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Does Burke have the “right idea" by passing on expensive second-tier UFA’s? Maybe, maybe not…

I saw a headline from a mainstream media article this week that caught my eye (not enough for me to actually read the column, in truth, but it did catch my attention).  I believe the gist of the headline is that the writer believes strongly that Burke is doing the right thing in free-agency this time around by not bidding or at least over-paying for somewhat marginal free-agent players. (The headline appeared before the subsequent signing by the Wild of both Parise and Suter...)

Hey, as I’ve said here many times, we all have different opinions, and that’s the fun of being a fan.  When I hear a mainstream media columnist suggest on July 3rd that Burke is doing the wise thing, I kind of wonder, though, how do we in fact know that Burke has the “right idea"? (I’m not criticizing the article, which I believe was from a columnist at TSN or Sportsnet.  I'm just making an observation that any such assessment seems to me to be rather premature…)

I mean, again, if people—fans, media people, “insiders”, whoever—want to venture an “opinion”, no problem.  Opinions, as the saying goes, are a dime a dozen.  Mine are often worth less than that.

But for me, the bottom line is: we don’t know if what Burke is doing now will in fact turn out to be a smart thing.  We don’t know it will help the team be successful in the years ahead.

Was acquiring James van Riemsdyk a good thing?  We can hope.  We can guess, play with  “advanced stats” and whatnot, but again, we don’t know.  It’s the same with drafting young Rielly.  I’m thrilled we grabbed a well-regarded young defenseman. (I wanted the youngster the Jackets drafted, but this kid is pretty darn good too, it seems.)  But I can’t say I know he’ll be great.  Too many things can go off the rails.

He looks, we’re told, amazing at the Leaf prospect camp.  That’s great to hear.  Now, if looking great at a summer camp has been a historical indicator that a kid will be the next big thing, I’m in.  The young rearguard may in fact be a game-changer, and I hope he is.  But we thought Schenn would be, too, and he also looked “fantastic”, “physical”, “dominant”,  and like “the best guy on the ice” when he was in the same situation four years ago.  Schenn made the team as an 18 year-old (a mistake, to me, in retrospect) but has slid backwards somewhat since.

It’s all just words and hype until the games start to count, and we have watched the players in question perform over time.  Then we can make a reasonably informed assessment as to whether a draft, a trade or a signing was “great”.  And I’ll add a layer that makes assessing even harder—can that player perform at playoff time, the ultimate determining factor.  (Does anyone think teams would not be running after Roberto Luongo if he had actually delivered a Stanley Cup in Vancouver, as opposed to melting down every spring.  Would his massive, long-term contract matter to anyone if he had "won" already?  Playoff performance matters, big time…)

So by all means let’s exchange opinions on what we think is happening in Leafworld.  I do it all the time here.  But we can only truly assess Burke’s moves (and ever-changing game-plan) over time. And here’s what we can assess: the team, almost four years into his tenure, is not good enough.  Better, but nowhere near good enough.

We know free-agent signings likes Komisarek, Armstrong, Dupuis and Connolly have not worked out.   Overall, his UFA work has been well-intentioned but awful. 

On the trade front, the Kessel deal looks good, but we know what’s coming as Seguin and Hamilton begin to really make their mark.  The Phaneuf deal was a winner, though I’m disappointed Aulie has subsequently been traded away.  (Hey, I may end up being wrong on that front—again, only time will tell.)

Goaltending is not really consistently (or demonstrably) better than when Burke took over.

Those things we can  “assess” because we’ve seen the results, over time.

But to say he is doing the right thing by not mis-spending on guys like Prust or Hudler or whomever, well, do we really know?  Much like assessing how “great” or how “lousy” a team did on draft day, the real ability to determine success comes with time. Until then, we’re all just speculating and giving opinions, informed or not.

Right now, when it comes to Burke and his newfound reluctance to (over?) spend on third-tier free-agents, we can say with certainty his previous track record with the Leafs in this regard is pretty poor.  We don’t know if his current approach will make the team better.  And for that reason, the best I will say is– I think I understand what he’s doing, and hopefully  his current moves (or non-moves) will work out.

But regardless of what he does or does not do this summer, I will be watching for the bottom line in this results-oriented business: actual outcomes—and results.  If the Leafs improve appreciably under Carlyle this coming season and beyond, then Burke will get credit for his current “patient” approach (and for "successfully" building up the prospect pipeline) from a very patient Leaf populace.  If the Leafs don’t, well, it will be a very different—and much more stinging—assessment.


