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Assessing Leaf General Manager Brian Burke: Unfortunately, he is not the only GM with a plan

For many months now, we have respectfully discussed here the relative success of Brian Burke’s “plan” for the Maple Leaf hockey club going forward.  And that debate will continue.  What else can fans do?  We have precious little, if any, influence so we are reduced to at-a-distance assessment and analysis.

We all have different views as to the "right" approach to take, but my sense is most Leaf supporters remain steadfastly behind Burke, now two and a half years into his mandate.

When we start to break down what he has actually accomplished, it’s not hard to find gems in some of Burke’s moves since he took over in the fall of 2008.  Gunnarsson, Kulemin, Reimer, Grabovski and Schenn—all important pieces—were other people’s acquisitions, so we won’t debate those, though they are surely all part of the future.  But the rest of this crew has Burke’s imprint all over it.

Acquiring Aulie and Phaneuf (I will likely continue to write it that way. Check out an earlier post about Aulie by clicking here) for me, at least, stands out as his finest hour so far.  Phaneuf has not been exactly what many of us had hoped, but that was probably unrealistic to begin with.  He still is better than what the Leafs had and certainly looked a bit more like the "old" Dion in the final weeks of this past season.

And Aulie—well, not to canonize him just yet but as I’ve written before, while he will no doubt have his rough times ahead, he is a keeper, too.  And the Leafs gave up not a single player that was part of the future here to get those two front-line defensemen.

So top grades for Burke and his staff there.

Other moves, however, are much easier to find fault with, or at least debate.  Acquiring Vertseeg for example, then dealing him for a couple of picks.  It’s impossible to say how that will turn out.  Will Vertseeg help the Flyers win it all some day, as he did in Chicago?  (His impact with the Flyers this past spring was minimal, though reports suggest injuries played a role.)  Versteeg is entering his prime and is a proven NHL winger.  Will the draft picks received for him make the Leafs better in a few years?

Colby Armstrong and Clarke MacArthur were nice pick-ups, both bringing something useful to the club, including, in MacArthur’s case, surprisingly significant offensive production at a low cap number.  (That will change this summer when the Leafs will likely pay him close to three times what he cost this season on a multi-year contract.)

It’s hard to argue that the free-agent signings of Beauchemin, Komisarek and Lebda have panned out well so far, though the Leafs did get something back for Beauchemin in a former first-rounder, Gardiner- and Lupul.  (Whether Lupul is still a $4 million dollar a year player, I don’t know. Well actually, I’d say not, right now, though he certainly exhibited flashes down the stretch with Toronto.)

Bozak was one of those intruiging college free-agent signings that are popular with NHL GM’s in recent times.  It’s funny.  I really like Bozak and feel there is more there than we are seeing now.  He has skills and some of the things you like to see in a player (great vision, ability to win draws and kill penalties, for example).  But will they pay him to keep him?  Will he get appreciably better?

Tim Brent was a nice (huge, actually) surprise.  Who thought he would have earned the kind of playing time he did in 2010-'11with the big team?  We can credit Wilson and/or Burke for their foresight.  I credit the player, who was on his last shot at becoming an NHL player and so far, has made good.

The Giguere trade enabled Burke to unload Jason Blake’s cumbersome salary, though Giggy is hardly an inexpensive price as a back-up.  I have to believe that, given his uncertain health, he will simply come off the books this summer as a free agent.

The Kessel deal has been the lightning rod move of Burke’s tenure.  When he’s scoring , people opine that hey, “he’s a 35-40 goal guy, leave him alone.  He’s exactly what we wanted…”  When big games come and he doesn’t register points, there seems to be a building frustration that he isn’t doing enough.

For me, Burke got something he wanted right now, when Kessel was 22 at the time the deal was made—and still not in his prime.  So the deal was fine, if you believe Kessel will mature and become the kind of player Wilson, or any future Leaf coach, can depend on to play hard all over the ice every night and be a go-to leader in the playoffs.

But if he doesn’t become that player, then we will be looking at Seguin and whoever the Bruins pick up this coming summer and compare, compare, compare for years to come. (The Kaberle trade for Colborne and a later first-rounder should prove to be a benefit to the Leafs for years to come, especially if they select wisely this June.  Kaberle is seemingly on his last legs- based on what we are seeing in the playoffs right now.  If you put the Kaberle and Kessel deals together, well, we can debate them forever but only time will really tell when all the principals have been around a while...)

So when you look at the above, it strikes me as maybe 60-40 in Burke’s favor overall, though I’m open to arguments on either side of the fence.

One other thing that will go into the mid- and longer-term (assuming a five year plan/window here from the time he started) “report card” is how his jewel draft pick, Nazem Kadri, turns out next season and in 2012-‘13 and of course beyond.  If he is ready to really contribute, whether on a first, second or third line, that begins to tip the scales more heavily in Burke’s favor overall.

However, if Kadri or other players selected after him in 2009 or ’10 don’t soon begin to show real NHL potential, it will be hard to give Burke top marks.  And if the aforementioned Kessel maturity factor does not kick in, then Burke's grade drops considerably.

For now, Burke gets top grades for effort, yes, and for specific moves that were clearly a benefit to the club.  But in terms of delivering a winner, well, that hasn’t happened yet.  And championship success appears to be a ways off just yet.

The bottom line reality is that Burke is not the only smart GM out there.  Every other guy—Yzerman in Tampa, Gauthier in Montreal, Homlgren in Philly, Chiarelli in Boston, Shero in Pittsburg, just to name a few good ones—have a plan, too.  And they also know what they need to do to build contending teams.  And that doesn’t even begin to include the Western Conference guys like Poile, Holland, Lombardi and others who have a strong track record—as good as or even more impressive than Burke’s—at building or re-building teams.

