Custom Search

Is it time for Brian Burke to get daring again?

Even if the NHL season started tomorrow, and all the CBA stuff was set aside for years to come, how optimistic would we Leaf supporters really be heading into a new season?  From the feedback I’ve received here at VLM in recent weeks, I sense fans are kind of divided.  Some are hopeful that the Leafs will be better, but most think we are still quite a ways off from being a serious playoff team.

To a certain extent, I can’t help but feel that we are, in fact, chasing our tail.  Oh, I’m well aware of the hopeful talk around our supposedly sterling Maple Leaf farm system, and all those good juniors we’ve drafted with hockey's favourite word -  “potential”.

Not to sound unduly negative, but I’ve seen this movie many times before, so I'm apt to be in the "I'm from Missouri" camp on this one.  I prefer proof rather than talk, and while potential is important, the Leafs need more guys who can play right now, not just a few years from now.  But who knows?  I didn't expect the Blues, for example, to be as good as they were last season, though with the goaltending they had, I guess it made sense.  Sometimes teams surprise us.

Here are some simple facts: whenever this lockout ends, the Leafs are a mediocre NHL team, full stop.  On paper, at their best, they are likely a borderline playoff squad in the Eastern Conference. They have some speed, some skill, agreed.  They have an explosive offensive player in Phil Kessel.  But they have a limited roster, especially so against good opposition.

Why do I say this?
  • We have no proven front-line goaltender
  • We do not have a proven, defensively outstanding stud defenseman
  • We lack a bona fide first-line center
  • We have a roster with a lot of third and fourth-line (read replaceable) guys
  • We have very little in the way of players with legitimate playoff experience
  • We have no one with a history of winning on their resume
  • We lack overall team toughness
  • Our special teams have been a disaster for years
So while we wait for the cavalry to come (Komarov- who could well earn a spot, based on what I'm seeing so far  - Kadri, Colborne, Holzer, D'Amigo and juniors like Rielly) where are we right now?

To me, Colborne, Kadri, Frattin and Gardiner aren’t "prospects".  They should be (or are) NHL’ers already.  I’ve watched them.  They’re nice players and everything, but if they played in, say, the Minnesota system, would we think they were going to be excellent NHL’ers?

For me, Gardiner is the exception. The sophomore rearguard looks to be in a fairly elite category given his tremendous instincts, calm demeanour and superb skill set, and that will help the big club for sure. Otherwise, we’re talking about everyday, garden-variety brand prospects down on the farm with the Marlies.  Guys with talent, sure, but individuals who are unlikely to be impact players at the NHL level—though I hold out hope that Frattin has the makings of a power forward.  I like a lot about his game.  But again, I look at him as a Leaf already.

So to me, we’re heading into a new season (if there is a new season) with a cast remarkably similar to what we’ve had in previous years:  that is, a roster filled with a bit of elite talent, hope, some maybes, a lot of “promise”—and tons of question marks. 

That is usually the recipe for disaster.

So what can be done?  Well, Burke can get daring.  He did it before when he acquired Kessel (a move we still talk about here - with fans split in retrospect as to whether that bold stroke will prove to be a wise move or not for the future of the Leafs) and he did it again in the deal for Phaneuf.  He tried it with the signing of Gustavsson, and also with the pursuit of Beauchemin and Komisarek.  That was big money invested to solidify a weak defense corps.  And he certainly was bold in taking on the oft-injured Lupul, though the real treat inside the Cracker Jack box on that one was young Gardiner.

But what about now?  Is he suddenly a stand pat GM after a fairly quiet summer (though acquiring van Riemsdyk suggests he hasn't lost his trading edge...)?

I don't think so.

We already know that Luongo has been on his radar screen for months.  While I’ve long opined here that I’m not a Luongo guy, I recognize that he will likely end up here.  And if all we care about is maybe getting to the playoffs, I don’t doubt he would be an upgrade in net.  (Let's just not throw Reimer away.  I still think he can play, if he gets his confidence and health back...)  And I do believe he could make the difference in the Leafs earning a playoff spot, though let’s be honest, is he really a better goalie than Miller, Lundqvist, Price, Ward or Brodeur - the top goaltending guns in the East? 