  1. It is ironic that Burks says he does not want to make a trade that will mortgage the future for one quick playoff round exit. He wants to build from the net out. His team should be tougher to play against and get some bangers who hit. However his actions show the complete opposite. Firstly he made the Kessel trade to acquire a young player to help them immediately but gave up what we all now know was a lot to get him from Boston. He wants to build from the net out... last year he went into the season without a proven or an experienced keeper. This year he has watched Pitts with a number one goalie already get another in Vokoun at a minimal price. As for getting tougher there is no sign from his acquisitions that lead us to believe he has even remotely attempted this. Versteeg, Lombardi, Connolly, Liles, Dupuis, this year with JVR and the St. Louis Blues center whom he admitted are not the crash and bang type; all these guys don't put fear in the opposition from a physical standpoint. Burke has failed to deliver any of his "game plan" that he preaches and there are no signs of it to come yet either. In fact he has traded away the toughness he seemed to have in Shenn and Aulie and Armstrong; whom Burke bought out to get an extra 2 mil this year but will cost him 1 mil next year. I wonder if he will even utilize this extra 2 mil on players for this year time. There is Shane Doan a leader who plays the game the way it should be played, Torres who was highly sought after 2 years ago at the deadline still available. Prust, Moen and Gaustad who ended up resigning but Burke could have attempted to get their negotiating rights for a late draft choice. OK maybe they wanted too much money and it is debatable to offer them so much.
    Now if there were many first founders offered to Burke at last years trade deadline for Macarther and others then maybe trading them then would have opened up cap space to sign the required tougher players that Burke says he is after.
    Most notably is the notion that Burke will not offer long term front loaded contracts as it would by his standard be a form of cheating the cap system. Well sorry Burke you can take your principals with you to church on Sundays as this is totally crippling our franchise in moving forward in trying to acquire a franchise player. As long as it is in the rule book and all the other GMs are doing it and it is legally permissible then why is Burke shooting himself in the foot at the expense of this franchise because of his morally correct philosophy. Oh .... I get frustrated...hearing him defend this.
    Sure the franchise is better now than when he took over but if that is the measurement we use to gage success then that is pretty low considering every year Burke spends to the maximum salary cap, while other GMs spend much less and still remain competative.
    Burke has made some nice trades for us but that does not take away from this failure in everything else he has done and is still doing.

  2. You make solid points, BluenWhite. My own assessment, as I've tried to express here for quite some time, is very similar.

    If you really want to build from the net out, you ensure you have top-flight goaltending. If you want team toughness, you don't send away the few players (e.g. Aulie and Schenn) who may actually be willing to play the game that way.

    It has been frustrating to hear the words and then see the actions.

  3. In light of the kind of UFA signings made by Burke over the last few summers, and the money involved, I guess it could be argued that since he wasn't going after the big names, sitting this one out might not be a bad thing.

    Then again, when staying inactive can be viewed as a good thing even though your team is losing, the standard for "smart" has gotten pretty low.

    When there is money to throw around, throw it at proven quality, not quantity. This has not been the case, and while we have glaring holes in the roster, the UFA pool is not deep enough to provide much in the way of an efficient fix. At the same time, what little we have in the way of attractive bargaining chips, we can't really afford to lose, while carrying a bunch of dead weight contracts.

    It seems, as you say, premature to predict the wisdom of Burke's wait-and-see stance at this point, but predictions are what they are. Burke not doing much might be smart, but it might just as easily indicate that there just isn't much actually can do. He is out of options. Hindsight is 20/20, but when Burke first arrived, he got handed such an unwieldy roster that I just couldn't see how he was seeing any solution beyond a rebuild. The roster has changed, but I am actually back at that point. We are lacking in both quality, and the means to get it right away.

    While I've pretty much lost patience with Burke's approach so far, I would have patience for a rebuild, even if it was Burke doing it. Beyond Carlyle getting a lot done with very little, I don't see a quick fix anywhere on the horizon.

  4. Well said as always, CGLN.

    Burke is no doubt hoping Carlyle will provide a jump start and that the team will get off to a good start in the fall, in an effort to impress the new coach. Unfortunately, we have seen this move in recent years, when the ever-changing roster was trying to get off to a good start for Wilson.

    It doesn't mean much if you can't get to and then show something in the playoffs.

