3 Years. 7 Months. 14 Days. This is how long it has been since Brian Burke took over the reigns from interim GM Cliff Fletcher. Needless to say, the team Burke inherited on Nov 28 2008 bears little resemblance to the team that ended the 2011/2012 season.
Opinions of what Burke has accomplished with his team, up to this point, are mixed to say the least. I do not pretend to be an insider for this club, or have any insight into the team beyond what I see and read. My opinions often differ from many fans of the blue and white, but it is the unreasonable critics of the team that have recently begun to irritate me. While there are many baseless criticisms of Burke that I have encountered recently, there is one that seems to be the driving point among Leaf fans that are contemplating ‘jumping ship’. The question is as simple as this: What’s the plan?
Here is where opinions differ. Many think Burke doesn’t have a plan and is making it up as he goes along (one of the baseless critiques), while the rest think that he may have a plan, but don’t seem to understand it. This is where I come in; to make sense of it all. I will try to rationalize what you have all seen from Burke and how even some of his more contradicting statements, signings, and trades seem to fit into the plan for the Leafs.
Note: All reasoning from here on out is my interpretation, nothing more.
When Burke first took over the Leafs, it was as if they were nothing more than an expansion team. The team contained possibly 1 true top 6 forward, 1 top 4 defenceman, and no goaltender for the future. To top it all off, our AHL roster contained no more than 4 players who are currently playing at the NHL level (only 2 of those players play over an average of 10 minutes a night currently in the NHL). This is where Burke made a mistake; he overvalued his team. He felt as if the only thing lacking from the roster was an elite scoring forward. Enter Phil Kessel. The acquisition of #81 was Burke’s only true mistake in my eyes, and I’m sure he feels the same (whether or not he chooses to admit it to the media – Reasons for refusing to admit that should be obvious). Granted he screwed up, he is human after all, it could have been far worse. In the end we received a young, gifted scorer, instead of an aging, over-the-hill rental (as his predecessor JFJ would have acquired).
If we can get past the Kessel trade, this is where things start to go uphill. Midway through the season, it is apparent that Burke has realized his mistake in overvaluing his current roster. He sees the huge holes in both his AHL and NHL rosters, and decides it is time to act. Realizing that he no longer has 1st round picks in the next 2 years, he is going to have to build the team up the only way he can; through trades.
Over the next year and a half, Burke’s plan is as simple as this: restock the AHL system, while trying to keep the NHL team competitive (making sure the picks Boston received are as high as possible). Each trade Burke makes is very similar; give up aging players and trade for an NHL calibre player, while also acquiring a piece for the future. The pieces acquired are as follows:
Beauchemin for Lupul, Gardiner
Lebda, Slaney for Lombardi, Franson, 3rd
Mayers, Stajan, White, Hagman, Phaneuf, Sjostrom, Aulie
Kaberle for Liles, Percy, Colborne (different means, but end result)
All of these resulted in a prospect and NHL talent. In that time he also made the following key UFA signings:
Armstrong – 3 years
Crabb – 1 year (later resigned)
Macarthur – 1 year (later resigned)
Brown - 3 years
Connolly – 2 years
Dupuis – 1 year
Boyce – 1 year
People like to pick apart these signings. Most blame Burke because none of these players were able to make a big impact for the club. I do not believe however, that these players were meant to be game-changers in Burke’s book. The NHL players (from both trades and signings) were in the hope of finding some talent that could help us short term while we let our prospects develop in the minors, under the radar. If we happened to catch lightning in a bottle with a few of the trades and signings, then so be it (i.e. Lupul). He found a 1st line D in Phaneuf, a depth defender in Liles, a 2nd/3rd line stop gap in Macarthur, a 4th line grinder in Brown, and a top 6 talent in Lupul. Lombardi, Komisarek, Connolly, Crabb, Dupuis, Armstrong, and Boyce did not work out. The good news? None of them are long term signings. All of these player's contracts are already up, or will be, by the end of this year or next. This paves the way for Burke to begin the phase of moving the young players into the NHL. Players like Frattin, Kadri, Colborne, Blacker, Holzer, Ashton, Biggs, etc... Will all begin making their way into bigger roles with the club. This is a similar to what Ottawa had done.
There is a key difference between Murray and Burke however. That difference is Murray had control of the team before the rebuild started. Burke however received the team from JFJ who completely depleted our assets in the minors. Had we actually had some talent in the AHL level, Burke would not have been forced to acquire some via trades.
Since the Kessel trade, Burke has not traded away many of our draft picks and prospects. He has instead acquired them by ridding us of talent like Beauchemin (Gardiner), Versteeg (1st and 3rd), Kaberle (Colborne, 1st, and 2nd), Stajan et all (Aulie), etc... He has also stuck to his guns and kept our pick (despite the media effort to trade it for the likes of Rick Nash), and drafted who he felt was the best player available.
He is still rebuilding and is doing a fine job of it in my opinion. This is his plan as I see it. You may say he doesn’t have one, fine by me, but don't blame me for seeing what I have just described as a plan. If I am correct, we will see players move up in the coming year, replacing some of the dead weight.
If however, Burke decides to start shipping out some of our key players for the Likes of Luongo, Nash, or Ryan, I may very well change my tune. As it stands however, I see no indication of Burke wavering in his stance to not trade away the future.
Additionally, there is one other point I want to address. Another of the bigger criticisms of Burke has been his inability to add size to the team, as he has often preached as a necessity. I have an explanation for this as well. When Wilson was coach, he implemented a system based around speed and mobility. Players like Kessel, Lombardi, Gardiner, etc… were much more suited for such a system. It would have been unfair to Wilson to try and implement his system without players suited for it. As such, the players Burke acquired were meant for Wilson’s system, and therefore were not the typical Burke-like player.
If you have paid attention to Burke’s semi-pro teams (as well as NHL acquisitions, since Wilson’s departure), you will see a completely different story however:
Joe Colborne: 6’5” 213lbs
Cody Franson: 6’5” 213lbs
Carter Ashton: 6’3” 215lbs
Korbinian Holzer: 6’3” 206lbs
James Van Riemsdyk: 6’3” 190lbs
Tyler Biggs: 6’2” 200lbs
Jake Gardiner: 6'2" 184lbs
Stuart Percy: 6’1” 193lbs
Jesse Blacker: 6’1” 190lbs
Brad Ross: 6’1” 183lbs
Kenny Ryan: 6’0” 209lbs
Matt Frattin: 6’0” 200lbs
Matt Finn: 6’0” 197lbs
Morgan Rielly: 6’0” 190lbs
Greg Mckegg: 6’0” 185lbs
Nazem Kadri: 6’0” 185lbs