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Are you envious that Burke isn’t pulling a Holmgren, as most NHL GM’s take a pass on late summer roster activity?

I have no idea if there is an informal agreement among NHL owners and General Managers or not to do precious little (you know, any major trades, or the usual late summer free-agent signings to help fill out a given team’s third and fourth lines before training camp) these days because of the negotiations impasse.  As the days tick away, we seem to be moving toward an unstoppable outcome:  a lockout of the players by the owners on September 15th.

While there has been the occasional signing here and there over the past two or three weeks (Scott Hannan signing on for a year with the Preds) most of the “news” has been about teams signing their own players to contract extensions.  This includes Max Pacioretty in Montreal, Jeff Skinner in Carolina and most recently, Mike Fisher in Nashville.

But by and large, things have been deathly quiet on the NHL front.  That’s not entirely unusual at this time of the year, but I seem to recall a number of low-profile but still important late-summer UFA signings since the last lockout—and since the new cap was imposed.

What was the last UFA signing this summer that made you, as a hockey fan, do even a small double-take?  For that matter, since the van Riemsdyk trade, what have the Leafs done that made you stand up and take notice?  Yes, they have signed their first-round draft picks from the last two summers, and that’s all very nice, but the truth is we knew that was going to happen at some point.  Where else were these kids going to play?  Were they going to wait until a new CBA gave rookies even less negotiation traction?  Did anybody really think they were going to the KHL?

So yes, it’s a quiet time, for sure.  And again, some, all or none of this may have to do with the current contractual reality.  NHL GM’s are not only pre-occupied with the labour talks, I wonder if they have been told, informally—by Bettman and their own owners—to do only what they absolutely have to do in terms of roster housekeeping,  as everyone gears down (rather than up) for the reality of a lock-out.

That said, one GM has continued to be active and in fact, quite aggressive this summer, and that, not surprisingly, is Philadelphia’s Paul Holmgren.  Holmgren was a ‘take no prisoners’ player during his long NHL career, and we sure can’t say he has been anything less than that in his tenure in management with the Flyers.  After huge (and risky) moves last summer to bring in a temperamental number-one goalie (Bryzgalov) at a very high cost, and his decision to deal away two of his top players in Mike Richards and Jeff Carter, he tried something even more outside the box this summer, when he attempted to swoop in and grab Shea Weber as a RFA.  While the Predators ended up matching Philly’s huge offer, it served notice that Holmgren isn’t interested in standing idly by—or standing pat.

He has now lost two key defensemen (three, really, if we include Chris Pronger) in Lilja and Meszaros.  But the guy is in there pitching.  He just extended Scott Hartnell with a mini mega-deal after also recently re-signing Jakub Voracek and, as significantly, grinding winger Wayne Simmonds. Of course, we in the Toronto market know that he earlier moved van Riemsdyk- who looked like a star in the making in the playoffs a couple of years ago- for Luke Shenn.  Holmgren would like to do more, but doesn’t want to part with emerging youngsters like Brayden Schenn or Sean Couturier.  Leaf boss Brian Burke can relate, as his efforts to improve the Toronto roster in certain spots have no doubt been stymied by his (understandable) unwillingness to part with key assets, including defenseman Jake Gardiner.

Now, we can criticize Holmgren for his willingness to spend a lot of money and make bold (some might say risky) roster moves.  He and owner Flyers owner Ed Snider may be partly responsible for an NHL that doesn’t know which way it wants to go, in the sense that some teams—like the Flyers—would love to spend  well beyond the cap (I’m sure the Leafs and Burke would too) and are part of the NHL’s inflation-creating cycle.  All the while, many owners are apparently still losing significant money—and predictably, crying poor.  (What did I see recently, the San Jose Sharks lost 15 million last season—and they sell out every night and have playoff revenue every spring…)

But bottom line, Holmgren is not afraid to act.

Here’s what I’m wondering:  are you content with Burke’s current patient approach to re-building the blue and white?  Or, is at least a small part of you kind of wishing, deep down, that our guy would be a little more like Holmgren, throw caution to the wind and take a shot at much bigger game—in order to try and speed up the re-build?

Be honest….