Maybe not, but he is in that league, and perhaps better than anything the other teams in the East will have next season.  So while Luongo does not excite me for the reasons I have outlined in earlier posts, he can help.  He’s a top-ten NHL goalie, and some nights, a lot better than that.

But beyond that, would Burke take a look at other players who would be the offensive equivalent of Luongo—players with warts but who have a legitimate profile as established stars who would perhaps benefit from a fresh start in a new market?  I’m thinking about names like Iginla, Marleau, Bolland or Sharp in Chicago, Getzlaf or Bobby Ryan in Anaheim.  Each of those guys have been impact players for years and yes, would come with a cost.  But would they ignite the Leafs and provide some juice that is lacking many nights?  And just maybe they would provide some support (and relief) for players like Lupul, Grabovski and yes, Kessel.

One of the excellent posters here (Jim) made a really good point a few days ago.  That is, after the last lockout, we had the "new" NHL to look forward to.  More power plays, more wide-open hockey, less clutching and grabbing and neutral zone clogging. (As we remember, the Leafs were one of the teams who were woefully unprepared for the newer, faster, "room for little guys with skill" NHL, but I have to believe we’ll be much better prepared this time around…)

Now, when this dispute finally ends, what will we have, as hockey fans—and as Maple Leaf fans?  We will seemingly have the same old, same old.  And we'll have the "same-old" in Toronto, as well.

Yes, Carlyle is behind the bench now, a new, harsher voice (though we thought Wilson was a harsher voice four years ago) that may trigger better results and a more thorough defensive approach most nights.  But while good coaches can drive better outcomes with the same old personnel sometimes, I’d still like to see some further roster overhaul.  Though I’m not a huge fans of the idea, Luongo would be a start, I acknowledge, but I still believe we need more—a lot more.  And I don’t buy the notion that our system has better prospects than many other teams.  We simply see them more often.  Quite a number of teams have their 22 year-olds as mainstays in the lineup already. (The Marlies' 2, wins, 2 losses and 1 overtime loss record so far this season doesn't move me much one way or the other.  Some guys have looked good in the early going, others not so much.  But it's a long season, and I'd hardly make an assessment based on 5 games for any young player at that level...)

I don’t know the answer to all that ails (or might this coming season) the Leafs, and I recognize that many Leaf supporters want to see Burke continue with his current patient "re-build with youth" approach.  And there's some wisdom in that approach, I sense.   Still, I’d love to see some new faces in the Leaf line-up when we open the season.  Some of our young guys (certainly Kadri and Komarov—Frattin and Gardiner are already Leafs), for sure, but also some familiar names who built a reputation elsewhere and who could make a valuable contribution to a young Leaf squad.


  1. If or when we have an NHL season I truly believe Burke has some trades lined up. Not quite sure Komarov is ready for the NHL right now but I'm willing to be proven wrong, he looked better last night.

  2. MIchael,

    I too wish I had the answers to the enigma that is now Brian Burke. We criticize both his bold trades, and the lack of them. It all comes down to success, Burke hasn't had any here. If he had made the playoffs after acquiring Kessel, he would still have carte blanche. Phaneuf has been pretty much what I envisioned him to be. He certainly isn't the saviour on the blue line that he was advertised as. Or, the best defenseman in the league that Wilson was blathering about. Every time someone makes bold pronouncements, they are doing it as much for their beliefs, as they are for controlling the message and publicity.

    Your question today has me reminiscing about the not so distant past in Leafland. I remember it as if it were yesterday. Lots of money being spent on veteran free agents. These mercenaries, as they were sometimes called, were augmented by periodic injections of youth from the farm. From Owen Nolan, Brian Leetch, Jeff O'Neil to Alex Mogilny. Those were the days. Not only were these guys proven NHL stars, they could for the most part still play the game. They may have been on the down side of their careers, but they sure weren't prospects surrounded by uncertainty. They were known commodities, and as a fan I was excited when they were acquired. I miss that kind of excitement, the new car kind of excitement. Sure I had a car the day before, but today I have a brand new one, and limitless possibilities.

