Leave it to Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment Ltd. (MLSE) to upstage the NHL’s return with what was an unexpected and shocking shakeup.
The Brian Burke era closed as the NHL executive with the big personality was replaced as general manager and senior vice president by his long-time friend and assistant Dave Nonis. The appointment makes Nonis the permanent GM, rather than being an interim position. Burke will remain with the organization as a senior advisor to the board, not involved in the day-to-day hockey operations.
Burke was charged with turning around a franchise that had, to that point, missed the playoffs three consecutive times, had finished 2007-08 with only 83 points and was by most accounts, among the most prospect-poor teams in the league.
A little more than 4 years later, the Leafs still have not qualified for post-season play, and posted season point totals of 81, 74, 85 and 80. There’s no consensus on how good the current Leaf prospect pool is, and a general acknowledgement that the team is perhaps better, is not a rising force in the NHL. Specific areas that were targeted by Burke following 2011-12, such as goaltending and team toughness, seem to be gone unaddressed. As he himself said in a press conference…
“We didn’t win enough. Had we won more games I wouldn’t be standing here today. It’s that simple.”
Personality or Performance?
The morning of January 10, new details seemed to emerge. George Cope, CEO of Bell (who along with rival media giant Rogers had their deal to purchase MLSE approved in June 2012) apparently did not like Burke’s demeanor, his bluster, his penchant for profanity – well, the persona so associated with Brian Burke. That seems to suggest this decision was motivated by personal reasons. Many are questioning the timing, on what is essentially the eve of training camps. Some are even raising the spectre of a return to the dark days when Harold Ballard fired Punch Imlach and let him know by simply taking away his parking spot at Maple Leaf Gardens – the return of the meddling ownership group.
If it were strictly a personal decision, maybe people should start to wonder what the franchise is in store for. But it’s early for that kind of fear. Burke himself denied there were any personal reasons given during his meeting. In fact, he stated repeatedly that it is ownership’s prerogative to hire or remove any person they so choose, and he has no issue with that. Rogers/Bell are the controlling interest, succeeding the 18 year rule of the Ontario Teacher’s Pension Plan (OTPP). Burke was a hire of OTPP, mandated to improve the hockey club overall. It’s debatable how much improvement there is, and how much should have been expected. But the bottom line is the new owners are not under any obligation to keep anyone around if they feel change is required.
It’s absolutely wrong to say there were no positives during Burke’s tenure. As general manager, Burke was able to complete a number of good transactions. He secured Joffrey Lupul, Jake Gardiner and Dion Phaneuf in return for assets that were not going to be a part of the future in Toronto. Lupul was able to rebound from numerous injuries, Gardiner seems well on his way to being an offensive sparkplug on the blueline, and Phaneuf has shown flashes of being the very good defenseman people projected him to be. He took a chance and was rewarded with 41 goals and 105 points over 2 seasons from free agent Clarke MacArthur. Tyler Bozak has played admirably as an undrafted player who has been asked to fill a big role centering the first line.
Burke also assembled a fairly decent AHL squad in the Marlies. The Leafs’ main farm team reached the Calder Cup finals in 2011-12, and as of January 13, 2012, lead their division and sit 2nd in the AHL’s Western Conference. Along with Gardiner, the team does appear to have a number of potential NHLers, including Nazem Kadri, Joe Colborne and Carter Ashton, all acquired by Burke during his tenure.
Maybe more importantly, Brian Burke made an impact through his support of his son Brendan and his active campaign for acceptance and tolerance, and against homophobia. As Burke said in his press conference, he felt his position as general manager of one of the NHL’s premiere franchises, he could use his clout in support of the LGBT community. It wasn’t just lip-service: Burke stood on his principles in the face of criticism from some for his attendance of Toronto’s annual Pride Parade, which coincides with the NHL’s first day of free agency season. Burke dismissed the notion that his presence at the event would in any way impair the Maple Leafs from making free agent signings – in fact, then-assistant general manager Nonis was working on the team’s behalf, and Burke himself was always reachable if necessary.
It’s easy to pile up the negatives which led to the removal of Burke from the general manager position.
