A mini-version is available on You Tube here- http://youtu.be/laVr6jIItrA
Those who follow VLM and may want to check it out, I had the opportunity to appear on CTV's Canada A.M. a couple of times over the past week or so. I was invited on to discuss the lockout, and then the new CBA agreement and how fans might feel about the return of NHL hockey. Those interested could check it out here (if the link still works!):
I imagine Leaf fans are split over the rather sudden dismissal of Brian Burke on Wednesday. Many have applauded his efforts to re-build the team and stock the “system” with assets. The claim can be made that the cupboard was empty when he arrived and that Burke now leaves his right-hand man and successor, Dave Nonis, with lots to work with.
That is a point for discussion—and perhaps even some debate. It can certainly be argued that the Leafs are better off than they were when Ferguson Jr. was fired. But a lot better? Is that view based on point totals? Results? Playoff wins?
I’ve appreciated Burke’s efforts in the community and his support of causes that he believed in and he did so with passion. But in hockey terms, a case can be made that the firing makes sense—though the timing is certainly a tad peculiar. (How many NHL teams would fire their GM days before a shortened NHL season was about to begin, and replace him with a guy who essentially shares the exact same vision? MLSE lives in a very different world, indeed…)
I don’t know what happened that triggered what seems to be the unexpected dismissal of the long-time hockey executive. I won’t even try to guess. But if we want to analyze the “fairness” of the move, (is “correctness a better term?), there is much fodder for review based on his body of work over the past four years in Toronto. On the basis of his actions as GM alone, here are some things that may have been considered by the new Leaf ownership:
- Now four plus years into his time here, the team had a grand total of zero playoff appearances.
- Burke came in saying over and again that he “had no patience for a five-year rebuild” and into his fifth year, the team is still not a strong roster- with uncertain goaltender, no real team toughness, no stud defensemen and no front-line center.
- He was given (unlike his predecessors who constantly felt the meddling hand of hockey expert Richard Peddie, now departed, thankfully) absolute carte-blanche to do whatever he happened to do with the hockey team. He had full autonomy to re-make the team. Yet success was elusive and spotty at best, witnessed mostly through the notion of an improved prospect pool and the relative success of their top farm team.
- He made himself the face of the franchise. Not a player or the team—Burke himself. Some will say he did this to “protect” the players, a notion I don’t buy for a moment. He has always been a limelight seeker. It’s a fact.
- He spoke constantly of “me”, “my” and “I”. Conventional wisdom has always taught that there is no “I” in “team” but Burke spoke always of how he did things, how he built his teams, etc. Such quotes were countless, something I’ve raised in this space for years. It did not trouble some Leaf fans. I was not in that group. Some fellow fans may not see this as an issue in the least, but for me, someone who has followed this proud franchise for more than fifty years, this was never the Burke Maple Leafs. It’s the Toronto Maple Leafs. And I’m betting the new owners felt the same as I did.
- He said he “always” built his teams from the back end. Yet in Vancouver, he never cured what ailed the Canucks in goal, and it cost them big time. Here, his efforts to produce elite goaltending have been an abysmal flop. The best thing we’ve seen in Burke’s tenure, James Reimer in his first season, was a Ferguson draft pick. Gustavsson may have had potential but the organization destroyed his confidence—not a good sign of organizational development overseen by the GM.
- Speaking of developing players, how do you take a high first round pick (Luke Schenn), push him (and then keep him in) into the NHL, and destroy his confidence in four years?
- In his managerial career, Burke was twice given the task of re-building teams—once in Vancouver, once in Toronto. In his 11 seasons as GM in those two re-build projects, his teams won a total of one playoff round. Those are the facts.
- He traded for Phil Kessel, acquiring an instant scorer, for sure, but it was a deal that ultimately cost the franchise a shot at Tyler Seguin and defenseman Doug Hamilton. Seguin will be at least Kessel’s equal. He may already be a better all-around player. Hamilton could become a stud NHL defenseman. Burke never found an elite center who could make Kessel even more of a threat.