  1. Trading away our future in the last 15 years was a learning mistake. Got us some play-offs but really.....nothing. JFJ and Fletcher left nothing in the tanks. So why would we want to trade away our valuable future now. Good for Burkie. Stick to your guns my man.

  2. Not to dispute your claim, Anon, but I certainly think it's a fairly broad statement to say deals the Leafs made in the Quinn era, for example, just "got us some playoffs". It was a lot more than that and a lot better than going 8 years with not a single playoff game win- much less a team that was not even good enough to make the playoffs.

    In fact, we made the playoffs every single year that Quinn was here until Ferguson took over and things began to slide. Under Quinn the Leafs drafted excellent young players like Stajan, Colaiacovo, Steen and many others, without the benefit Burke has had of drafting very, very high in the first round.

    Twice, in '99 and 2002, we got to the final four, and came oh so close to making the finals in 2002.

    To say "nothing was in the tank" is simply factually incorrect. But it is part of the "myth" spun by Burke and his well-trained aides.

    Precisely what do people think Burke is building here? A Cup team? Four years in and we have some "prospects". That's fine, but we will need much more than that, won't we?

  3. I am hoping that prudence will be rewarded once the parameters of the new CBA are a known quantity. On the other hand, I would've liked to see Burke move heaven and earth to pick up Steve Stamkos last year - how he could've done that successfully, without decimating the prospect pool, I don't know - but that was my wish. This year I didn't really expect or 'wildly hope' for anything.

    The recent AHL signing of Paul Ranger is quite intriguing to me. It doesn't use up an SPC contract (when we are already burgeoning at the seams with 'extra' players), yet gives an opportunity for a potential top 4 defenseman to re-start his career. Perhaps, he is another kind of Clarke MacArthur and is getting an opportunity to play close to Whitby (should make Don Cherry a little happier :)

    I believe this opens the potential for trading another defenseman in a package deal down the road. If Ranger is looking good in his early Marlies' sessions, perhaps that trade may come sooner than later. This is not to say that Ranger would make the roster early, rather that we may get some early looks at prospects (depending on when the season starts), before Ranger gets a 'look-see.'

    The Leafs weren't ready for the new NHL after the last lockout/CBA. Perhaps the plan included the prudence to see what the newer NHL would look like before committing fully this year. At least, I hope that's the case...

  4. Always good to hear from you, InTimeFor62.

    The Ranger signing is one of those no-risk ideas that could indeed work well. It does qualify as an under-the-radar but potentially helpful summertime move.

    Prudence does seem to be the watchword right now, and that may be, as Anon also mentioned above, a good way to go. I don't think anyone wants Burke to trade away elite prospects for questionable return.

    That said, where I disagree with some observers, as I mentioned above, is the claim that the Leafs have "always" traded away their top young prospects and it never worked out. Whenever I hear that, I'd like to see a list of all the players we drafted (and then traded), or even the traded-away draft pick themselves, who have gone on to sterling careers elsewhere? (I'm thinking specifically of the Quinn era.)

    I think all Leaf fans hope, as you say, that the Leafs are better prepared post-lockout this time around...

    Thanks InTimeFor62.

  5. I think you have identified a 'narrative' that is brought forward far too often, regarding the seeming propensity to decimate our prospects for little return.

    It seems to me, that the painful experiences seem to become the 'total package' for some fans, because when 'lesser' prospects turn into excellent/useful 'returns' we are apt to focus upon what we 'got' since we don't experience a great sense of loss.

    However, when we 'lost' someone like Rask in exchange for a Calder award winning Goalie, nobody knew what that would mean in the long run. As a counterpoint to our sense of loss, I ask, "Would anyone have regretted trading the first goalie taken in the 71 draft at #24 by Montreal, Michel Deguise G or, in the 72 Draft at #40, Pittsburgh's choice Denis Herron G in exchange for, say, Ken Dryden (after his Calder winning year in 71-72).

    Of course, that wouldn't happen after his Cup run in '71, but 'what if' (insert 'we still had Rask' or 'we had gotten Dryden').

    We live in a world where what happened is not compared with the same choice in a different era and perspective is, thereby, lost. Of course, I'm also ignoring the role of each GM and their ability to assess talent, but am merely utilizing a 'balancing' perspective on one actual 'lost' prospect.

