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
? (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? Chicago
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
, 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. Toronto