So, a lot of work has been done in Toronto, yes.  But there is a ton more to do.  This is not a championship-caliber team.  Not evcen close, in my view.  And that means some guys we think are nice players, who are contributors now, won’t be here next season or two years from now, when the team will be—at least should be—closer to championship status.




  1. Great story.
    I agree with your overall assessment of Burke's performance being 60/40. He's accomplished a lot but clearly there is a lot to do before he gets to 100/0.

    I think it's worth keeping in mind how far this team has come--from a GM like JFJ who's performance we would clearly rate as 10/90, if not lower. Burke has brought a team with unmoveable, veteran contracts to rock bottom, and now he is bringing it back from the ashes. I give huge kudos for getting rid of guys like Toskala and Blake as much as acquiring guys like MacArthur, Phaneuf and Aulie.

    Rome wasnt built in a day, but Burke (with a headstart from Cliff Fletcher) did a masterful job of destroying the city built where Rome now stands.

  2. "It’s hard to argue that the free-agent signings of Beauchemin, Komisarek and Lebda have panned out well so far, though the Leafs did get something back for Beauchemin in a former first-rounder, Gardiner- and Lupul."

    I disagree wholeheartedly with the idea that the Beauchemin signing ended up anything other than "excellent." We signed him. His cap didn't prevent us from hunting down any significant free agents. He took tough defensive assignments and performed adequately. He then turned into a long term asset (Gardiner), and a short term asset (Lupul), who filled a role we need in the short term (LW on Kessel's line). And yes, Lupul has a bit of a price tag attached, but with some 24M-30M in cap space next season, it's unlikely that it'll be a serious drag on the team for the two seasons he has left (and if he is, would it be awful for us to play him in the AHL for the last season?).

    We made a long term asset out of a UFA that did at least "decent" work while here. Pretty much the ideal outcome of a UFA signing, barring a MacArthur situation.

  3. A lot of Leaf GM's refuse to develop a team and run the team like they have to go to the bathroom. Patience, develop, and that'll add 10 wins in 2 years. But no, have to win yesterday still. See what the draft days do, that'll be the best signal yet.

  4. You could also have added an entire section about "Resources" and another about "Franchise Depth" that have been implemented by Burke's leadership team. Starting with Resources, the team now has better facilities, better minor league coaching and management and a better scouting department.

    As far as Franchise Depth, Toronto chose 6 times in last years draft (trading a 7th pick for Mike Brown) and look poised to do that or better this summer. Those picks have already shown some return that outweighs their position. Bradley Ross and Gregg McKegg both showed promise and growth their first season in the system.

    Great piece, thanks for writing it.

  5. I'd give BB a slightly higher grade. As Anon says above, he has improved the organisation as well as the team. This is the first year in a while that I've felt the Leafs have a legitimate shot at a playoff spot next year - based on how the playoffs teams have played this year. I like the youngsters, think Kessel's numbers warrant the deal ( for now), and think the D is much improved, not to mention bigger, than on previous teams. Reimer remains the question mark for me - without a great year from him, we'll be treading water for another season...

  6. Great article! Agree with analysis, but might give him just a little higher rating for the depth he has added to our team...

    One might not recognize the one thing that JFJ did very well, and that was draft. Feel bad that so many GM's took advantage of the rookie GM, but Burke was given mid level organizational depth team, and brought them up to a top ten. Before you mock, think Reimer, Rask, Kuli, Holzner, Stalberg, Komarov, Mitchell, Frattin, Mikus, GUNNER etc, in four drafts!

    I look forward to an active summer, and the last spring of playoffless leaf hockey!

  7. Enjoyed the story.

    I am completely on the fence as far as BB goes. Total skeptic of Kessel.

    Right now I think the Leaf supposedly 5 of 6 top line slots filled with have Kessel (I would move him the right deal because his personality/maturity will never catch up to skill level), Grabovski, Kulemin, Lupul, and Kadri (if he makes the club he in the top 6, I think he should be trade bait for that top centre). Its definitely debatable top 6 but has some potential... not sure how high end though. I do like aspects of it, but I am unsure they can be successful.

    I really think MacArthur is a quality player with great puck pursuit and hockey sense who you can plug anywhere in your top 9, but I would be hesitant to pay him more that 2.5-3 million, because the Leafs have aspirations of top line talent. Getting that top line forward would bump everyone back a peg, meaning that we would potentially have two 3rd liners making 3million. With the cap going up it might not be a terrible deal if MacArthur can still produce on that line. Which leads to the question of how much should one be investing in 3rd and 4th lines?

    I do like the idea of Bozak as a 3rd line/PK centre at a reasonable price. I don’t think the Leafs will let go of him for nothing after investing in him. Also Brent as a cheapo 4th line/PKer.

    Wouldn’t bring Giguere back unless as a super cheap mentor backup. I would prefer to go with a Reimer/Roloson (reasonable 1-2 year deal) tandem if feasible. Roloson proves everywhere he goes he can be solid. With his age it would be obvious he would be here to mentor Reimer and give Reimer the position if he proves he is ready. Worst case Reimer end up being a fluke we have Rolly starting, best case we Reimer is the messiah and we maybe trade Rolly to the West for a pick or prospect.

    Wouldn’t be surprised if the Leafs resign Kaberle for a couple years at a similar salary to fill the puck moving dman need.

  8. One hears a lot from both sides of the fence on the Kessel deal but everyone forgets that Burke said he felt that the pick ups of Hanson and Bozak gave him the confidence that the Leafs now had some depth and could make the trade. That was Burke's big over-estimation that never gets discussed. Hanson? Career AHLer. Bozak? Not enough skill for 1st line, not enough grit for any other. Unless 4th line money, let him walk.