    Even though I could argue against my own point, it is thoughts such as the above that helps provide such balance in my overall view of the team's history. You, also, bring perspective to Leaf fans, and I appreciate your efforts in that regard!

  6. Thanks, InTimeFor62. I enjoy the different perspectives I get here from the many thoughtful individuals who post, though I don't always agree, of course.

    While I certainly don't advocate dealing our current prospects for aging veterans (we aren't close enough to being Cup contenders to make those kinds of deals potentially worthwhile), I just can't accept the storyline I keep hearing that the Leafs have "always" traded away their good young players and draft choices. It's just not so. And in the vast majority of circumstances, at least in the late '90s and early 2000s, we were indeed close enough to make it worthwhile when we did make moves.

    Yes, when we traded more than 20 years ago for a veteran defenseman and ended up losing what could have been Scott Niedermayer, that hurt. And yes, the Rask deal turned out poorly in more recent times. But Ferguson thought he was getting a solid (and still young) goaltender. Sometimes that happens.

    Again, I'm certainly not saying Burke should start dealing young guys. I didn't like given up Aulie or Schenn. I think you should almost never give up young defensemen with legitimate NHL ability and the potential to grow into solid defensemen. I'm more defending what was done when the Leafs were actually a good team years ago, and were trying to win a Cup. Isn't that why they play?

  7. Thinking about the potential to have had a Scott Niedermayer still stings, but I agree that when you are close to a cup, it will cost something painful to achieve.

    Players experience that physically and emotionally, perhaps the latter emotional 'losss' is what it 'costs' the fans for the enjoyment of a cup run... it is why the players play (and why we watch)!

  8. MIchael,

    The only player that the Leafs have drafted in the last 30 years that they absolutely had to have on the team was Wendel Clark. All of the rest of the picks from those years have amounted to practically nothing. Sure there are some mediocre NHL'ers in there. Steen, Antropov, Coliacovo and Jay Harrison come to mind. These kinds of players are a dime a dozen so to speak. They can play, but they are nowhere near what you are trying to get in the draft. The guys I hope that the Leafs have in the wings are ones like Richards, Carter and Giroux. MIddle first round picks that turn into greatness. Yes, Tuuka Rask may be a world beater in goal for the Bruins for many years to come. He also may not, lots of goalies have success and they fall off the face of the earth so to speak. I cannot take credit for this term as I read it somewhere. But, this is all just prospect porn. Every new player drafted is going to be the next whoever. There is always another one before you know it and then wait where did last years can't miss guy get to? Prospect porn.

    On Burke, I wish he would have continued to show the bravado that he did upon arrival. I have no idea if there are simply very few trades to be made, or if he is a little gun shy. Holmgren is exactly the man of action I thought we were getting in Burke. Especially with respect to the offer sheets. This is something the Leafs GM should be doing. The richest team in the League needs to take every advantage, especially when the team you put on the ice for four years frankly, stinks. Holmgren is the man of action Burke talks about being.

  9. I am personally content with Burkes current approach at rebuilding, however you want to categorize it. Although it is far different from Holmgrens way of operating, I wouldn't exactly define it as patient. Not very often do you see a franchise bring in a player with the upside of JVR. When comparing Burke to some of the more modest GM's, he could come off as a "guns blazing" type of GM when looking at his history with Toronto. I cant stand to see losing seasons but I am truly content with having Burke as GM for the simple reason that I know he wants this team to win as much or more than the rest of us.

  10. Well said, Jim. We would both agree that some "prospects" do indeed turn out, but as InTimeFor62 noted above, can you imagine if we had signed Stamkos last summer? (TB would have matched, I'm sure, but nonetheless, it would have been an effort to improve the team...) Yes, it would have cost us "futures", but Stamkos is and will be a superstar for years to come.

    The point in today's post is simply that Holmgren, criticize him or not, is not allowing anything to stop his determination to constantly improve his roster. I'm just wondering if Leaf fans would like to see Burke a bit more in that mold.....

  11. Solid post, captainboxmaker. Thank you.

    I will say this for Burke (though I will also say it for every GM I've followed with the Leafs since the late 1950s): he wants to win. He is trying to build a competitive team. As I've often said, I could stand a lot less hubris, but that seems to be the only way he know how to operate.

