Look, I've acknowledged here before that I’m not as big a Brian Burke fan as many are, (I'm not a big fan of everything being “I” and “my team”, as I’ve discussed here previously) but that’s just me. Still I respect that he is a tremendous hockey guy. And he has handled a terrible personal loss with grace. He defended a value that meant a great deal to his late son (in a world where that isn’t necessarily easy to do, unless you have balls as big as Brian Burke) and I admire that—a lot.
And Burke isn’t afraid to surround himself with smart people—and listen. He has spent plenty of time picking the brains of sharp guys in other sports, too. He is shrewd, tough, and bright. And he has been successful. I just think it’s always a good thing to provide some balance when we discuss these things. Perhaps I’m nudged to have this chat when I hear too many opinions expressed that seem to suggest Burke is just that much smarter and better a General Manager than everyone else in the NHL. I was perhaps reminded of that perception when I dropped by Twitter and saw how many people listened to another of his "interviews" on TSN Radio, I think it was, on Wednesday afternoon. Many Leaf fans seemingly can't get enough of him "telling it like it is", though that's not exactly how see it. (I'm still not quite sure, for example, what the obsession is with calling out a media person for contacting a player's family to get information that wasn't being provided in a transparent fashion by the club. If you consider that "bad form", I guess reporters have done far, far worse in the field of journalism in the interests of getting a story, or getting to "the truth...". But we can debate that another day.)
While I respect that view that he is this absolutely outstanding General Manager, maybe the best in the NHL, for me, it just isn’t so. He has made two shrewd trades in his time with the Leafs (Phaneuf/Aulie and Lupul/Gardiner) but some of his free-agent signings have turned out badly and placed the team in a bind. But that happens to all GM's. No one makes what turns out to be the "right decision" all the time, whether in trades, UFA signings, draft choices or coach selection. It goes with the territory.
There are plenty of GM’s who are top-rank in my opinion. While he has never won a Cup, Doug Wilson has done an outstanding job in San Jose, building and maintaining a team that has been a contender year after year. David Poile in Nashville could not be more different from Burke—he is humble, quiet, reserved and also, like Burke, one of the sharpest hockey guys around. Poile built a Washington team from little but ashes in the 1980s through brilliant trades and wise drafting and development, and he has done the same—on a shoestring—with the expansion Predators. He has never "won a Cup" but I'd take Poile any day as my GM.
Of course, we all know about the work Ken Holland has done and continues to do in Detroit. Dale Tallon built the Hawks into a Cup team from next to nothing, and may be in the midst of doing the same in Florida.
Mike Gillis has an uber-talented team with the Canucks. Yes, Burke (and Dave Nonis) deserve some credit for kick-starting that process many years ago, but the same applies to Burke’s success in Anaheim. A lot of that team was built by his predecessor, Bryan Murray. That’s the way it always is—you build on the good that the guy before you developed, and more often than not, there is something good there to build on. (Here in Toronto, while most lambaste Ferguson to this day, and I certainly was among his critics, he helped bring some strong assets to the organization that are here to this day, including Gunnarsson, Kulemin and Reimer.)
Look at the job Peter Chiarelli has done in Boston. It took him a couple of cracks to find the right coach, but he’s already won a Stanley Cup, and has a good, still fairly young team with two top-end goaltenders.
Darcy Regier, who may finally be at the end of his time in Buffalo, has worked wonders some years by cobbling a team together through various ownership issues. Of course there is Lamoriello in Jersey, Rutherford (not a personal favorite, but I’ll give him his due) in Carolina, with two trips to the finals in a market that, well, let’s just say I barely know where that teams plays….Heck, Phoenix has turned around without an owner under Don Maloney as General Manager (and since they brought in Tippett as coach).
My point is simply this: Burke s not the only really smart GM in the NHL. In Toronto we tend to (sometimes/always?) over-rate players, and I think we were so excited at the prospect of getting a guy as GM who had actually won a Cup that we thought he would arrive and make the world right.
Hey, he has made things unquestionably better, quite a bit better, in my view. But it would appear there is a still a long way to go.
Now, when you look at Burke’s history, his actual track record, it’s not bad—but not great. Some of you are better at figuring these things out than I am, but if I’m not mistaken, Burke has been a GM with four teams, through 13 NHL seasons.
As I recall, he missed the playoffs his only year as GM in Hartford. In Vancouver, his teams missed the playoffs the first couple of seasons as they re-built. They then lost in the first round two years in a row. In six seasons in Vancouver, his teams won one playoff series, I believe. He never really solved his goaltending issue, sticking with Dan Cloutier (a good NHL goalie, but maybe not what Vancouver needed to get to the next level…) through thick and thin. (As I say this, I keep hearing the words, "I always build my teams from the goal out....")
In Anaheim, he inherited a very good team and won two playoff rounds in the spring of 2006. Burke added some big pieces (like Pronger!) and also made smaller changes that helped lead to a Cup win in 2007. The next season they lost in the first round. He then left the Ducks and signed with the Leafs within weeks, in a much-expected move.
Here, the Leafs did not make the playoffs in his first three seasons, if you include his first not-quite full year on the job. He is now into his fourth year.
So, if you just go by the classic “bottom-line” assessment approach (setting aside draft record, his trades over the years, coaching decisions, any lingering discomfort that he was the GM in Vancouver when the Bertuzzi fiasco occurred, some poor free-agent signings, etc…) and just look at results (we are always told this is a results-oriented business, after all) his teams have done OK, better than OK you could say, given that the guy was a Cup-winning GM.
But at the same time, there is some context here. He’s been the GM of four teams. Hartford is a small sample size and, being charitable, even though he was unceremoniously fired, we can set that aside. In Vancouver he had plenty of time to build a winner. He built a better team, yes, but not a winner, with (correct me if I’m wrong) that one playoff series win in 6 seasons.
In Anaheim, he got to the semi-finals once, won a Cup, and then lost in the first round. He started with a very good team there.
That’s a total of 7 playoff series victories in 13 NHL seasons as a General Manager.
So is he a good GM? I think unquestionably so. Is he the right guy for the Leafs, still? Absolutely.
I just think we have to assess him as we would anyone else, and not be won over by bluster, strong-sounding pronouncements, or nice-sounding words and lots of talk about how “he” builds “his” successful teams. The fact is this is his second major “re-build”. He did not succeed in Vancouver. He’s part of the way there here in Toronto, but the jury is still very much out.
By all means, as always, share your thoughts….