NHL

After one year with Brian Burke, how do the Leafs look?

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Matt Burt, TSN.ca
12/1/2009 10:27:18 PM
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Everyone knows the story. In November of 2008, a tall, articulate American made history (hint: his first name starts with the letter "B").

Amid unprecented media coverage and hype, this newcomer was selected for a position of incredible prestige. His predecessor had been roundly criticized for taking a once-mighty superpower and running it into the ground. The new President would have a lot of work to do, but he had promoted himself on a platform of change, a platform of hope, a platform of...truculence??

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The Brian Burke era in Toronto began on Nov. 29, 2008. And it would be an understatement to say there were great expectations when the Rhode Island native was named President and General Manager of the Maple Leafs a year ago.

Hailed by many as the architect of the 2007 Stanley Cup champion Anaheim Ducks, Burke opted to leave the sunny beaches of California and head to arguably the world's most scrutinous hockey town - Toronto, a city desperately craving at least some semblance of success after four straight non-playoff seasons.

Depending on who you talked to at the time, Burke was The Messiah - the cure for the ills brought on by the well-intentioned but failed tenure of previous GM John Ferguson Jr.

The tone was set right away, and it was very different.

"We require, as a team, proper levels of pugnacity, testosterone, truculence and belligerence," Burke famously said. "That's how our teams play."

And 24 games into his first full season, there's plenty of belligerence and pugnacity to go around. But not much scoring. The Leafs are 6-11-7, sit 29th out of 30 teams and - according to one recent statistical study - have a less than two percent chance of making the post-season.

With a full year in the Big Smoke under his belt, Burke has received his share of criticism for producing a team that's tough as nails, but not all that effective at putting the puck in the net.

"My first thought was that there was too much emphasis on the toughness angle," says NHL on TSN analyst Ray Ferraro. "I have always felt that skill is harder to accumulate than size and grit. That would have been my priority, in particular since they do not have very much top-end skill."

While some onlookers argue the team is underachieving, others say they're actually achieving just fine, thank you.

"The Leafs' biggest problem is that they simply are not good enough," explained Ferraro. "I've played on bad teams - sometimes their best isn't enough. This is a time for teaching and repetition of structure - pointing out flaws all the time doesn't make a player better - (head coach Ron Wilson) has to help the current players be as good as they can be until they acquire a better group."

Trade options will most likely need to be explored to improve the Leafs' thin roster.

"(Burke) is going to have to now get aggressive via the trade market either to enhance his drafting position or to enhance his ability to make the team deeper. They're just not deep enough," says TSN's Pierre McGuire.

Depth issues and other problems aside, there is a different angle to be considered, and that's the one that casts Burke's vision in a positive light, one that gives him the benefit of the doubt on a long-term timeline. After all, he didn't exactly inherit a fantastic hockey team, and one season does not a legacy make.

"It's far too early," says McGuire. "First of all, this is a major rebuild. The Maple Leafs just had no organizational depth at all. Burke has tried to be proactive rather than reactive. He's tried to drive the market and and I think he's done some very good things."

Now imagine this scenario: five years from now, hockey fans in Toronto are marveling at the completion of Burke's long-term vision as the team hoists the Cup for the first time since 1967.

In the Internet age, it's easy for any blogger to throw out vicious barbs from their parents' basements and have it count for something, but the reality is that judgements made this early in Burke's reign are simply unfair.

"I think it's foolish to assume that this team was Brian's idea of a finished vision," says Ferraro. "We have not seen much of his college free agents (Hanson and Bozak), and we'll have to wait for (2009 draft pick) Nazem Kadri."

The message? As frustrating as it might be for impatient Leafs fans who have been waiting 42 years and counting for a championship, they can't expect Burke to take an inherited non-playoff team and turn it into a contender all in the space of twelve months.

And even with the lackluster results shown so far this season, Ferraro says he wouldn't change a thing.

"I would have hired Brian if it was my team, and I still would," he said of the first American-born GM in Maple Leafs history. "It isn't unfair to evaluate, but it's way too early to make any judgement."