    Knowing the GM has a passion for winning does make supporting them easier, for sure. Hope you visit again, captainboxmaker.

  12. Hi Michael,

    As you know I have often referred to Holmgren as the type of GM that I would love to have in Toronto. He is certainly aggressive, quick to correct his mistakes and has positioned the Flyers as a perennial competitor. This team finished in 30th place in 2006-2007 but made the playoffs the following year and continues to do so. Right now he is locking up key players long term while he still can. He has proven in the past that this does little to handcuff the team, look at Carter and Richards as examples. He made a mistake with Bryzgalov by the look of things, I have no doubt that he will be aggressive in fixing that problem as well.

    The difference is that he doesn't make moves such as trading top first round picks for players that have no supporting cast. And, for those claiming that slow and steady is the way to go, well, what has that really done for us? We have Jake Gardiner (trade). Other than that I don't think that the other 29 teams are looking at the Leafs with envy. We have not managed to assemble a group of "can't miss" prospects even with our dismal results year after year.

    Give me Holmgren over Burke any day.

  13. Great post, as usual, cbh747.

    I find that there is a real "mythology" around Burke. I mean, as I've tried to point out here but people don't seem to care, in his two major re-build projects (Vancouver and Toronto) in something like 11 years as a GM in those markets, he has a grand total of one playoff series victory.

    Because he talks a lot about "Me" and "I" as in "my teams" and "I do things this way..." people give him all kinds of latitude, even when he changes gears in mid-stream, as he has done in Toronto. Now, most fans seem to support his current approach. Yet, it was his initial impatience that put the Leafs in the position they are in, where just making the playoffs would be considered a satisfying season.

    As I've said here many times, Burke is a smart hockey guy- but that puts him in the same class as a lot of other guys, and below a number of top GM"s.

  14. At this point, I want Burke to fail because of all these Burke apologists that defend Burke and some of his terrible moves to absolve him of all responsibility. If people would simply admit that he has underwhelmed and needs to improve - I would be fine and be more willing to support him.

  15. You've said in a very few words what at least a few Leaf fans must feel,
    leafernhleastfan. Well done. Thanks.

  16. MIchael,

    Some prospects do indeed turn out. The point that I was making is that 3rd line players are everywhere. Drafting guys that top out as third liners is in my opinion a wasted draft pick. There are always going to be guys that could fill that role, and they are cheap relatively speaking. Is Jay McClement a huge upgrade over Mike Zigomanis? I don't know, but I don't think that the difference between them gets the Leafs into the playoffs. The same could be said for Tyler Bozak and Alex Steen. One was a first round pick, the other was a college free agent.

    I would much rather have Holmgren putting in offer sheets for Weber and Stamkos. You know, actually doing everything to make the Leafs a cup contender, or his job some would call it. As I said earlier, the GM Burke talks like, instead of who he has become.

  17. Understood, Jim. And I think it's fair to say, also, that the Leafs have way too many guys who fit a third and fourth-line profile. How many players do we really have who are proven "top-six" NHL'ers? It's a shallow list, in my view. But we have a ton of third-tier guys who are, as you say, largely replaceable around the league.

    Today's discussion is interesting to me, because some fans like Burke's approach, others, like yourself, would like to see him a bit more aggressive in his efforts to improve the roster. Holmgren is showing, as cbh747 mentioned above, that you don't have to sell the future to maintain a consistent contender. Some things work out, some don't, but it's not "paralysis through analysis". He makes a decision and moves forward.

  18. "Or, is at least a small part of you kind of wishing, deep down, that our guy would be a little more like Holmgren, throw caution to the wind and take a shot at much bigger game—in order to try and speed up the re-build?"

    Isn't that what Burke tried to do with the Kessel deal?

    People complain and debate that deal all the time.

    I am ok with the slow, thorough rebuild.

    Being in Toronto, I also think that Burke may know a little bit more than most GM about the future and CBA negotiations. Why bother with big deals that result in half a season of play this year?

    I think it might be better to wait for a few more contracts to expire at the end of this year. Steckel, Conolly and Lombardi's contracts ending frees up almost 9.5 million.

