Hero Or Villain: Brian Burke In Review


Apr 3, 2012; Buffalo, NY, USA; Toronto Maple Leafs right wing Phil Kessel (81) during the game against the Buffalo Sabres at First Niagara Center. Sabres beat the Leafs 6-5 in overtime. Mandatory Credit: Kevin Hoffman-USA TODAY Sports

Much has been made of Brian Burke’s tenure in Toronto, but what impact will his stay have on the Leafs moving forward?

Burke is most notorious in Leafs Nation for acquiring the young sniper Phil Kessel out of Boston, in exchange for a second-round and two first-round draft picks. Two years later, these picks turned turned out to be Tyler Seguin, Dougie Hamilton and Jared Knight.

One can marvel at those two hugely impactful players lost in the deal, but fail to realize the All-Star talent acquired in Kessel. Not only is Kessel a perennial 30-40 goal scorer, but his all-around game has been picking up over the last year. He’s beginning to play at both ends of the ice as well as using his ability to attract defensemen to cheat to his side before dishing it off to a teammate for a scoring chance. While this trade can be looked at from both angles, overall, it has had a positive affect on the team.

The next big trade on the list of controversy was the block-buster deal which landed Dion Phaneuf. The Leafs sent Matt Stajan, Niklas Hagman, Ian White and Jamal Mayers to Calgary, in exchange for Phaneuf, Kieth Aulie and Fredrik Sjostrom. Other than the hand-cuffing contract brought along with Phaneuf, this trade appeared to hold significant potential.

Acquiring Phaneuf made sense because of the lack of leadership on the Leafs roster. His brash style was also poised to blossom in Toronto. Getting Aulie was a bonus in the trade, to which Burke said the deal wouldn’t have happened without him.  His six-foot, six-inch frame added significant size to the blueline.  Sjostrom came in as a penalty-killing specialist.  This also made a lot of sense as the Leafs were a consistent bottom-feeder in that department.

Enter Jake Gardiner and Joffrey Lupul.

Mar 17, 2012; Ottawa, ON, CAN; Toronto Maple Leafs defenseman Jake Gardiner (51) during warmup prior to game against the Ottawa Senators at Scotiabank Place. Mandatory Credit: Marc DesRosiers-USA TODAY Sports

Burke was able to acquire, then prospect Jake Gardiner, and Joffrey Lupul in exchange for an overpaid and aging Francois Beauchemin. How Burke was able to pull off bringing in the first rounder, Joffrey Lupul and a conditional pick is absolutely unheard of. At the end of the day, Burke was able to bring in an eventual All-Star along with the team’s eventual top defenseman for some deadweight. Not a bad bargain.

Kris Versteeg was another failed project, though he went on to be a top performer in Florida. In Toronto, however, he failed to shine. Was this Burke’s doing, that Versteeg failed to perform in Toronto after being a key part of the Cup-winning team in Chicago?

There’s also another side to the Versteeg deal, his departure. Burke was able to land a first and a third-round pick from Philadelphia for him.  Considering what little he did with the Leafs, that’s another significant move.

So while Leaf fans can look at the four non-playoff seasons and deem it a failure, they can also look at the fact he actually brought in more draft picks and prospects than he let go. And while those same critics are quick to pin the blame of last season’s catastrophe on Burke, they fail to see the progress made just prior.

2011-12 Analysis

Last season saw the Leafs get off to a good start and continue to play well through key injuries, namely James Reimer’s concussion. Reimer started the season with a shutout and 4-0-1 record before missing two months with a concussion.

Swedish up-start Jonas Gustavsson stepped in and silenced his critics; Burke often saying he “salvaged the season.” He pulled off 16 wins in 26 games until that fateful night in Pittsburgh on Jan. 31, 2012.

The Leafs got off to a quick start. Tyler Bozak had a goal waved-off less than two minutes into the game due to goaltender interference. Replays showed it to either be a ghost or the Penguins’ own defenseman who knocked over Marc-Andre Fleury, as Joffrey Lupul stood innocently at the side of the crease. Nonetheless, the Leafs out-skated Pittsburgh to a 4-1 lead with just over 13 minutes remaining in regulation.

Cue the meltdown.

January 31, 2012; Pittsburgh,PA, USA: Pittsburgh Penguins center Evgeni Malkin (71) moves in against Toronto Maple Leafs goalie Jonas Gustavsson (50) during the shootout at the CONSOL Energy Center. The Pens won 5-4 in a shootout. Mandatory Credit: Charles LeClaire-USPRESSWIRE

Despite calling the apparent interference on the Leafs early in the game, the officiating crew missed two more obvious calls late in the third period.  Two of them goals, including Evgeni Malkin’s tying goal with just seconds on the clock, as he skated through the crease and through Gustavsson to deflect it in the net. Either way, the Leafs completely imploded in front of Gustavsson in the latter half of the third period and again in overtime, where he’d make two game-saving stops. One of which, caused a break the other way and saw Kessel miss a gaping net. Malkin, as fate would have it, ended it in the shootout.

For whatever reason, then head coach Ron Wilson appeared to attribute the loss to goaltending and opted for James Reimer the following night.  Reimer pitched a shutout and had appeared to re-solidify his starting position as the Leafs rattled off three consecutive wins with hm between the pipes.

Gustavsson’s number was called in a back-to-back night scenario in Winnipeg. The MTS Centre proved to be one of the most difficult places to play and the Leafs suffered a 2-1 loss. Reimer was given the nod for the next game versus the Flyers and again against the Canucks. The Leafs were blown out of Vancouver in a 6-2 romp as the pendulum once again swung in net for Toronto.  Gustavsson came in relief in that game and started the next, but after losing, Wilson went back to Reimer and so the snowball rolled.

The turning point of the season was the question mark in net, no question. But is that really the fault of the GM?

Wilson’s lose-and-you’re-out rotation proved to be the kick-start to the downfall of the season. Both goalies played great and won games until the mess in February.  Each proved they could take the load and win games in stretches, so why the sudden rotation?  The chart shows this point of the season to be the turning point. Coincidence?

Given the fact that the Leafs were a respectable playoff-contending team 12 months ago, why is Burke being nailed to the cross for the failed seasons?

Could he have done more in the way of free agency and veteran leadership? Absolutely, but he built a good enough team to contend as of last year, thanks largely to the Gardiner and Lupul trade. Does this really warrant the axe just days before a 48-game season?

It is my belief Leafs GM Dave Nonis will not make any significant moves to drastically improve the Leafs this season. He had no off-season to materialize anything and has only months to generate anything in the way of trades. This is why the Burke firing makes no sense from a technical standpoint.

If the Leafs make the post-season, it will have been by the sweat of Brian Burke and the staff under him.