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Is it time for Leaf ownership to bring in a new management team?

By the end of the 2011-’12 NHL season, media pundits who are supposedly “in the know” were opining that Brian Burke’s job in Toronto was safe.  But they almost all hedged their bets by adding that longer-term, it would depend on how the Leafs did this coming (though now delayed/soon-to-be-cancelled?) season.

In other words, if the Leafs made the playoffs in 2012-’13, all would be well again in Shangri-Leafland.  Some “experts” even suggested that if the Leafs “almost” made the top 8 in the Eastern Conference and played fairly well during the regular-season, Burke would still be given an extension.

There seemed to be a general consensus that, if the Leafs missed the playoffs badly and did not play well this season, a change could be in the offing, especially given the new ownership group that has taken over the Leafs.

At the end of the day, it doesn’t much matter what media folks think or expect will or won’t happen.  They’re not Leaf fans.  I’m interested in hearing what you believe Leaf ownership should do, especially now that the current season is in peril.

I raise this now, in part, because Burke may not have another season to “prove” his team is on the right (or wrong) track.  All new ownership has to look at is that, in the almost four full years that Burke has been in place as GM of the Leafs, the organization has not hosted a single playoff game, much less won a playoff game—or goodness, a series.

So by next May, when the season would normally be ending, we will be right where we are now.  A team that has as its best “storyline” that it has some can’t miss (questionable emphasis is mine) prospects that will save the day—some day.  Maybe it’s Jake Gardiner, maybe it’s Nazem Kadri,  or perhaps Joe Colborne or Carter Ashton.  If you’re a super-patient fan, maybe it’s Morgan Rielly.

Here’s a question:  four years into this regime, with all the talk, all the sous-chefs that give us the most bloated NHL front-office imaginable—and given that we may not see any NHL hockey for a year or so—is this the time for ownership to make a move and bring in someone to take this team in a new and different direction?

We all remember that, coming out of the last lockout, under then still relatively new GM John Ferguson Jr., the Leafs emerged with a roster that was long on “slow”—when the rule changes meant what was needed was speed in the new de-clogged, somewhat de-trapped NHL.  Over time, it became even more evident that the Leafs were one of the franchises that had not planned successfully and did not make the transition to a cap world as comfortably they should have.

When Burke arrived in November, 2008, most Leaf observers were only too happy to lay all the blame on his predecessor.  Burke came in loud, confident and sounded, how shall I put this, very….ah, certain.

He wasn’t just sure of himself, he was absolutely convinced that his way was the right way.  He kept telling us he had this successful blueprint (hey, he won a Cup in Anaheim, although Bryan Murray had done a ton of the legwork), so we lapped up his wisdom.

On a team crying for talent and excitement, he brought us Phil Kessel.  So happy to finally have a new toy, Leaf supporters widely applauded the move as bold.  Then he shocked us with an unexpected bomb, acquiring Phaneuf from the Flames for what felt like a bag of pucks.  (In fairness, Ian White, as I’ve said here before, was a Leaf I really liked…)

Leaf fans thought Burke had to be the smartest guy in the history of organized hockey.

Those who follow this site know this has never been my perspective, though I have long conceded Burke has done some good things in his tenure as Leaf GM.  But I’ve also been increasingly concerned as time has worn on that Burke’s ego-driven agenda is harming the franchise.  Others don’t see it that way and think I’m way off base.

So I’m throwing it over to you today:  you tell me what you think.  Look at his record (one playoff series win in 11 years as a GM in his two “rebuild” projects—Vancouver and Toronto); his success at “building his teams from the back”; his trades (some very good); his drafting; his hubris.

I applaud everything Burke has done to support issues that are dear to him in a public and courageous way.  He is a fearless, tough and smart individual—and a historically shrewd hockey executive.

But when he uttered the now famous words that former goalie coach was essentially “out of touch” and hadn’t kept up, a light bulb was re-ignited in my mind.  Is that what we have in Burke—a guy that has held on to “his” way for so long that he has come to believe his way it is indeed the only way?