    That's when I would take all the money money and some prospects and swing for the fences. I also think that's when Burke will turn into Holmgren.

  19. Very fair points, as always, DP.

    I think the issue around the Kessel deal was that Burke misread where his team was at the time. We've had Phil for three seasons but it cost the team a lot and we still haven't really come close to the playoffs. So I think it's a question of timing the "big move". He seemed to think Kessel was joining a much stronger team than it actually was.

    I'd like to think we are closer now (though I'm not necessarily sure that we are) to being a good team, and being a little more of a risk-taker now might generate some real momentum.

    I agree, DP, that Burke may have to wait for some contracts to expire, but the thing is, he is the guy who signed or took on those contracts, so he is the one who limited his own ability to make better moves- and delayed improving the roster in a meaningful way yet again.

    You may be right. Burke has now adopted a more patient approach. Time will tell! Thanks DP.

  20. There's simply no question that, to date, in a business he's defines as being "about winning", Burke has failed. As many here have said, sure, we've got "prospects", but what team doesn't? What we don't have is a contending team. And the Flyers do.
    But I have to temper that with the admission that, up until February or so last year, the Leafs looked pretty darn good, goalie problems notwithstanding. That was the team Burke - and Wilson - promised, or at least a glimmer of it. And they were more entertaining than any Leaf team of the previous 7 years or so. If they'd continued along that line, we'd likely be singing his praises today. But the going got tough, and the Leafs collapsed.
    Let's face it, all trades and deals are a crap shoot. Komi tanks, Lupul soars. Every team's got similar results. JvR for Schenn - master stroke or disaster stroke? I have no idea, but on the surface it addresses problems both teams had. My gut tells me we'll see Luke turn into a top 4 guy who regularly crushes our forwards, but maybe JvR will be the linchpin we need on our first line. It's a bold move, so we can't very well criticize Burke for being too patient when he's willing to take this sort of gamble. Has his rebuild of the farm system been a success? It'll be years before we know.
    As I've said before, I can't help thinking that ownership is a key factor. Ed Snider strikes me as a guy who wants to win, and will back, even push, his GM to achieve that goal. That hasn't been the case for the Leafs ever since they became an investment vehicle for various funds and rich guys. And, like you Michael, if I have to listen to another year of "our goal is to just make the playoffs", I won't be a happy fan.

  21. You've covered a lot of bases here, Gerund O'. I enjoyed your post very much, as usual.

    I think you make a very fair point that dealing for van Riemsdyk was a fairly bold stroke, so he cannot be accused of total inaction.

    I agree also that every team faces these hurdles where some players over-perform, others under-perform. It's just part of the cycle in running a hockey team.

    That all said, I'm like you: I dislike the notion that making the playoffs will be an achievement, or that, if we just wait two years, things will be better. Other GM's have turned their rosters around in less time than Burke has.

  22. To me, it's a simple question - either you trust that Burke knows what he is doing, or you don't.

    I fall into the camp that believes Burke has been doing an excellent, if slow, job of restocking the Leafs from the ground up. He is moving as quickly as circumstances have allowed, while maintaining a big-picture overview to balance long and short term objectives.

    We won't really be able to evaluate his contributions until his draft picks mature and join the Leafs, a few at a time over the next few years.

    The better question is whether Burke will still be in Toronto when the facts are all in.

    I'm not sure Holmgren is the ideal comparison point, in any event. His "bold" moves last summer certainly benefited a hockey club - unfortunately for Flyer fans, that club was the L.A. Kings.

    There are detractors who say the Bruins have been the great benefactor of Burke's trading prowess, but I think they severely underestimate Kessel - and Kessel's ability to make those around him better (ask Joffrey Lupul what he thinks on that front).

    The Leafs sure looked like a playoff team in the first half of last year - and the second half of the year before - but they fell short.

    We all know goaltending was largely at the root of this. Perhaps, with hindsight, it was a Burke mistake to let Giguere go elsewhere, in favour of giving the unproven Monster a real shot, but that's the kind of mistake a GM has to be prepared to make when you are rebuilding with youth. It won't always work.

    Strangely, that's not a complaint one typically hears about Burke's record, but it is quite possible last season would have played out very differently if we had kept the solid veteran backup we actually had as relief for the unfortunately-concussed Reimer.

