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.
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
I'm not sure that being tall and heavy automatically qualifies the players as a Burke-like player though. I don't disagree with everything you've said, but, I don't believe anyone in that list besides maybe Biggs is a "Burke-like" player. Pugnacity, truculence and all that other stuff isn't in the vocabulary of hardly any of those guys on the list there..... d
and I think that's the real issue. Do you expect that the leafs will be able to show up any differently against Boston than they did last year? That's where I think Burke has lost his way, he preached all the ideals of assembling a team that's tough to play against, and I really believe they are far from being that still.
Ashton, Biggs, and Holzer are the typical Burke type. Then there are the players that can use their body and also put the puck in the net: Ross and Frattin. Then there are jsut the large players that don't fully use their size to their potential but but will be hard to push around: Franson, Colborne, JVR.
I don't mind the addition of size, considering the style of play in the NHL now.One thing to note is that the Leafs weren't that bad offensively last season. They were 9th in Goals For. Granted, there's room for improvement, but at least there were 21 teams that were worse.However in the Save Percentage list of league goaltenders, the Leafs 2 main goalies ranked 64th
I am of the opinon that with a proper defensive system, that numbr will change drastically. Never had a real system under Wilson. Look at Phoenix and Nashville. They alwasy just seem to have an elite goalie. Coincidence? Guess we'll have to wait to see if I'm right though.
Great blog. Completely agree. The sky is not falling. Cupboard is being stocked. As for the first commenter....Brad Ross isn't a Burke type player?42G 40A and 163PIM?
Ross is the leafs next Tucker
And thanks for the kind words
Ya not all those guys are burke guys but more than just biggs are. Biggs, Ross, Ashton, Kolzer and Finn are all pretty tough cookies
Fighting doesn't win games, so truculence is useless. If it did win games there'd be a lot of fighting in the playoffs instead of in the preseason. The leafs are finally actually drafting in the first round though, so maybe they'll pick up some skill and make the playoffs in a few years.
I know that we say this every year. we show glimmers of what we know that our team can be. Then it ends up being a false start, or a late start. I truly think that we are going to see a team over the next two years that will be competitive. I am not going to say we will be a powers house, but I think that the hockey our guys play is actually going to be easier to watch.
Agreed great blog, love the insight. Burke is building this team methodically while also making key acquisitions when he can. There is a reason the Marlies nearly won the Calder Cup, and it isn't because of JFJ. Burke realizes success in the minors often translates into success with the big club. And I think the goaltending would be much better with a proper defensive system, and Reimer staying healthy.
The key missing piece, and where I think Burke took his eye off the ball, is goaltending. For a guy who builds his teams from the net out, he may have even dropped the ball. He seems to have overvalued the talent we have in that area. The rest I'm inclined to agree with. But the goalie position needs to be addressed if this emerging team is expected to truly compete.
If posts are too long they won't show up. Try breakign them up into separate posts
We actually parlayed the Kaberle pick with our 39th overall to Anaheim to move to 22nd. So we actually got Liles,Colbourne and Biggs for Kaberle. We got Percy and Josh Leivo for Kris Versteeg
Other than that, great mini-article. I completely agree, Burke takes too much shit. The Kessel trade knocked us back a couple of prospects. But we also got a sniper coming off an EL deal. If we re-sign him and our prospects pan out with Kessel, then how does it look?
In fairness to the Maple Leafs and I hate to do this and compare them to the Ottawa Senators but looking at the Sens AHL affiliate winning the Calder Cup last year. Bpearl mentioned that AHL success creeps into big club success. With our success this year in the minors lets hope we can do as the Sens did and have success this year in the NHL.
Good article. I agree with you. I think Burke is doing a good job at making the leafs strong for the future. It's just hard to watch when you want a winning team right now.