Custom Search

Brian Burke: the legend and the myth

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….


  1. While I think Burke is a good GM, he is not the end all be all. He is a bit of a blowhard and quite frankly in public comes across as a bit of a buffoon. I admire his willingness to defend his players and coaches, I also think he digs in and will stick with someone when all evidence suggests he shouldn't. I am not really sure how to take his tenure here in Leafland. On one hand the team seems to be younger and better, on the other hand they are only now back to where they were 5 years ago, barely in 8th place. The farm system is in better shape but I'm not sold on the potential upside of the group of players he now has playing for him. I think they may be nearing thier personal ceiling right now. All in all a rather mixed bag in my opinion.

    Its funny I was just listening to Burke's interview today on TSN. The one thing that struck me is how he repeatadely told the audience that he wasn't a gutless coward almost like anyone who disagreed was. I found the interview very self serving and it really did not fill me with confidence. It struck me that he was the captain of the Titanic and no one was going to tell him the iceberg was coming even though they could all see it. I am not filled with confidence that the Leafs are going in the right direction.

  2. Thanks Willbur....I think you've painted a fair picture. In any event, that's how you feel, and that's part of what I'm talking about in this post. The most important aspect of this discussion is how we judge any GM's success, of course. And that has to do with whether they build winning programs or not. While giving him credit, we have both raised issues that question whether Burke is truly an "elite" GM.

    That said, how we "feel" about the way he goes about his business and how he, for example, come across in public can be part of that evaluation.

    Some fans don't care about his public presentation style or what I perceive as his "me" approach to running a team (or the kinds of things you cite in your post here). They just want a GM who builds a winning team. And that's fine. We all can agree that we see things differently.

    Thanks Willbur.

  3. Hey Michael, been a while...

    I will also agree with your article that the jury should still be out on Brian Burke and before a verdict is placed, maybe we should be told the criteria. But in my opinion I believe Burke has done a fantastic job building a structure.

    How long ago were our top prospects Tlusty Stralman and Pogge? Even though we might not have an elite prospect (which I believe we do in Gardnier), how do I our prospects compare now? Many times I have heard comparisons being brought between the Oilers and the Leafs, I hope everyone notices that the Oilers have drafted 8 first rounders in the last 5 years, two of them 1st overall!

    I think Burke pays too much money for that "x" factor that he sees in many players, for example Armstrong and Komi which has hurt us quite a bit. To be honest, his free agent signings have been terrible (I am thinking of Connely now too), but no one can deny his brilliance in trading. The verdict is still out on his drafting, but with the amount of scouts he has under him, I believe he might have the advantage in that department as well.

    Thanks for the Leaf reading as always!

  4. Hi Bester30, good to hear from you.

    I guess I was just looking for people's opinions, as you and Willbur have provided. No detailed "criteria", though we all have a sense, obviously, of the trades he has made while here, his UFA signings and who his draft choices have been so far.

    My notion was simply to provide some context, when it comes to the claims that he is a top GM. I think he's a good one, but 7 playoff series wins and the one Cup in 13 seasons (with a team largely built by his predecessor) doesn't scream to me that he's the best in thee business.

    As always, I just enjoy hearings different perspectives.

    As for Tlusty, for example, I hear you, but we may be happy if some of our Burke prospects turn out as good as what he is doing in Carolina on a mediocre team.

    Good post. Thanks.

  5. I think Burke overestimated his ability to retool the leafs. He talked about how he is not interested in a 5 year rebuild (tank and accumulate draft picks) to become a cup contender like say the Hawks have done and was going to undertake an accelerated retool (probably he thought he could do something similar to what he accomplished in Anaheim).

    That said 3.5 years later he put together what is barely a playoff of team. And in reality if you look at the team composition, we should expect something closer to the canucks rebuild - several years of wandering through the wilderness then having him save the team.

    At any rate, I sort of judge him to be an average GM with an above average ego. People seem to confuse what he says with what he actually does. Anyway a big average score on him.

  6. Thanks for the comment, Anon. As we've discussed here, Burke many times made it clear he had no patience for a five-year re-build, but in fact, that's exactly what this will have turned out to be (and probably longer...)