Throw in his often-changing stance on a variety of things (for example, no patience for a five-year re-build, yet his approach eventually morphed into exactly that, at best), which I’ve highlighted here many times in the past, and for me, it presents a very confusing picture.  Are his views simply evolving according to the changing game,  or is he a guy that just keeps changing his mind?

What should ownership do?

Is a lockout in fact the perfect time to bring in someone new, to build the team into a true contender? Someone who won’t just talk about (for four years running) bringing in a first-line center but actually does it.  Someone who won’t just talk about having a tough (and I don’t mean Colton Orr) team and brings in guys who actually play that way.  Someone who says he builds from the back and then drafts, signs or trades for a truly elite superstar goalie—as the Leafs did almost 15 years ago with Curtis Joseph.

And someone who recognizes that while acquiring prospects sounds nice and is important, and winning in the AHL is neat and all that, what you also need are hard-edged veterans who know how to win and will pull guys with questionable desire (like Kesel) beyond what they normally thought they could achieve.

Yes, the Leafs will have to be ready, post-lockout, for some new thinking.  Is now the time for a new vision- and a new man in charge?  Or is Burke the right guy to lead the way.

I’m going to leave this post up here for a couple of days.  I hope there is some interesting discussion and (respectful) debate.


  1. I can't see any advantage to firing him now, especially if there is no NHL season this year. Burke still has another year left after this season

    Let's at least wait until the season starts and see if the team starts to go in the wrong direction.

    At present all we have is the Marlies and Burke and his group seem to being an adequate job there. The Marlies were in the final.

    I actually like many of the prospects Burke has assembled. I could see them starting to pay off in the near future.

  2. Michael,

    That is a lot to mull over. For the most part we agree on Burke, what he has done and that we are growing tired of the message. Neither of us are as enamored of him as we may have once been. I know that is how I feel for certain. I was a huge believer when he got here. And after JFJ, I don't blame myself one bit. He has oversold and under-delivered, big time.

    I would like to mention the hierarchy at MLSE and what they will, or will not do in the near future. They gave Burke the keys to the kingdom and I am not sure that anyone above him in the organization knows that he is on the right path or not. No matter whether they decide to bring in someone new or keep Burke, the job with the team remains the same. Get to the playoffs. They have to decide whether or not he is capable of getting the Leafs there, or not. Yes, they have prospects, the question is are they better than the ones that the other 29 teams have? He honestly has shown very little in the way of being the right man for the job. Except for his ability to stay in the news while putting forth a mediocre hockey product. And when we get down to it, MLSE is all about the money, they make gobs of it. Getting rid of him will cost them serious dollars. For the next three seasons, at $3 million per. Big money to the men that make the decisions. Not as much as another Komisarek contract that Burke may hand out, but I digress. No idea what another GM would cost, maybe Doug Maclean would take the job on the cheap.

    I am going to ignore all the hyperbole from Burke. All of the "I" crap that we are sick of listening to. Pretend for a moment that the Leafs got a new GM last year. It doesn't matter who, lets just pretend and evaluate the team.

    The Teams' record last year was terrible. There have been no impact signings re:free agents this summer. One reasonable sized trade, a potential impact forward in return for a dman who honestly wasn't going to get better in Toronto. Wait and see perhaps what the new CBA brings. I am not sure if this is the right move, but I don't think the team can afford to sit around watching other teams get better. Yet, that is what they are doing.

    Ownership in my opinion should make a clean break and hire someone with 'new' ideas about the workings of an NHL team. This would mean that Dave Nonis and the stable of other management types needs to be shown the door as well. Unless of course there was some huge disconnect there as well. That we may not hear about for a while. Maybe another call to Mr. Allaire would shed some light on this one too.

    MLSE will of course, not fire Burkie. They will keep him until his contract runs out. Two reasons being, they are cheap and don't want to pay two people to do one job. And, that I still think they believe the hype, and in their decision to give him the job in the first place.

