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McKenzie: What to expect after Burke takes over Leafs

Bob McKenzie
11/29/2008 11:46:52 AM
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Now that Brian Burke is taking over as president and GM of the Toronto Maple Leafs, there will be much speculation on how he will go about his business now that he's in the proverbial driver's seat.

There are likely to be two widely-held beliefs, assertions or predictions for the Life of Brian, Toronto Maple Leaf edition.

One, bodies will immediately go flying out the door at a rapid rate as a true strip-it-down and rebuild it from the ground up approach is taken.

Two, the Maple Leafs' large Euro contingent should start packing their bags right now because Burke is not a fan of foreign content.

While there may be elements of truth to both those points, it would be a mistake to put too much stock into the full stereotype of the blustery Irishman.

For as much of the bull in a china shop mentality as Burke may portray – and this is not to suggest he can't be a runaway train at times -- he also knows there is going to be no shortage of teams looking to pick his pocket right off the hop when he has yet to fully familiarize himself with his new team. So while it may not be fashionable to say it because it doesn't fit the Burke image, the first thing he is likely to do is nothing -- just take some time to assess the Maple Leaf roster and see firsthand what he does or doesn't have. Mind you, knowing Burke, that may not take too long, but it's doubtful within a week of being in Toronto that you will see massive or wholesale changes. Those will come, sure enough, but not right away.

What you also need to know about Burke is that he some unique views on things. Like, for instance, he doesn't like trading players and uprooting their families in the month of December if he can help it. The NHL trade freeze goes into effect on Dec. 19, but Burke historically tries to avoid making deals for 10 days to two weeks before that. So by coming in at the end of the November and taking a little time to assess the roster, it's quite possible the flurry of transactions everyone is expecting may not happen until the new year.

As for the issue of Europeans, there is no question Burke's M.O. in Anaheim was to dump Europeans in favor of mostly Canadian content. But this is also the guy who went to great lengths to work draft-day trades to get the Sedin twins in Vancouver and never once considered jettisoning Markus Naslund in Vancouver because he was a European. Burke doesn't actually mind Europeans, well, a few of them anyway and so long as they're truly skilled, play hard and have character, he doesn't really care where the player comes from.

I would be absolutely shocked, for example, if a hard-working, skilled player such as Niklas Hagman, who has played well in Toronto, would be ditched because of his birth certificate. But if I were a European player who isn't regarded by Burke as a top-six forward or top-four defenceman, well, it's been nice knowing you.

But the exodus won't only be limited to Europeans.

Burke has always maintained that teams are either "ascending" or "descending", which is to suggest either you're going for it or you're rebuilding. Doesn't take a rocket surgeon, if you know what I mean, to figure out the Leafs should be in the latter category as opposed to the former. But under interim GM Cliff Fletcher, for all the great moves he made, and he did a very nice job in many respects, the Leafs were sort of sucking and blowing at the same time. To give up draft picks to get foot soldiers such as Jamal Mayers and Ryan Hollweg is at odds with a true rebuild where most marketable assets are moved for kids and picks, short term consequences be damned.

So unless Burke has been the victim of identity theft, the guessing is this Maple Leaf roster is going to be stripped down big time between now and the trade deadlilne and there's going to be an influx of draft picks and young players. Which means there's going to be some real pain and suffering for Leaf Nation before things start to get better.

Burke is fortunate to be coming into a situation where he has a coach in place – Burke's former college teammate Ron Wilson – he can work with. That will allow him to get right to the rebuild.

Burke's history in both Vancouver and Anaheim is that he wants his team to play an entertaining, up-tempo style of hockey, that he prefers they pressure the puck in all three zones and play a robust, physical style that includes fighting when necessary, and maybe at times when it's not necessary.

He believes his top six forwards should be skill players and his bottom six forwards should be what he calls "hard hats" with size, strength and pugilistic ability. He believes in the same philosophy with his top four defenceman versus his Nos. 5 through 7 on the blueline.

He also maintains his players should be heavily involved in community activities and service and will mandate they do more of that type of work in the community.

He's not Superman and if he were he would have more than one Stanley Cup ring but he is a guy who has strong convictions on how he does business and they are not likely to change now that he's coming to Toronto.

There will be all sorts of speculation on who in the front office will stay or go, but Burke's history is that the doesn't necessarily purge existing execs and instead, after an evaluation period, finds slots for people who he thinks have value. In Anaheim, people wondered when Burke took over what might happen to David McNab, but he remained a huge asset to the Ducks, although his responsibilities shifted more to salary cap matters.

There is every reason to believe one of Burke's first acts as GM will be to seek permission to talk to Dave Nonis about being Burke's right-hand man in Toronto. The two worked together in Vancouver and when Nonis was fired there, after succeeding Burke when Burke himself was fired, Burke quickly locked up Nonis as an advisor in Anaheim. No one should be surprised if Nonis follows Burke to Toronto.

Outgoing GM Cliff Fletcher has a contract through to the end of the season, but no one should be shocked if Burke considers finding a spot for Fletcher in the new Leaf cabinet going forward. Ditto for Joe Niuewendyk and Jeff Jackson, who have been working under Fletcher.

It's too soon to accurately predict which players will stay and which players will go under Burke, but this we do know. Burke favors building his teams from the net out – perhaps it was his failure to do that in Vancouver during the Dan Cloutier era that underlined its importance.

Which likely means Vesa Toskala is going to have to play a lot better than he has or the Leafs are in the market for a stopper.

The Leaf strength is on the blueline and Luke Schenn is a huge building block. Tomas Kaberle and Pavel Kubina, and perhaps Jeff Finger, are legitimate top four defencemen, but it remains to be seen whether the age of Kaberle and Kubina in particular work against them staying for the long haul. Their market value may, bearing in mind the presence of no-trade clauses, ultimately determine that.

Up front, there is no question the Leafs under Burke will strive to get bigger and stronger, but the first step will be figuring out which players stay and which ones go.

At this point, you could make a lot of predictions on what Burke will or won't do when he takes over the Leafs, but I am prepared to make one that I think you can pretty much take to the bank, based on Burke's history as an executive in the NHL.

The Leafs don't currently have a heavyweight tough guy, unless perhaps recent AHL call up Andre Deveaux can step up in that role. But if Deveaux doesn't, I'll bet the first tangible move Burke makes with the Leafs' on-ice roster is to bring in a legitimate tough guy.

Burke loves to make a statement and he loves nothing better than making that kind of statement to set the tone for his regime in Toronto.

Bob McKenzie

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