- Later in his tenure, Burke went from quick/instant re-build to a more slow, patient, ‘let’s get some prospects in here’ approach. In fact, while he claimed to have a plan, I found it difficult to follow his path, because it seemed that it was changing fairly regularly.
- By his own admission, he kept Ron Wilson here as coach for years even though the two evidently disagreed on how “tough” a team the Leafs should be. That was shocking to hear. If you and your coach don’t agree on a foundational principle of what the team should be and should look like, you have to bring in a different coach. He pulled the trigger far, far too late with Wilson.
- Replacing Wilson with Carlyle may have sounded great on the heels of a disastrous two months, except Carlyle does not have anywhere near the kind of roster to play the way he wants his teams to play. Why was Dallas Eakins, a more patient teacher/motivator, passed over by Burke? I did not agree at the time that Eakins was not ready for the “Toronto media”, as Burke suggested.
- The hiring of Carlyle creates a scenario whereby Toronto’s two best players and most productive offensive threats may not exactly thrive under the Carlyle “system”. Maybe it will work in the short term, but it’s difficult to project that Kessel will embrace’s Carlyle’s defensive expectations at the cost of the winger's creative offensive approach. We already know how things went for Lupul in Anaheim with Carlyle.
- Burke seemed to constantly engage in some nasty piece of business with a media person here or there, including, of course, Don Cherry a year or so ago. Did Burke try to get Cherry fired? If you listen to Cherry, that’s what happened. Burke has a history of such run-ins, notably during his tenure as GM of the Canucks.
- While many loved Burke’s “style”, the word that kept coming to mind for me was hubris. Ego too often seemed to rule the day. In fact, I believe it did.
- His trade record was impressive. He acquired Phaneuf and Aulie (flipped later for Ashton, not a deal I liked, as I hate getting rid of young defenseman) for relatively little, though I’ve always liked Ian White. The deal for Gardiner and Lupul was clearly a winner. However, his record on UFA’s was abysmal. So when people say, “Oh, he really left the team in good shape, with cap space, etc…” it is fair to ask: where would they be if he had not signed or acquired Komisarek, Connolly, Lombardi, to name just a few? Are we still paying for Colby Armstrong?
- Burke had a chance to select a number of very high draft picks, based on the team's poor performance during his time here. Rielly seems to be a very nice choice. But beyond that, what did we do with those opportunities- in terms of selection and development? It's early to fully assess the drafting approach, of course, but it is fair for ownership to wonder if the right moves were made.
- We kept hearing Burke claim he didn't care what anyone (e.g. the media) thought- yet he presented as upset and reactive when criticized.
There is more that could be added here, but suffice to say my point is simply this: if you want to look at certain facts, there is a defense for the firing. Those who liked Burke’s work here can defend his moves, and that’s fine. I’m happy to hear your thoughts. But there are some legitimate reasons that can be brought up when wondering why this happened. And every point above is a concern I have raised in this space a number of times over the years. It is hardly a case of taking a shot or criticizing after the fact.
You know what I don’t get about the announcement? Not so much the timing, but why the team selected Nonis as Burke’s replacement? Nonis has been in on virtually every Burke decision in Vancouver, Anaheim and Toronto (not all, I realize). If you are looking to go in another “direction”, don’t you seek out the very best GM candidate in the hockey world? This is the most important franchise in hockey, after all. At least a few of us think it is. It certainly has a legacy that suggests we should always seek the very best candidate we possibly can, with the demeanor that will work in this market. Why choose the guy just because he’s already here and familiar with the operation?
This was not a successful operation when Burke arrived. I know his supporters will try to highlight his apparent accomplishments, but I’m struggling to see how the Leafs are a much better team than when he arrived more than four years ago.
A number of potential/if/maybe/one day “prospects” doesn’t make the grade for me. I expected more by now. And we simply didn’t get it.