  3. Thanks DP- I'll count you as a Burke guy.

  4. Jim, I agree that MLSE will not fire him. But what you posted is what I'm looking for: for those who follow the team to take a step back away from the hype (which ownership still seems to buy...) and assess what has been done here in four years. Thanks.

  5. "Thanks DP- I'll count you as a Burke guy."

    I don't think I am a Burke guy. I see his flaws and hubris. I recognize that he might be as outdated as Allaire. He could be yesterday's man.

    I'm just willing to give Burke a little more rope in light of the lockout...but it's getting close to the stroke of midnight.

    If the team doesn't come through soon and the prospects fail to deliver over the next 12 months then fire Burke, especially if there is a better replacement.

  6. I'm willing to give Burke two more years. Looking at the moves he has made it has seemed to me since early on that Burke's target date for the big step ahead is 2013-14 season. After this season, the Leafs cap situation looks pretty good with almost 30 mil to spend (based on the current cap). Add to that a prospective bumper crop of free agents and the potential for much player movement as teams get compliant to a new cap, and I think he's set the team up for a great opportunity this time, diametrically opposite to the situation coming off the last lockout.

    As well, he's really only had 3 years, at best call it 3+. The first year he came aboard midstream with the roster of both the Leafs and other teams already set. Any GM should get 5 years, if nothing else to allow their prospects to develop into big league players.

    There's no doubt a number of Burke's moves have not worked out as well as hoped (Komisarek, Connolly, Lebda...) but realistically in each case these mistakes had minimal effect on the team long-term, just being money spent that wouldn't necessarily have been used otherwise. I refuse to call the Kessel trade a mistake, because conventional wisdom says the team getting the best player wins the deal and for the past 3 years Kessel has definitely been the best player. Saying Boston won the deal cause they got a Cup afterwards is disingenuous, I think they would've won with Kessel instead of Seguin too.

    Unfortunately, the most troubling signs from the Leaf camp are more recent, with the Allaire debacle, the handling of Kadri as a whole and particularly the recent flareup, the implosion of Ron Wilson, and the failure to shore up the goaltending as the biggest black marks against Burke in my eyes. The bravado and bluster I could care less about, I generally hold great contempt for most of the media coverage of the team. I must admit that more recent public statements from the Leaf management have been wearing thin with me though.

    All in all I'd give Burke an "incomplete" with an eye towards the next offseason. Definitely though, it's time to shut up and show us what you've got.

  7. Sorry for mis-casting you, DP. I do recall your earlier posts regarding your views on Burke. I should have said you were in favour of giving him a bit more time. Thanks.

  8. An excellent post, Bobby Paradise. Thanks for taking the time to share your perspective.

    Let's see how some others feel.....

  9. I like what Burke has done here to an extent. He's shown that he can pull off the big deal, even when the risk is large (aka Kessel deal). I admire that because he had balls to pull it off. Besides if this team had finished exactly where most people expected them to (right around 7-10 in the East) we'd be talking about a couple of 1st rounders from 10-20.

    I don't have beef with that or his FA signings for the same reason Bobby above me posted. It's pretty clear with that there is no 'given' with the players on this team. Everyone has to earn their shot or their shipped off (like the 2009-10 roster) or the way they haven't just given Kadri a roster spot although the recent calling out I believe was just simply a blunder on Eakins part. Dumb but everyones human at the end of the day. I like that no player is just contempt with being here (aka Blue and White disease).

    What I strongly disagree with though, is that the management, on the other hand, does seem to have this sense of entitlement. Why keep Wilson around for so long if he doesn't fit your philosophy? I could get one season if your type of guy isn't available but seriously? His loyalty to his coaching staff and management is too much. Apparently offering Allaire three contract extensions after this season? If he's so 'outdated' then why offer it to him ever? As much as getting the right players on the team is important, you have to make sure that you can surround the players with the right guys to make sure it doesn't fall apart. I feel that a large part of our collapse this past season was because of the dissession within the coaching staff, which caused a rift. Wilson and his assistants were doing anything they could do to save their jobs even if it meant interference elsewhere. Burke should have fixed this problem a long time ago. Otherwise, I think everything else he's done has been ok at the very least. I give him a C- though, since we haven't seen positive results though.