    As a fan I am allowed to be made up of contradictions and inconsistencies. Its ok that when I believed Phil Kessel made us a playoff team, I liked the trade. Now that his contract is almost up and we aren't, I don't. Success changes everything in my mind, something this Leaf team hasn't had.

    We agree that Burke needs to do something bold to improve the team he has built and rebuilt. He also needs to hit a homerun with whatever that move turns out to be. I hope that he doesn't ask me for any ideas, only have one. Trade for Crosby.

  3. I think you're right, markukleaf. As for Komarov, my sense is it will take time for him to get fully accustomed to the North American game. But if he can be a useful agitator, that would be good. Thanks for visiting.

  4. You've very accurately depicted the mood swings of most of us as fans, Jim. So true. Fans have the right to play Monday Morning Quarterback. GM's only get one shot to make a particular deal. Burke has built and re-built, as you put it. He has tried hard to make things better. But as sports people say, this is a results-oriented business, so the bottom line is : has the team had success?

    The Kessel deal is a perfect example, as you mention. If we have "success" with him, we will say it was a good deal. If not, and he leaves in free-agency, and we see Hamilton and Seguin thrill Boston fans for the next decade, I'm not so sure we will look back and applaud.

    Fair or not, we're fans.

    Thanks Jim.

  5. One of the benefits of having the improved system that we've got is now we have the assets to join the conversation if some of these players happen to hit the market.

    I expect that if the cap does fall to the projected $60M that most of the proposals seem to be calling for, there will be some teams who need to divest themselves of players and the Leafs are fairly well positioned to see what shakes loose. I think we'll see Burke at his most aggressive this year -- I just hope he's calculated in the moves he makes.

  6. Exactly, Curt. We know Burke won't make deals for the sake of it but as you suggest, he can certainly look for quality when it becomes available. I still think Bobby Ryan is on his wish list. A lot of things are obviously on the back-burner given the CBA realities. Thanks for chiming in.

  7. With a view to my idea about using a buffer fund to address career-ending injuries (concussion or otherwise) in a manner that removes such players from team caphits and cares for their injured state (i.e. HONOURING CURRENT CONTRACTS THROUGH TO THE END - part of bringing the current CBA to a successful conclusion), a comment by Jim reminded me of something I wrote (but never posted) following the 2010-11 season. It was called:

    The Concussion Case for Crosby

    As I contemplated the recent work that has been accomplished within the context of our beloved Leafs organization…

    Like a bolt of Lightning (no… not Stamkos :) – IT HIT ME… Brian Burke has built an entire, functional team, even if we gave up our best asset (no… not Phil Kessel) in a trade.

    It seems to me that the foundation of much rejoicing in the signing of Clark MacArthur centres more upon the already experienced potential of the entire MGK line, than upon that one part of the sum thereof!

    Our best asset [from 2010-11] is the entire MGK line. 80 goals, 97 assists and 177 points with a combined cap hit of 8.5M [now 11.55M]. The whole is greater than the sum of the parts and would command the attention of anyone considering a trade for their own franchise player.

    Respecting such a player, what kind of situation would have to exist for such a marquee player to be traded?

    Perhaps a team has recently learned that it can be quite successful, even in the absence of their star player; perhaps that player has suffered a significant concussion and the team is unsure that the post-injury player will be as effective (or durable) as the pre-injury version; perhaps the team has another franchise player (Malkin) who is recovering well from his own major injury AND who also has a history (and common language/heritage) with/ knowledge of 2/3 of ‘the asset’ (with GK though not M) that could be pursued in such a trade.

    Does it not appear that Brian Burke seems to be interested in fully ‘North Americanizing’ this team [and with recent comments by other Russians, is this not a justifiable possibility]?

    Has not BB commented that size (think MG) is an issue going forward? Are not both remaining portions of ‘the asset’ (GK) up for contracts in an inflationary [G more, K not so much in retrospect] context following the next [11-12] season?

