare for the coming season."

"The issue is over," Kaberle's agent Rick Curran told TSN. "Let's just let everybody get back to doing what they do."

Kumbaya, right?

If you're buying either party line, you're probably willing to take Dorian Gray at face value as well.

Despite the sunshine and lollipops, Burke's unwillingness to pull the trigger on a Kaberle swap has left him with something of a mess on his hands. It's a mess of his own making.

Truth is, he should have taken something, anything, just to move forward. Not a fair return to be had? Surely Burke couldn't have been surprised by the lack of generosity displayed by his peers. Even in a market that places a high value on puck-moving defensemen, no one's looking to do any favors for a guy who is trapped in a corner. Remember it was Burke, after all, who put himself in a position -- a flashing "for sale" sign and a hard deadline -- that all but begged his counterparts to lowball him. The ending to this exercise in futility was as predictable as that of a Jennifer Aniston rom-com.

So now he's left to deal with a situation on Toronto's blueline that is entirely untenable. With Kaberle still on the books, the Leafs have eight NHL defensemen under contract. That might be an ideal set-up for a serious Cup contender heading into the playoffs, but for a team that'll be lucky to finish 10th in the Eastern Conference, it's a serious mismanagement of assets that could see Burke spend upwards of $25 million on his defense.

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That's why Burke was so desperate to ship out his No. 1 defender. Executed properly, dealing Kaberle would have killed three birds: clearing more than $4 million off the books; opening up playing time for developing rear guards Luke Schenn and Carl Gunnarsson; and, perhaps, bringing in some much needed scoring help to improve a fair-to-spare group of forwards.

Now? Burke can bury Jeff Finger and his $3.5 million in the minors, but that's still real money out the door...and it does nothing to address a relatively punchless group up front.

And then there's Kaberle, who has to feel as welcome as a mersa infection. He's a good soldier, so he won't allow himself to become a festering wound in the dressing room. But honestly, how happy can anyone be knowing that his boss did everything but post him on Craigslist in an effort to send him packing? Burke has tried, and failed, to deal Kaberle at least twice previously (most famously at the 2009 Entry Draft). A nurturing environment this ain't.

For the moment then, it's full steam ahead with jobs to be earned at training camp. But it's not like this story is going away. In fact, thanks to the hovering Hogtown media, it'll linger over the team all season the same way that Ilya Kovalchuk cast a shadow over the Thrashers last year. Will Kaberle waive his NTC at the deadline if the Leafs are out of it? Or, with Kaberle entering the final year of a deal that pays him $4.25 million, can Burke re-sign him?

Cue the calliope music.

Kaberle may allow himself to be shopped at some point, if only to run away from the circus, but honestly, it's hard to imagine him having any real desire to go through this wringer again. And it's equally hard to imagine Burke getting a satisfactory return if Kaberle is calling the shots and limiting his trade partners.

And why would Kaberle even consider re-upping for another tour in this man's army? And how on earth could Burke -- who already has $20 million committed to five defenders for 2011-12, not including RFAs Schenn and Gunnarsson -- afford him?

Kaberle's camp is expected to be looking for something in the range of $6 million per season for an extension. It's understandable that he'd want a bump, but the argument can be made, especially based on his sketchy performance in the second half last season, that Kaberle was overpaid by half. He'll have to play at a significantly higher level next season to attract that kind of cash. After all, it's not like 29 other GMs don't have access to NHL Center Ice. They saw the defensive breakdowns and questionable efforts that diminished Kaberle's impact late last year. If he wants to expedite his exit, he'll have to improve his effort.

In that sense, Kaberle can still make a positive impact on the 2010-11 Leafs, but it doesn't change the big picture view.

He would have been even more valuable if he had vacated his stall.