    You well articulate the Catch-22 Burke is in. He opted to build quickly, lots of stop-gap stuff that has not worked out. Now, we're into a more methodical, patient "re-build" phase, which is fine, except it's contrary to the initial plan, and there is no guarantee what we have built in the prospect pipeline will make the Leafs a legitimate contender.

    Thanks for visiting today, CGLN.

  5. I would love to one day be able to post something positive, however, as a long time Leaf fan I get more frustrated every day. Patience is one thing but there is a very real possibility that we will end up going 10 or more years without a playoff appearance. That is not acceptable.
    In Burke's first year we finished 24th. Then 29th, a lofty 22nd and finally 26th. We have actually become worse relative to the other teams in the league during Burke's tenure.
    I would love to see the silver lining but it eludes me.
    Even a casual fan would note that opposing teams came into the ACC and more or less had their way us with very little pushback. That shortcoming has not been addressed in 4 years. The farm is better, I will concede that. Our goaltending situation has not changed, we are still below the league average. We still don't have a first line center, we still have a soft team, our penalty killing is still amongst the worst in the NHL. Hard to see the progress.
    On top of all that we still do not want to get involved with elite free agents, their contracts offend our sensibilities. We will however pay ridiculous amounts to second tier players. I have no issue with that if the homework is done on the player. Put up your hand if you rolled your eyes when you heard about the Tim Connolly signing.
    Now we have brought in a coach, in what has all the earmarks of a panic move, to turn this team into a low scoring tight checking yawner.
    This is not the Maple Leaf team that I envisioned, we should not have to settle for mediocrity year after year.
    I feel a lot less optimistic than I did 4 years ago.

  6. I don't think it's "negative" to point out what you observe. That's what you're doing, cbh747. Nothing wrong with that.

    The bar is no set so low, that any sign of hope- picking up a new winger (at the cost of a young defenseman with upside), having kids in the pipeline, heck, even "not signing" people is now seen as a good move. It's amazing it has come to this.

    We may say (and I have done it myself) "look at those crazy teams paying Kovalchuk and now Parise/Suter" like they did. But those teams are getting substantially better, albeit at a cost, of course.

    Are the Leafs?

  7. I don't think the Leafs progresses to the next level until they start filling roster spots with young players from within the organization. There exists some evidence player performance peaks earlier than 27 when most players become eligible for unrestricted free agency. Even if they are filling 2nd, 3rd and 4th line roles, that saves salary cap room the Leafs can spend on first line talent.

    I disagree that the Leafs have not shown improvement even if the standings suggest otherwise. Last year was a traumatic end but we have players (Kessel, Lupul, Phaneuf) and youth (JVR, Frattin, Gardiner) significantly better than when BB took over.

    Free agents seem overrated and costly to me. You never know if you're signing the next Komisarek! I'm happy with what the Leafs have done so far and look forward to future moves that are certainly coming!

  8. Thanks for dropping by today and sharing your thoughts, Robert. Good stuff.

  9. I agree with Robert on that Leafs need to start filling spots from within the organization. That's how it ideally goes. Some will be able to stick around, some others won't. But even when that saves you cap space on first line players, those players have to come from somewhere. Overrated or not, the top-tier talent will get paid.

    That first line talent doesn't just appear out of thin air to bolster your roster, if you have drafted someone who is ready to excel in a key role, good for you. The Leafs are not there. Or you could go trade for a key player. But the Leafs don't have the bargaining chips for that. Or, finally, you can go into a bidding war when a legitimate first liner enters free agency. But we all know what Burke's stance on that is.

    Throwing first line money at a third liner is not going to miraculously turn him into an impact player. It just doesn't work like that. And while Kessel, Lupul, Phaneuf and Grabovski are nice players to have, as are JVR (hopefully the injury bug has now left him alone), Frattin and Gardiner, to me it's just not improvement in the big picture when it is precisely the standings that ultimately measure your success. When your team finishes 24th, 29th 22nd and 26th in four consecutive seasons, as cbh747 pointed out, it's nothing to throw cartwheels about. I do agree that some roster improvements have happened under Burke, but it is of little consequence as long as the results are not improving as well.

  10. And this is why, CGLN, I continue to say here: it's nice that the Leafs have a few nice pieces, and some "prospects". But let's name an organization that doesn't have that- and in many cases, much more.

    So measuring by the lowest hanging fruit is not "success".