    Would this not provide a new team with the option to trade, ‘re-up’ or walk away from all [or part of] the asset within 1 to 2 years [still true for M]? Would we not benefit from the presence of a marquee/generational talent, if it were possible to acquire him at 23 [24] (and be more capable – than most – of retaining him in the future)?

    The justification of a trade for Pittsburgh lies in the removal of one phenomenal though phrenologically-challenged Crosby (at 8.7M) and the addition of an entire synergistically-complementary ‘asset’ [at 11.55M – this is where retention of cap hit/salary could figure into such a trade for 12-13]. This leaves the Penguins one player over the roster limit with the option to demote or trade some ‘lesser light’ to us (or another team in a separate deal) for pick(s) or prospect(s).

    Of course, further haggling might cost us such pick(s) or prospect(s), though I actually doubt that would come to pass, primarily because we would also be taking on the ‘liability’ of a once significantly-concussed player.

  8. Talk about daring, InTimeFor62. Lots to think on there! Possible? I don't believe so, but fun to ponder....

  9. A related note on this latter point (and the purpose of the somewhat ambiguous title to this post)… having [Crosby,] Connolly and Lombardi on the team [and Ashton, Percy in the system] may provide a perfect reason to spend some of our team’s excess ‘non-player salary’ abundance on an in-house concussion, rehab specialist.

    If we were to contemplate possibilities on a grander scale, we could even create a foundation that would benefit the hockey (and beyond) community to set up / support a special treatment/ research facility for brain injury – talk about a poster child for a major, positive contribution in the hockey (and beyond) community, not to mention a huge, legitimate PR boon for our oft-maligned Leafs organization.

    Practically, within a more limited context, we could, at least, provide significant care for injured players and that can only benefit our [future Free Agent] profile in the league.

    Further to this, we can lead by example, implementing an obvious solution to so many head injuries. That is by pursuing an INTERNAL POLICY of banning the surface hard shell shoulder / elbow padding and looking into/ developing a modification that would allow for a moderately hard shell to exist on the inner third of the thickness of the padding thickness (i.e. thin pad against the body, semi-hard second layer to protect the wearer from significant injury, then a thicker, soft third layer). Such a proposal continues to protect the player wearing the equipment AND those on the receiving end of significant (or glancing) contact therewith.

    Such an internal policy implementation would provide greater influence and respect-inducing authority at the league meetings on this issue (and would ultimately protect our own previously-concussed assets as we ‘do unto others what we would have them do unto us’).

    In closing, though I would be amongst the many that would seriously miss the likes of ‘the asset’ (all three MGK players are personal favourites and I would always miss them), how else could we make such an amazing acquisition, if not for making such a sacrifice?

    Without further tweaking, we could then have a top six that would look something like this:
    Lupul-Crosby(lefty feeding)-Kessel
    [JVR]-(right feeding) Connolly [until a prospect centre is ready and he's traded at the deadline]- Frattin

    Looking at this lineup, I would expect that any such move for Crosby would foment further tweaking, however we would obviously be opening some opportunities for internal prospects with the remove of our entire ‘second’ line.

    Perhaps we might need a roving protective force for our other splody-brains forwards - but that would be another speculative post altogether!

    Perhaps it will turn out that what “HIT ME” is not unlike the ‘accidental (on purpose [wrote this before we picked up Steckel :)])’ winter classic blind side shoulder clip that even makes my speculation a remote possibility, but even in the absence of a trade for Crosby, it may have been the ‘driving force’ that leads to my advocacy for the team’s consideration:

    Let’s lead the charge to modify equipment and look into the possibility of developing/supporting a cutting-edge centre for brain injury.

    In this way, perhaps all of our musings and speculation can lead to some good in the real world that accompanies our love for the sport and particularly our Leafs.

    Hope this mirrors or consolidates some of the possibilities that are moving through the Leaf BRAIN trust!

  10. Like you, InTimeFor62, I'm one of those voices (as I've stressed in this small corner over the past few years) who has been advocating for smaller equipment, etc. to help in terms of concussions. I'm far from an expert, but the game is so fast now something needs to be done.