It's been an inescapably quiet summer for Brian Burke and his boys in blue. The Toronto Maple Leafs are currently being shut out on the trade front, have whiffed on every prized free agent on the market and, as is customary with the franchise, the team has largely ignored addressing its unmistakably glaring needs for a top-line center and a quality goaltender.
If the number of free agents linked to the club over the past few seasons was converted into a batting average, based on who actually
signs with the team, the Leafs would be batting like .005 (five out of one thousand seems about right).
Burke has managed to sign one notable player this off-season (and I use the term "notable" loosely, of course): Jay McClement, a third- or fourth-line center (because the team apparently doesn't have enough bottom-six forwards on the roster; since the Leafs will be playing a healthy portion of their games in their own end anyway, they might as well stockpile like eight guys, who all play the exact same position, to win a damn face-off, right?). He also inked Matt Frattin to a two-year contract (but frankly, who cares?).
The Leafs failed to make the playoffs last season, marking another early trip to the fairway. That roster had an exceedingly difficult time playing consistent hockey; come away with nothing this off-season, and expect the same damn result.
Burke, for all the nothingness that he's done this summer, has been receiving praise from local media outlets ... for all the nothingness he has done this summer:
Only in Toronto.
OK, I get the fact that you were burned by shipping boat loads of cash to eternally marginal players like Colby Armstrong, Francois Beauchemin, Tim Connolly and Mike Komisarek. I get that. I do. But to disregard the free agent market because of that, it's just remarkably absurd.
Competitive teams can afford to stay inactive at the draft, remain stagnant on the trade front, and sit on the sidelines during the Free Agent Frenzy period; Burke does not have that luxury.
He has to make something
happen this off-season.
The Leafs GM has already assertively stated that he's confident and content with James Reimer as the team's starting goalie. Don't believe that for a second. He has to publicly back his current starter, in case he's unable to reel in Roberto Luongo.
Ultimately, Luongo will be the variable that will define the Leafs' season. With Luongo in net, the Leafs make the playoffs. And at this point, that's all the city requires of you, Burke. You get them to the bracket and you're regarded as a god among men. They'll throw a parade in your honor. Then give you a 25-year extension (never mind that you'll be 82 when that contract expires). Like a hot chick, you'll never have to pay for a drink in your life again.
But in typical Burke-like fashion, he's seemingly managed to screw this up.
It is now rumored that Florida is the leading candidate in the Luongo Sweepstakes. Now here's a team with a capable starter (Jose Theodore); a quality reserve (Scott Clemmensen), who can also rack up two dozen appearances; and a talented kid in the minors (Jacob Markstrom). AND THEY'RE THE FRONTRUNNERS TO LAND LUONGO. Over the Leafs. Think about that for a second.
The Chicago Blackhawks are in play for Luongo's services, too. He's open to a move to the Windy City. When asked about 'Chelsea Dagger' in a recent interview, he joked, "I like that song. It's catchy. I heard it seven times in one game."
But to watch Luongo land in Florida would be especially discouraging, as the Panthers are a team Toronto will probably have to unseat for a playoff spot. Every free agent or trade target you strike out on, potentially winds up on the roster of an in-conference rival. They're willing to take the chance you missed out on, and potentially improve their team because of it.
As the Leafs remain stagnant, both in free agency and with deals, consider how many teams in the Eastern Conference, who finished just above them in the standings last year, but still missed out on the playoffs, have improved: Carolina added Jordan Staal, who spurned the Leafs to join his bro; Winnipeg signed Olli Jokinen, a center who would have fit in fantastically on that first unit for the Buds; Tampa Bay scored Anders Lindback, a goaltender with some upside who addresses the Bolts' main need (and get this: Stevie Y, in just his second season as the Lightning's GM, has already managed to accomplish more than what Burke has done during his four-year tenure in Toronto; take notes, Burkie); and Buffalo acquired some much-needed grit by trading for Steve Ott.
And why aren't more Leafs fans fuming over this? Have they grown accustomed to uneventful, noiseless summers? Have they just accepted the inactivity of yearly off-seasons? I'm dedicated to the sport, and I'm passionate as hell about my team; if the Canucks faced a similarly sickening streak of consecutive years missing the playoffs, and our GM wasn't making moves to make this team a contender, I'd be so irrationally pissed at this club, I'd launch a garbage bin through a retail store display and start setting (expletive) on fire. (Edit: Whoa. Bad example.)