    That's but one example of how the seemingly minor moves - rather than the big splashes - can make all the difference, depending on what the fates deliver.

    We'd all like to see the Leafs get to the promised land today - not next year or next decade. I'm not sure there's a smarter hockey guy out there than Burke to get us there (if only he'd just stop talking so much).

  23. Thanks for chiming in on this subject, Garry. I respect your view, though I do differ in some respects.

    For me, part of the enjoyment in being a fan as that we all see things a bit differently. Many fans love what Burke has done in Toronto and think he has positioned them for future success. I see how people can arrive at that but for me, if Burke had simply gone about his business without the unnecessary public comments in his early months on the job, more fans would be patient with his current (and in my view, rather different approach from what he first adopted...) efforts.

    As for Holmgren, I perhaps look at his efforts differently than some. I don't see his trading of Richards and Carter as harming his team. In fact, I think the team is better than it otherwise would have been. They weren't going to win with those guys, in my mind. They still needed (and need) elite goaltending to get over the top in Philly. LA won largely because of Quick's netminding, though obviously the former Flyers helped.

    My criticisms of Burke go back to his Vancouver days, where his inability to deal with the team's goaltending got in the way of the team's ability to contend. The same has happened in Toronto, as you alluded to.

    I'll keep saying it: Burke's combined record in his two re-build projects as an NHL GM- when he had plenty of time in both Vancouver and Toronto to make a difference - have so far his teams win one playoff round in more than a decade. I think it's fair to ask: is that the mark of a top GM?

    Great post, thanks Garry.

  24. When I first heard about the Tukka Rask trade I had a terrible feeling in my gut. I have learned over time that this horrible gut feeling is a reliable indicator of a bad trade. I understand the idea that Andrew Raycroft won a Calder; however, a quick glance at his statistical record at the time showed the Calder year to be an aberration, a gigantic red flag for anyone trading for his rights. I have played enough net to know how fickle short term performance can be, how excitement and adrenalin can sharpen performance in a way that supersedes long term realities. Boston management understood that Raycroft was nowhere near an elite level, as I did, when I saw him play. In reality, Andrew Raycroft was an excited kid playing over his head in front of good defense in his rookie year. In 05/06, prior to being traded to the Leafs, he was .879 in 30 games for God's sakes! The gamble was foolish and unnecessary. JFJ and his advisors were, without question, grossly incompetent to have offered up a blue chip prospect for Andrew Raycroft.

    As far as the relative inactivity goes, I assume it is because Bettman has no intention of accepting an agreement until the Winter Classic approaches, at the soonest. As a member of the negotiating committee, Brian Burke is privy to this fact, lessening his desire to make deals until an agreement approaches. For my part, I cut my cable the other day, and will look at Center Ice later, because I assume that the bill will not come prior to next calendar year.

    With Burke, I do not have that feeling of trepidation I got from JFJ. While the Kessel trade did give me a bad feeling in my gut, it was not nearly as bad as when Rask was traded or Lanny MacDonald, for example. Sure, it was gross overpayment for Kessel, but not entirely catastrophic, especially given some of the other positive moves he has made. Quinn, I always liked. I wonder however, how he would have done with the Byzantine abomination that is the cap system?

  25. I think Ferguson thought he was getting the early-days Raycroft, Bobby C.. I can't defend the deal, other than he and his people thought Raycroft would give the Leafs a boost in net in the short-term. You mention the numbers before the trade was made and It was a mistake, without question. (I agree with your instinct comment, by the way. I felt that way -in a positive sense- when Jim Gregory obtained Bernie Parent during the 1970-'71 season and felt similarly - the other way - knowing no good could come of things when Parent refused to come back to the Leafs after his aborted WHA signing- the Leafs had to send him back to the Flyers and I knew it would not work out, goaltending-wise...)

    I think you're right- and some others have posted here on this note - that Burke is well aware that there will be no games until the New Year, at the earliest. In fairness, he has made some moves this summer. I think he boxed himself in with some previous signings and acquisitions (e.g. Lombardi, Connolly).

    You've described a sense of comfort that Burke knows what he's doing, and that's fair. That's the way fans should be able to feel.

    Thanks Bobby C. Great to hear from you.