Burke still eyeing Kessel


A year ago, when he was still the general manager of the Toronto Maple Leafs, Cliff Fletcher told a group of reporters that Nik Antropov was the team's only legitimate top-six forward.


TORONTO - A year ago, when he was still the general manager of the Toronto Maple Leafs, Cliff Fletcher told a group of reporters that Nik Antropov was the team's only legitimate top-six forward.

It was a bleak, yet honest, assessment of the team's offence. Antropov, who was traded to the New York Rangers at the March deadline, recorded career highs with 28 goals and 59 points in 2008-09. They are hardly the statistics of a team-carrying, goal-scoring stud. So what did that say about the rest of the roster?

A year later, there is a possibility that the void that was created by his departure could soon be filled with an American-born sniper who scored 36 goals and 60 points last season and is 7? years younger than Antropov.

General manager Brian Burke confirmed yesterday that he is once again trying to pry restricted free agent forward Phil Kessel from the Boston Bruins. The 21-year-old, who was close to being traded to Toronto earlier this summer, would likely address some of the questions about the Leafs' offence.

But actually getting him into a blue-and-white jersey could involve more than a simple player-for-player transaction.

"I'm not sure what's going to happen next," Burke said during the official unveiling of the Leafs new training facility in Toronto's west end. "I think it's clear to everyone that we're trying to upgrade our forward group. And we'll see what happens."

Jason Blake's 25 goals led the Leafs last season (Antropov had 21 before he was traded), so Kessel's ability to find the back of the net would be a welcome addition. The question is: How badly do the Leafs want him in their lineup?

For Burke, there are two ways to acquire Kessel: via trade or by signing him to an offer sheet. Though Burke said he would prefer to work out a deal with Bruins general manager Peter Chiarelli -- the pair almost worked out a deal that involved defenceman Tomas Kaberle for Kessel at the NHL draft in June -- Burke is also preparing for the latter option.

Last weekend, the Leafs reacquired their second-round selection for the 2010 draft in a trade with the Chicago Blackhawks. The move was necessary because Burke would need to give Boston a minimum package of first-, second-and third-round draft choices as compensation under the rules of the collective bargaining agreement, depending on the amount of the average salary Kessel signs for.

"I do not contemplate an offer sheet to Phil Kessel at this time," said Burke, who added that Chiarelli is aware that the Leafs' intentions could change.

"I talked to Peter before we got the pick. I met with him and told him we were going to do that. So it's no surprise."

Back when he was the Anaheim Ducks general manager, Burke lashed out at Edmonton Oilers GM Kevin Lowe for signing then-Ducks forward Dustin Penner to an offer sheet in 2007. Burke called the move "an act of desperation" by a GM "fighting to keep his job." But he was more upset that Lowe did not have the courtesy to warn Burke beforehand.

"My objection was I got blind-sided by it at a time that I thought was inappropriate," Burke said. "This entire process has involved dialogue with Peter Chiarelli ... there's been no blindside or backdoor like Kevin Lowe did. I think they're not parallel circumstances at all."

Whether Chiarelli appreciates Burke's openness has yet to be seen.

The Bruins are in danger of losing a No. 5 overall draft pick who has yet to reach his full potential. Chiarelli has said he would love to sign Kessel, but the youngster is reportedly asking for a multi-year deal in the neighbourhood of US$4-to US$5-million per season. The Bruins have less than US$2-million remaining under the salary cap.

"What we have here in Phil Kessel is a player that is unsigned that we are trying to sign," Chiarelli told AM640 yesterday. "Obviously in this business now with the [salary] cap there is the possibility of offer sheets. It's something that we in the management group in Boston are fully aware of. It's part of the trade now.

"[Kessel] is a talented player, so of course there are interested teams. It is something that I have to balance as a general manager." Chiarelli indicated he had the approval from ownership to match any offer sheet Kessel signed.



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