It's been four seasons since Burke has taken control. Are the 2012-2013 Toronto Maple Leafs in a better position to make the playoffs now than they were four years ago? Sadly, you can't definitively answer "yes."
Burke was brought in because he supposedly had all sorts of connections from around the league. He was brought in to sell star players on the city, its fans, the culture. He was brought in to sign the game-changing free agents, the ones perennially-rumored to don blue and white. He was brought in to redefine the culture, and to make a splash within the organization.
He's failed to do any of that.
Here's a notion nobody ever brings up: Burke is afraid to pull the trigger. Yup, he's gun-shy.
Toronto is a huge hockey market, where the spotlight shines brighter, every on-ice managerial decisions is analyzed and criticized, and every trade or signing that brings in a new Leaf gets its own 30-minute TV special. Burke took an unbelievable amount of criticism over the Phil Kessel trade, and I see that going down as the one that floored him, sending him crashing to the canvas. Like a fighter who drops a high-profile bout and never performs at that high level again (B.J. Penn after his loss to Georges St-Pierre instantly comes to mind), I believe that deal modified the way he approaches transactions moving forward.
More recently, he's been opposed to offering up inordinate amounts of green for lousy-termed contracts. That's reasonable, but then you have to go the trade route. And the difference between signing an unrestricted free agent and trading for a player, of course, is that you're giving up assets in the process. Burke has historically done well swapping, though, often getting the better end of deals.
So, why are the Leafs batting .005 when it comes to free agents and studs rumored to be on the block? Why can't Burke get these guys to sign on the dotted line, or come to an agreement to acquire one via trade?
Well, what's the selling point for sporting a Maple Leafs jersey over another team's?
1. The Leafs can't offer a winning culture.
2. The Leafs can't offer top dollars.
3. Aside from Kessel (and even that's sort of a stretch), the Leafs can't sell them on playing with other stars.
4. NHL players are generally an unpresumptuous bunch; this is not the NBA, where stars, like mosquitoes during the summer, are attracted to bright lights.
5. The team's only real bargaining chips are: Nazem Kadri (who's been proposed for every top-25 player in the NHL, at some point, by a Leafs fan) and Jake Gardiner (who Burke is understandably unwilling to move, unless he's blown away by an offer).
6. With a lack of depth in the farm system, the future looks gloomy.
7. The city has a widely-accepted reputation as a place where careers go to fizzle, not flourish (see: Alexander Mogilny, Curtis Joseph, Eddie Belfour, Eric Lindros).
Look, if Burke is striking out on the marquee names, move down a tier. Sign some unsexy, crafty veterans - the ones typically open to sensible contracts. Do something
This is the new NHL. As ridiculous as it sounds, you have to take on bad contracts, gamble and overspend, if you want to be in the hunt and compete.
Frustrated Leafs fans aren't asking this team to go all "2011-2012 Florida Panthers" on them, taking every able-bodied free agent off the market. No. Just do something. Anything
, really, to instill some life into a comatose fan base.
A team should not be content with Tyler Bozak as its first-line center. Or remain confident and hopeful with an inexperienced Reimer as its starting goaltender, and little else in terms of depth between the pipes. Expecting another top-30 season out of the oft-injured Joffrey Lupul? Get real, won't happen.
There they stood, chanting in unison, "Fire Wilson! Fire Wilson!"
You've ridded the team of its coach. The talent is still lacking, and the goaltending is still lousy. Of the 29 other coaches, how many of them would have taken the 2011-2012 Leafs to the playoffs? Scotty Bowman in his prime would find it a trying task. Wilson was the goat. Next, is Carlyle.
If a building is poorly constructed, and a week after it's built, its ceiling caves in and collapses on bystanders - who's at fault? Sure, the property manager deserves some of the blame, but it goes beyond that. It's the architectural firm that's liable. Burke is the architect of the team, Leafs fans are the bystanders.
It's been a long and scorching summer in Toronto. It's officially time Burke starts to feel the heat.