With that said, how much time has to pass before it does become fair to judge Burke's tenure as a failure (or a success)?

"Well, he has a five-year contract," says Ferraro. "I would want to see definite results by year three to think that there is a five-year window to far greater success than the last 15 years in Toronto."

For now, the short-term reality is not pretty. Despite stringing together two straight wins in their last two games, the Leafs could potentially wrap up the season at or near the bottom of the NHL standings if they continue on their current course.

Normally when a team finishes that poorly, its fans can take solace in the fact that they'll receive a high draft pick in June. But that's not the case this year, as 2010's first and second-round picks (as well as a first-round pick in 2011) were dealt away to acquire Phil Kessel from the Bruins in September.

According to McGuire, talk of the Leafs finishing in the cellar is simply premature at this early stage of the season.

"Taylor Hall's a tremendous player, Tyler Seguin's a tremendous player," he explained. "But I think it's a little bit early to be going on that. Everybody wants to jump on a news story now but let's see where it is in April, let's see where (the Leafs) are at the tail-end of March. It's a little early to be judging right now."

Kessel, despite the Leafs' general lack of team success, is having an impressive season with 11 points in 12 games and is the likely candidate for "face of the franchise" for the foreseeable future. The (potentially steep) price to acquire Kessel may prove to be worth it.

"Everybody's going to say, 'Well what about the premium you paid for Kessel?'" said McGuire. "Kessel's 22 years of age, he's going to be in Toronto for a very long time, he's a potential 40-45 goal scorer so there's a premium that goes on a player like that too, when you get him at that age."

Another problem for Toronto this season? Until the last two wins in Florida, they simply did not have the luck or the bounces going their way. Last Monday's effort against the New York Islanders saw Toronto claw back from a 3-0 deficit and tie a franchise record with 61 shots on net, only to fall 4-3 in overtime. Of thirteen games at home this year, they have won just four. Even with the recent wins, it has been a rough season, to say the least.

But for all the naysayers, cynics and Leaf fans who are just getting tired of it, it's important to acknowledge that despite this season's relative misery, Burke has not been without his successes since taking over.

25-year-old Swedish goalie Jonas Gustavsson, for one, has shown flashes of brilliance between the pipes. Initially brought in as a backup for veteran Vesa Toskala, the man known as "the Monster" soon found himself assuming the starting role when Toskala's play suffered. Now they're splitting duties depending on the hot hand or who's injured.

"Gustavsson was a good signing but he's learning how to play on small ice and he never really played an 82-game schedule before," says McGuire. "I think (Burke) has made them deeper in goal, I think he's made them deeper on defence, and he's brought some character to the organization. They're not going to flatline with him being the manager there."

Burke also selected Kadri seventh overall in the 2009 NHL Entry Draft. The London Knights' centre, now 19, has generally been praised as a solid choice. He had three goals, two assists, ten shots on net and was a plus-6 in six pre-season games. Many fans were making noise that Kadri should stick around for the real season (a la Luke Schenn the year before) but the Leafs opted to play it safe and send him back to the OHL for more development.

Kadri has 15 goals and 13 assists in 24 games this season for London. Considering he's the Leafs' final first round pick until at least 2012, they're hoping that he'll be great. They might want him back with the big boys sooner than later.

Burke also hired Dave Nonis as Senior Vice-President and Director of Hockey Operations. Nonis had already worked with Burke during his time in Anaheim and with the Vancouver Canucks.

In July, Burke made a big move when he signed free agent defenceman Mike Komisarek from the Montreal Canadiens and fellow blueliner François Beauchemin from the Ducks. While both have sturggled more often than not thus far, it could be a matter of needing to settle into their roles with the team.

"I think (Burke) identified a need on defence and he did make them better," says McGuire. "Even though people are saying, 'Where are the results?', Komisarek is going to be fine. He's trying to do too much. Beauchemin is still trying to find his way, he's trying to do too much. The expectation level placed on those players was so high and they haven't been able to play to the level they're capable of. I think they will be able to."