  10. Really good and detailed post, Sasko. I appreciate your observations. The Wilson thing (as I've noted here before) baffled me as well. Thanks.

  11. BB's one year contract to rw should not be rated as a mistake but as an acceptable golden hand shake. BB was saddled with rw by Fletcher.
    The two a diametrically opposite on how the game should be played. BB accepted the responsibity and towed the line for his friend/ coach, looking like clueless while preaching truculence and trading for speed. He gave his coach a chance to succeed now, while most of his future drafts were built for size and toughness.
    He waited for a fair chance to let his friend go while he built for the future. At the end he gave his coach a one paid year to seek employment somewhere else. Just like a bonus that companies pay to their CEO's when they leave ( can anyone say RICHARD PEDDIE!!!)
    Who knows how much influence rw had on the Kessle trade ( kessle will never be a bb's type of player, but BB will never admit it publicly)'
    He was loyal to his friend/coach to the end. I wish a had friends like BB.
    BB should be judged on his next 3 years and not before. May he live long and prosper!!!

  12. The lockout situation makes me wary. Not because I feel it would be unfair to fire Burke during the lockout, but because it would put the new guy in an odd position. We don't know when NHL will be back, and there's not going to be player movement with no CBA in place. I suppose the new GM would have time to set up his non-playing staff, but nobody there could really do much at this time, either. I would have happily fired Burke the second the regular season closed, and if come spring the Leafs will not have playoffs to gear up to come next spring, whether it is because the Leafs haven't been good enough or because there actually are no playoffs, he has, for me, done absolutely nothing to warrant an extension. Also, if he starts pushing for extension before he has earned one, that'd seem like a good reason to let him go before the end of his contract.

    Burke must bear his share of blame for the Leafs failings, both on the ice and in the backroom. Either that, or he has been borderline irrelevant. I don't see why he should keep on making big money in either case.

  13. Yes, I'm not sure, CGLN, that a change now (during a lockout) would necessarily be well-timed. Nor am I suggesting a change needs to be made.

    But I do think it's fair to look back on Burke's four years on the Job and assess results. I mostly wanted to gauge people's views at this point. Thanks for posting.

  14. Hi Michael,

    You are well aware of my feelings towards Burke.

    He seems to always look to Anaheim as a solution to the Leafs struggles. Need a goaltender? Giguerre. Need a goalie coach? Allaire? Need an NHL coach? Carlyle. Need to make trades? Anaheim. He did get Gardiner out of the Lupul deal, however, that would never have happened if the Ducks did not have Justin Schultz in the pipeline.
    I am waiting for him to announce that the Leafs are now called "The Mighty Maple Leafs of Toronto".

    We have done nothing but tread water for 4 years and I don't see that changing.

    Perhaps now would be a good time to make changes. There will be no hockey this year, why not get on with it?


  15. Yes, I know your views on this one, Brad (cbh747) but I appreciate your dropping by. Thanks.

  16. Off topic, but pretty funny if you have a couple minutes to spare:

  17. We fans sometimes are way too emotional and reactive when in reality we lack much of the internal workings or information that is not readily made public. We draw opinions on limited data and emotionally swayed by the press and screams in displeasure when the teams under perform and cannot fathom why it didn't work out. But in sports, there are just too many variables and unfortunately, the Leafs it seems, has come up on the wrong side more often than not. My favorite is that the Leafs is a corporation that don't care about winning which really is so far from the truth that 360 degree later, people start to believe it. The logic defies the reality that winning will produce more revenue. Something I am sure the suites are keenly aware.

    That said and from what I do know through observations, if I was the owner of the Leafs, I would allow Burke to continue. Be it he would be on a very short leash. As much as what I feel are his "failures" in the past 4 years, it is no doubt in my mind that the Leafs when viewed in it's entirety, is a better team since his arrival. There are holes, sometimes glaring but nonetheless the team has shown improvements under his watch in a personnel sense. No doubt it has been a long process and no one saw some of the moves backfired. But hindsight is always 20/20. So even with some of the mistakes which can be solved with the money, Burke has done well. The blow back he has had to endure is mostly of his own doing when bravado or egocentric diatribes are what we come to expect from him, which is unfortunate.