  7. Hi Michael, I like a lot of what you've said here. I have a lot of respect for Burke, but he seems to have a tendency to overrate his goaltenders and stick with them too long. Cloutier is the first example, then Toskala, with Gus and Reimer being the current ones. Gus has stretches of brilliance but is mediocre for the most part, both on a macroscopic and microscopic scale. Reimer hasn't been the same since he's been hurt.

    I honestly feel like this team is a decent goalie and a solid defensive d-man away from being able to contend.

    What Burke *has* done, is restock assets and build a team that is exciting to watch (if you put aside the excruciatingly frustrating defensive and goaltending lapses). He is a master of trading, tho his UFA-signing is questionable at best. I think you can't really fault him too much for the Komisarek signing (his downfall really being the NMC rather than the trade itself). Komi was coming off all-star production and the team was barren defensively. The Connolly signing is imo still defensible. He's been less productive than Grabo, but has also played fewer games and with inferior linemates, due mainly to the emergence of Bozak as a serviceable first-liner. I'd say the only really bad signing has been Armstrong, who has been an abject disaster for us due to injuries that seem to have simply ruined his game. Was the Komisarek signing a mistake in retrospect? Absolutely, but who could have known beforehand that Lucic would essentially ruin Komi?

    His trades however, Phaneuf/Aulie/Sjostrom, Gardiner/Lupul, Lombardi/Franson, Kaberle for picks, have been spot on and total "wins".

    For this reason, and the progress that the Leafs have visibly made, I give Burke the benefit of the doubt, and I think that's the reason a lot of people do. Before Burke, there were no Scrivens/Rynnas/Owuya/Gustavsson. Admittedly, they haven't panned out, but there is still hope in the system, and I still think Burke will make a move for someone like Harding or Vokoun or Nabokov if the price is right.

  8. Darryl....You know that I appreciate a well-thought out position (whether I agree completely or not) and you provided exactly that today. Well said. Thank you.

  9. I guess today's subject could be "The Legend. The Myth, and The Reality". From what I've seen of BB, I like him. I like his straightforward nature. I like his unwillingness to toady to the press. I like the way he supports his players and coaching staff. And I also particularly admire him for the way he handled himself during and after the period of mourning for his son. He seems like a really stand-up guy.
    But, as he himself has said, "we're in the business of winning". He's not doing so good here. Although we are ahead of last year's position, we're not that far ahead of it, and it looks like the old bugaboo many have referenced has come back to bite us - inconsistent goaltending. Burke has said that he builds teams from the goal out, so we're in trouble. It may be the kind of "who could have guessed?" trouble that's part and parcel of pro sports - unforeseen injuries, a player having a Kulemin year - but there you go and here we are.
    All to say that my jury is out on Mr Burke. I'd like to think he's improved our farm system, and built a foundation for years to come, but who knows? I know fans keep mentioning Kadri and Frattin, say, as evidence of good things to come, but they didn't exactly light the lamp when they were up with the A squad.
    But, as I said above, I like Brian Burke. I really hope he can deliver on the promises he's made to the fans.

  10. Well said as always, Gerund O'....Thanks.

  11. The perception of Brian Burke as a manager might be about to change because of an accident:

    "After a freakish injury in his house preparing a meal,[the Senators'] Craig Anderson cut his hand and was immediately taken to the hospital for care. The team is reporting that the veteran goaltender is out indefinitely, and there appears to be a four to six week timetable on his recovery."

    Ottawa is going to have to rely on Robin Lehner and Alex Auld.

    That's as bad as the Leafs goalies and Auld is certainly worse than both Reimer and Gustavsson.

    A bunch a extra loses by the Senators might be enough for the Leafs to get in an climb.

    I hate to win this way but all of a sudden Burke might look smarter.

  12. Setting aside any UFA signings that went bust or the player just didn't put the effort in, name a trade where BB didn't come out even or on top? His job is to put a winning roster on the ice and I think he's a fearsome individual in that capacity.
    The Toronto market, I think, simply requires a highly decisive, intelligent and aggressive GM. The cherry on top is that he surrounds himself with the best in the business.
    His "bluster" is one of my favorite aspects of his job here. The Toronto media has long been in need of someone to remind them that they do not, in fact, run the team, and that if they did, they would be crying in the corner in about 15 minutes flat.