Were the Leafs after Wolski?


Phoenix moved Wojtek Wolski today to the New York Rangers for Michal Rozsival. Wolski represents the prototypical power forward/winger that Brian Burke has insisted that he may be after in leu of a legitimate front line center most are reporting the Leafs most desperately require.  Was Brian Burke trying to acquire Wolski? Absolutely…

Wojtek Wolski, a former 1st round pick of the Avalanche, is 24 years old, put up 65 points last season and would appear to be the perfect candidate to ride shotgun to Phil Kessel, replacing the Crabb place holder currently occupying that position. His ability to finish and his ability to use his 6′ 3″ 215 pound frame in front of the net are attributes Mr Burke is adamant about acquiring. Most importantly, a sluggish market value due to a poor start this year made him the perfect acquisition target for Brian Burke.

At the 2010 trade deadline, Mr. Burke was aggressively targeting Wolski, however, he did not possess an asset like Peter Mueller to dangle in front of Colorado. The Avalanche wanted a player with similar attributes, similar upside potential, who would be cheaper and easier to maintain.  Mueller, a 1st round pick of the Phoenix Coyotes 2 years prior to Wolski being drafted, perfectly fit the bill and Burke was not able to match or exceed the asking price – Wolski ended up in Phoenix. Ironically enough, and very unfortunate for Mueller and the Avalanche, Mueller has been unable to play this season as a result of a serious concussion.

Fast forward to this year, and Wolski clearly has not fit into the more defensive role and system Dave Tippet was asking of him. There are some legitimate concerns around whether or not the issue is the role Dave Tippet tried to fit Wolski into, or if the issue is with the work ethic of Wolski himself.  Clearly though, a player with this sort of potential, being only 24 years old with two 40+ point seasons, one 50 point season and one 60+ point season behind him simply do not come around that often.  To be available for a veteran blue liner, on an over-inflated contract is even more rare.  The Coyotes are in the midst of a playoff race and it is imperative they make it.  Their glaring market need was for an experienced two way defenseman to shore up their back end and provide some additional offensive punch, as well as some better puck movement from their back end to their forwards.

Even though Rozsival’s contract carries a $5M cap hit next season, it only carries a cash payout of $3M next season.  The Coyotes on the other hand had Beauchemin in their sights for the last little while with the remaining $3.8M this year and next. Beachemin would have represented a cash and cap wash for the Coyotes with respect to Wolski (vs the cap and cash hit they end up acquiring with Rozsival). Because of his playoff experience and past playoff success and more favourable contract, he was the preferred choice for Phoenix.

Unfortunately, Burke was not able to pull the trigger as Beauchemin carries a limited no trade clause, with Phoenix not being a selected destination for Beauchemin. The Rangers, at the most inopportune time for Burke, lost Frolov to injury and quickly struck to close the deal for Wolski. Burke simply did not have a similar asset to offer up once Rozsival was introduced into the picture.

Personally, I think Wolski would have been a massively impressive acquisition for Burke, especially if the cost was an asset like Beauchemin, who does not factor into the long term plans of the organization.  Symmetries to the Phaneuf trade last year around this same time are just too obvious to ignore as Wolski is a younger, potentially high impact player having a down season with rumors swirling of behavioural issues.  Hopefully, the Leafs as an organization have finally learned to avoid the dangers of No Trade Clauses.  These need to be reserved for very special players and very special circumstances only. I do not understand how Komisarek and Beauchemin received No Trade Clauses, even limited ones – especially after the quite public proclamations against such contracts made by Burke when he took over the GM post of the Leafs.

Whether or not Wolski rebounds once he is unleashed from the Dave Tippet system, or whether it turns out that his work ethic is legitimately a serious issue, remains to be seen.  Eitherway, Burke needs to shift his focus elsewhere and see if another opportunity will surface to grab the young, big, proven scoring winger with upside that he covets, and of course, at the price he covets.