The next three weeks will help to solidify the image that will be the 2012-2013 edition of the Toronto Maple Leafs. The hope is that they resemble the 2011-2012 Ottawa Senators, the fear is that they may look more like the 2011-2012 Toronto Maple Leafs. The General Manager of the club in 2004 was John Ferguson Jr, the last time the Maple Leafs played a meaningful spring game. Mats Sundin was the captain, Pat Quinn the coach. The Buffalo Sabres were bankrupt, as were the Ottawa Senators. There were four less teams with their name on the Stanley Cup (Tampa Bay, Carolina, Anaheim, Los Angeles) and the New York Rangers had the highest payroll in the NHL followed by the Leafs. Since that time we have seen Ferguson replaced with Fletcher on an interim basis, followed by the hiring of Burke.
This last four years under Brian Burke have been interesting. It was has truly been an exercise in “be careful what you wish for”, as he has been exactly the opposite of what most fans in Toronto had expected. He was loud and bombastic, but his teams were always good. The Canucks had only missed the playoffs once under his watch. The Ducks never missed, and won a Stanley Cup making him the King of Anaheim. Since arriving in Toronto, he has been less Punch Imlach first edition, and more Harold Ballard late edition.
With his first draft he boldly declared that he was going to move heaven and earth to select John Tavares, the projected top pick in the 2009 draft. He fell flat on his face with all efforts to move up and selected Nazem Kadri, a very talented young man that has turned into one of largest projects in the early round of that draft. This followed the incident that may have defined his tenure in Toronto, which he claimed he had a trade to announce with the Boston Bruins that would send Phil Kessel and Boston’s first round selection to Toronto for Tomas Kaberle. Regrettably, he misunderstood the trade that he orchestrated and was supposed to send the number seven pick (ultimately Nazem Kadri) back to the Bruins. This was then followed by a calculated move that was the first strikeout as manager, the actual Kessel trade, which sent what ended up being the #2 and #32 picks in the 2010 draft, and the #10 pick in the 2011 draft.
In his defense, Kessel has been every bit as good as one could hope since arriving, even with a group of castoffs around him many nights. The free agent signings are well documented, I can’t recall a single one that started or ended on a good note. His trading ability did improve bringing in Malcontent Dion Phaneuf for what most would consider non critical parts. Same goes for Joffrey Lupul and Justin Bieber fan Jake Gardiner for Francios Beuchemin, a player that did not look to have a long future in the city. His allegience to former head coach Ron Wilson was both admirable and maddening, as is the approach of trying to play “run and gun” hockey without the proper tools in place to make it successful.
The one aspect of Burke management that comes as the largest surprise is the lack of proper research and attention given to the goaltending. The Dan Cloutier era in Vancouver may be the one thing that defined his legacy there, and the idea that he would continue to twist in the wind in Toronto while going through seven goalies over four years really is puzzling. This is not to entirely blame him, Vesa Toskala was inherited, but it was Burke that gave him more than a ringing endorsement as the starter. Same goes for Jonas Gustavsson, who I still believe will be a quality NHL goaltender under the right circumstances. Letting J.S. Giguere walk last year to leave two players that had not played a full season combined in net was worse than unacceptable. To speak of doing the same next season is borderline insanity. If his philosophy on coaches, meaning that young and inexperienced in this city just does not work, why not the same with his most important position?
The next two weeks will shape what next year looks like, and the draft picks will more than likely have nothing to do with it. The one positive in his tenure has been his hesitance to rush younger players into the NHL roster. The next group of draft picks are almost certain to spend time back at the junior level this year, and that is a good thing. There may be three or four players from the Marlies roster worthy of promotion after the Calder Cup run.
The Bigger focus Burke must have this year is on improving the hockey club. His activities in the last two years run more in line with what a team president would be doing, and maybe the best thing for all involved is if he was moved into that position. Dave Nonis may have a better sense of the hockey operation at this time, and without some of the philosophical disadvantages that Burke has placed on himself. I can’t be the only one feeling a little frustrated that based on his unwillingness to sign a long term contract with a player, many of the best players in free agency have simply gone elsewhere. It get’s a little old watching each July as players like Colby Armstrong and Tim Connolly, guys that are little past there best used by date are the ones in Toronto after watching the top of the free agent class go to Philadelphia and New York. What is the sense of claiming an advantage with the amount of money MLSE has if you never intend to use it?
No matter what happens this summer, the results had better improve. If they don’t, Burke may not have to worry about long term contracts in Toronto any longer.