Over the next few weeks, I’ll be counting down the best and the worst trades the Toronto Maple Leafs have made since 1967. 

It was a difficult choice deciding how to kick off the list of best trades that the Leafs have made since 1967. There’s a pretty clear top-four, but there are also plenty that you could argue deserve to be in this No. 5 slot for a variety of reasons. Anyways, I landed on one that features Brian Burke turning a veteran free agent signing into talent that would help the team through the rest of the decade.

When Burke arrived in Toronto in November of 2008, he promised to bring truculence to the team. The following summer, in his first off-season at the helm, he delivered on that promise.

Burke handed out multi-year free-agent contracts to rugged, shut-down defencemen Mike Komisarek and Francois Beauchemin, seemingly solidifying the team’s paper-thin blueline. He also added fighters Colton Orr and Jay Rosehill in free agency and acquired Garnet Exelby in a trade. No more Mr. Nice Guy!

Unfortunately, the truculent Leafs weren’t very good. In fact, they were really bad. They finished the 2009-10 season with a 30-38-14 record, ahead of only the Edmonton Oilers, who were in their Fall for Hall pursuit. In 2010-11, the team was slightly better, but they were still far from being a playoff contender, so Burke aimed to retool the roster. Ahead of the 2011 trade deadline, he unloaded Beauchemin, Tomas Kaberle, and Kris Versteeg for a collection of draft picks and prospects.

Of the two major contracts Burke handed out the previous summer, Beauchemin was certainly the better one.

Komisarek was overpaid off the hop. He was the embodiment of the old NHL, a hard-hitting, tough defenceman without much in the way of puck-moving skill. But, 34 games into his first season with the Leafs, he suffered a shoulder injury that required season-ending surgery. When he returned, he was a shell of his former self.

Beauchemin, on the other hand, came as advertised. There was greater risk attached to Beauchemin, as he had suffered a torn ACL the season before he hit free agency. That said, he rebounded nicely and was a minute-munching rock on the Leafs’ blueline. When it became clear the Leafs needed to get younger, Burke sent Beauchemin back to Anaheim in exchange for a couple of players he knew well.

First, there was Lupul, the goal-scoring winger who, at the age of 27, was now being traded for the fourth time in his career. Burke originally traded him to Edmonton when he was the general manager of the Ducks in the Chris Pronger trade. The Oilers flipped Lupul to Philadelphia after one season and, a couple of years after that, he got sent back to Anaheim in another Pronger deal.

Next, there was Gardiner, the skilled, offensive defenceman who Burke had drafted with the No. 17 overall pick in the 2008 draft.

As a side note for a second, there’s something funny about this draft pick that should be addressed. Back in the summer of 2007, the Oilers signed Dustin Penner to an offer sheet and Burke absolutely lost his mind on Oilers general manager Kevin Lowe. The beef got so bad that Burke was prepared to rent a barn in upstate New York for him and Lowe to square off.

Burke used the first-round pick he received from Edmonton as compensation for Penner in a trade-down deal with L.A. which netted him the Gardiner pick. So, ultimately, one of the best moves he made as general manager of the Leafs was acquiring a player he drafted with a pick he literally almost got into a fist-fight over.

Anyways! Moving along… Gardiner, at the time of the trade, was ripping it up for the University of Wisconsin Badgers. After so-so freshman and sophomore seasons in the NCAA, Gardiner broke out with 41 points in 41 games for Wisconsin. The only reason he wasn’t a bigger deal was because another Ducks draft pick on the team, Justin Schultz, was doing even better.

Feb 9, 2019; Montreal, Quebec, CAN; Toronto Maple Leafs defenseman Jake Gardiner (51) during the second period against Montreal Canadiens at Bell Centre. Mandatory Credit: Jean-Yves Ahern-USA TODAY Sports

Lupul had a couple of really good seasons in Toronto, though his career got cut short due to injuries and he ended up fading off into the sunset on Robidas Island. Gardiner became a mainstay on the Leafs’ blueline for the 2010s. Though his play in his own end left a bit to be desired, he made up for it with his offensive production. Gardiner ranks 10th in all-time scoring among Leafs’ defencemen.

On the other side of the deal, Anaheim got back a familiar face on their blueline who had been a key cog on their Stanley Cup-winning team in 2007. Beauchemin had a few more excellent seasons in Anaheim, including the lockout-shortened 2013 season where he finished fourth in Norris Trophy voting.

But this trade is all about good asset management. Burke made a strong free-agent signing by bringing in Beauchemin, a risky player coming off a difficult injury, and then flipped the investment for a quality player and a good prospect. So, ultimately, he turned cash into Lupul and Gardiner, which is an impressive turnaround.