  18. I like that post very much- fair and thoughtful.

    Thanks Lukas.

  19. I agree with Lukas in that there is no sense of entitlement within the Leafs' franchise. There is a desire to win, absolutely, but there is no "know-how". Burke wants to win, absolutely, but he doesn't want to win any other way but his own. Call it Broad Street Burkes or Burke Street Bullies or whatever.

    He hasn't been a GM who builds towards his vision, he has been doing his best to enforce it, and that's where he fails. He has a vision, sure, but he doesn't have the know-how to understand that he doesn't need famous names to make it work, but likeminded people instead. That's what Burke has done, hiring names and statistics without understanding that those names and statistics mean zip without understanding how things work. Burke's mind sees things very simply; you get Kessel, a potential 40-goal, PPG-player, enforce a mean streak, and you have a new Bobby Clarke. And don't anybody tell me that there was no attempt to make Kessel into a meaner on-ice presence than he is (or could ever be), there were some embarrassing scuffles early on. He does have a mean wrister, but he was never going to be the new Wendel Clark. Which was probably a very disappointing revelation to Brian Burke. That was probably the first time someone failed his vision within his tenure in the Maple Leafs. Surely he did not misinterpret anything, since that would indicate a failing of his own?

    Well, it doesn't work like that. Not anymore, at least. You just can't bully your way into a Stanley Cup, not even into the playoffs. Even in Anaheim, Burke's contribution was the Pronger trade. And Pronger was suspended twice, if memory serves, in the playoffs that year. I'd even go as far as to say Ducks won their single Cup in spite of Burke, but certainly not because of him.

    Half a year after telling the media the Leafs have the best goalie coach on the planet, he says Allaire was stuck in the past because his butterfly-oriented style wasn't good enough with the rule changes that had been made much earlier on, and there are still people left who buy that? Allaire, of course, very correctly pointed out that his coaching orientation was case-dependent, which is obvious if you look even at the highlights of Reimer, Gus and Scrivens. Oh my, I could go on...

    But there is no blue-and-white disease, from the owners to the fans, I believe, everyone wants to see the Leafs win. Burke has brought his own backwards disease into the franchise, and since he's a proven windbag, that disease is not going to go away until he does. So yeah, right now might not be the best time to see Burke go, but any time is better, for me, than seeing him stay for any single hubris-filled statement longer.

    Ah, now I'm full of it, again. But thanks, Michael, I kind of enjoy getting passionate about the Leafs even in this day when there's very little reason to do so. Your blog allows me this small pleasure.

  20. My own view CGLN is that there has never really been a rampant blue and white disease, or a sense of entitlement in the Toronto market when it comes to the Leafs. (I will take a step back and say that Ballard, in some ways, did take fans for granted at the ownership level...) I think ownership wants to win, even the corporate "stuffed shirts". Who doesn't want even higher revenues and profits?

    Every GM and coach I've followed since the late '50s has wanted to win- badly. The vast majority of the players have worn the sweater as proudly as they can. We may not have been good enough some years (decades?) but it was rarely from lack of effort.

    For me it's a very nuanced reality, not an entitlement issue. Players love being a Maple Leaf, sure. And maybe they sometimes take advantage of their celebrity status, but most all athletes do in all sports, in whatever market they play in. I don't think Burke and Wilson had to "cure" anything when they arrived- they just had a job to do because the team they inherited wasn't very good.

    Wilson failed, without question. He had plenty of time to turn the team around and have at least limited success. As for Burke, I can't credit him with much, either. One good trade (Gardiner) but even the Phaneuf deal has not led to a reversal of form. If anything, under Phaneuf's "leadership", the team has struggled even worse than before, given the supposedly improved talent.

    So we're left with a GM who bristles at criticism and who can't avoid a fight (see Cherry, Allaire, Strachan, Lowe and countless others). His vision? None of us have been able to follow the bouncing ball.