Burke also sent Pavel Kubina to the Atlanta Thrashers in exchange for defenceman Garnet Exelby, while goalie Justin Pogge was dealt to the Ducks for a conditional late-round draft pick. Burke gave things the old college try, signing forward Christian Hanson from Notre Dame and Tyler Bozak from the University of Denver in April. These are additional weapons the Leafs have in their arsenal when the time is right to use them, and they're young and skilled.

When Kessel was signed to a much-anticipated five-year, $27 million deal in September, it marked what was by far Burke's most significant move since arriving. Case in point: the story received 60 pages of user comments when it broke on TSN.ca.

Examining Burke's first year in office, the consensus from those who know the game seems to be that hockey fans should give him a longer timeline before they weigh in on his merit as GM in Toronto. The growing pains suffered in the meantime aren't fun for diehard Leafs fans (and makes the team fodder for punchlines) but it will be a while yet before Burke's vision is given the chance to come to fruition. That being said, if the team finds itself in the same spot in three years as it's in today, it's likely there will be a heavy price to pay.

It's Your! Call: Are the Leafs better now than they were one year ago? Will they be better two years from now under Burke? Five years from now? How long would you give him to carry out his vision before deeming it a failure or a success?

 

Maple Leaf Forwards

2008-2009 Rating Salary 2009-2010 Rating Salary
Niklas Hagman 77.31 $3.0M Phil Kessel 85.60 $4.5M
Matt Stajan 76.58 $1.75M Niklas Hagman 73.02 $3.0M
Lee Stempniak 76.43 $2.5M Jason Blake 72.26 $4.5M
Nik Antropov 75.45 $2.15M Alex Ponikarovsky 71.35 $2.5M
Alex Ponikarovsky 73.23 $2.5M Mikhail Grabovski 71.02 $2.75M
Mikhail Grabovski 71.54 $850K Matt Stajan 70.90 $1.75M
Jason Blake 70.89 $4.5M Lee Stempniak 70.13 $2.5M
Nikolai Kulemin 66.52 $850K John Mitchell 64.22 $500K
Dominic Moore 64.78 $900K Nikolai Kulemin 62.32 $850K
John Mitchell 61.51 $475K Wayne Primeau 58.57 $1.4M
Jiri Tlusty 56.35 $850K Jay Rosehill 58.57 $500K
Jamal Mayers 56.03 $1.4M Viktor Stalberg 58.49 $715K
Ryan Hollweg 55.89 $525K Jamal Mayers 55.69 $1.33M
-- -- -- Rickard Wallin 55.44 $800K
-- -- -- Colton Orr 54.64 $1.0M
-- -- -- Jiri Tlusty 54.62 $765K

Maple Leaf Defencemen

2008-2009 Rating Salary 2009-2010 Rating Salary
Mike Van Ryn 77.34 $3.35M Tomas Kaberle 82.10 $4.25M
Ian White 75.29 $850K Ian White 75.11 $950K
Tomas Kaberle 74.42 $4.25M Francois Beauchemin 69.31 $4.2M
Pavel Kubina 73.92 $5.0M Jeff Finger 66.79 $3.5M
Anton Stralman 71.43 $615K Carl Gunnarsson 64.14 $630K
Jeff Finger 68.90 $3.5M Luke Schenn 57.98 $875K
Luke Schenn 62.45 $875K Mike Komisarek 53.68 $4.0M
Jonas Frogren 60.31 $1.23M Garnet Exelby 51.63 $1.725M
-- -- -- Mike Van Ryn N/A $3.35M

Maple Leaf Goaltenders

2008-2009 Rating Salary 2009-2010 Rating Salary
Vesa Toskala 50.93 $4.0M Jonas Gustavsson 57.87 $900K
Curtis Joseph 25.00 $700K Joey MacDonald 43.00 $650K
-- -- -- Vesa Toskala 35.30 $4.0M

 

Brian Burke - One Year Mark (Photo: Getty Images)

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(Photo: Getty Images)
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