    I don't expect MLSE's new owners will make a change- but I'm this close to saying that I'd prefer a different climate at the top...

  21. Michael, the hockey market in Toronto is simply the highest-pressure one on the planet. There are actually very few cities in the world where hockey is the number one sport. I think Burke rode into town confident of his success, and his mind was basically blown as the success didn't simply follow him when he came around.

    His biggest downfall was allowing Wilson to stick around for far too long, when it was obvious he couldn't turn us around, lowering the market value of both of them. I can't see a future for Wilson in the NHL anymore, but Burke will probably find a new job just because of he's a very charismatic person. And woe betide who hires him. Hopefully it'll be the Habs.

    As far as I'm concerned, we should have an open headhunting season for a new top man going on right now. Burke had his chance, and he failed. Miserably.

  22. I think you're right that Burke expected (assumed?) he would have success much quicker, CGLN. It's more difficult than he thought to get it right, when building from a difficult position. He couldn't do it in Vancouver, and won in Anaheim with a team that had been built by Bryan Murray, though he added pieces.

  23. Exactly. Komisarek was his new perceived Pronger. I don't think he's ever commented too much on Komi, except that "he's had injury problems". Fact is, Komisarek, to me, never looked like much, but he had a good season with the Habs in a fairly limited role pairing with Andrei Markov, who is, when not injured, a damned good d-man. He covered Markov fairly well. Burke thought he was a great catch because he occasionally threw hits while playing a covering role. Then he expected Komi to become a dominant d-man in his own accord, and that's not something Komi could ever be. Komi can be a decent number 2-5, depending on his pairing, but all he'll ever be is a decent support.

    Burke signs Colton Orr for a million per season, not understanding that his time was over a decade ago. Granted, Sather signed Boogaard for even more, but it all went bad. And while Sather is obviously a man living in the 80's, he's had more success in his career than Burke ever will. And he's been better than Burke by far since the latter came to the Leafs.

    I've always been a bit wary of Don Cherry and his favoritism of "good Canadian boys" and whatnot. But he finds his mark often enough, and he slammed the Leafs of how Kadri has been handled. How Burke has handled Cherry in the past? Well, he's tried to go behind the scenes and all, that's all telling me he doesn't even deserve this job. The man is a lawyer by trade, and he actually tries to get Grapes off the air. How daft (and desperate) does it get?

    I simply don't understand the people who still back Burke. The man has done nothing good at all. Granted, the Phaneuf trade wasn't bad, but it did not make us winners. If our roster is so much better now than it was before, how come it doesn't translate into points?

  24. I learned many years ago that no one in management is indiepensible - except for Steve Jobs of Apple.

    This question has been dragging along for a long time. Disregarding Burke's Bluster, his team's performance over the past few years would rank him in the lower third of GMs despite the financial success of MLSE. By this time, if performance on the field was the decision factor, in business he would be gone.

    By this in time we should be able to make a yes/no decision, not Maybe. There are a number of GMs who have faced equally dismal situations as the Leafs and made the playoffs. It would appear to this distant reviewer that Burke is no longer a positive force. This constant 'Maybe' situation is one that actually becomes a corrosive and dividing factor.

    Obviously, MLSE needs to be very careful in dropping the hammer. I would expect he is a key part of their CBA position. Further, the team does not need a complete overhaul as they did last time. Also, a rookie GM is not the answer. Further, they need to have a good idea who the successor will be.

    Note: MLSE management needs to have a serious talk with Mr. Burke about where the Leafs are and where they are going.

    It would seem to me that there are a number of proven GMs who would relish the challenge of leading the Leafs. My choice would be Maloney and Tippett - Coyotes probably need an influx of cash. I will leave timing to those who are closer to the situation.

  25. There are some excellent hockey people out there, I agree, RLMcC. I recognize that the timing of any decision by ownership right now is not ideal given the lockout, but I thought it would be a good time to at least have the conversation about the future of the franchise. I appreciate your thoughts. Thanks.