Again, Brian acknowledged “I knew what the roster was when I came here. There’s no secrets about it. I’m not ducking that one.”
Ultimately, it was a number of statements made by the man himself, which set the expectation level high. In no way can four years of not qualifying for the playoffs be sliced to say that those expectations were met. And it’s a few key statements that stick out: that he did not believe it had to take 5 years to be a contender; that he builds teams from the net out; that he wanted a tougher, pugnacious, belligerent and truculent team. In the end, the franchise will be in the neighbourhood of 5 years just to make the playoffs, and three of the most serious flaws with the Leafs has been inadequate goaltending, weak team defense and a general lack of overall toughness.
Of course the GM tried. Unfortunately, a number of NHL free agents (Komisarek, Lebda, Connolly, Armstrong, Beauchemin) really never lived up to expectation. A couple of traded players (Exelby, Franson) never really fit in. And the ‘found wallets’, the other free agents (Gustavsson, Hanson, Wallin) seemed unable to contribute significantly. While it is up to players to play, the general manager is responsible for assembling his roster. When those players don’t play well enough as a team, someone must be held accountable.
Three Significant Issues
Additionally, it seems though that Burke’s legacy at the helm of the Leafs may be cemented by three specific issues.
1. The drafting of Nazem Kadri. After announcing his intentions to move up at the draft and select John Tavares, Burke eventually used his own 7th overall pick to select Kadri, who was not even ranked in the top-10 North American skaters by Central Scouting. While Kadri has played well for the Marlies, and may well become and NHL regular, he was consistently portrayed as ‘not ready for the NHL game’ by management. Essentially, Burke was not able to draft an impact player with his first ever Maple Leaf draftee.
2. The Kessel Trade. Phil Kessel is a good NHL player. A sniper, an offensive weapon. And Kessel has delivered as much as could be expected of him – consistent 30+ goal seasons, despite the lack of a top-flight centreman. But, there can be no doubt that Burke overpaid to bring Kessel to Toronto. The loss of both the first and second round draft choices in 2010, and the first round choice in 2011, was never offset by having Kessel who, while a dangerous scorer, is not a franchise player. The fact that the Leafs ended up finishing 29th (giving Boston the 2nd overall pick in 2010) is evidence that neither Kessel nor any other acquisition made by Burke was able to turn the Leafs around. It was simply a trade that relinquished too much for a player the Leafs were not in a position to use in a way that improved the team.
3. Waiting to fire Ron Wilson. Burke is a loyal man, and it’s a good quality. However, many questioned Wilson’s effectiveness, especially since he was unable to coach the Leafs to the post-season. Again, players are paid to play, but the Leafs endured numerous prolonged slumps during Wilson’s tenure, which he was ineffective in coaching the team out of. Some gave the coach the benefit of the doubt – and Burke was the number one guy to say repeatedly it wasn’t Ron’s fault. But when Burke did eventually fire his long-time friend, LeafNation was shocked to hear Burke say he and Wilson weren’t on the same page when it came to what kind of team it should be. If so, then why did it take until March 2012 for the coach to be canned?
Brian Burke was unable to accomplish what he set out to do. Despite the feeling that perhaps it was his personality that rubbed new ownership the wrong way, the simple fact is, Burke did not produce the kind of results he was expected to. So now it’s up to Dave Nonis. Nonis is a different kind of GM than Burke – less bluster, perhaps more adaptable to modifying his path. And the upside there is that if Burke was in fact on the right track, and his draftees do pan out, Nonis was actually a part of the management that put it all in place. As training camp opened, Nonis and coach Randy Carlyle seemed to be on the same page. And that page sounds like perhaps where this should have started back in 2008.
“We’ve got a young group,” said Nonis. “We’re going to have a young group. We’re not looking to trade a bunch of young players for old ones… But we’re going to be young again and you’re going to see some mistakes from the young players… We can’t have nights off. If we’re going to have any success at all, we’re going to have to be a committed team. That means everybody has to be committed.”
Now, Burke did not spend his time doing that either, but that sounds like perhaps there won’t be any rebuild on the fly, like maybe it’s time to settle in and see if some of the prospects pan out. There will be jobs up for grabs. And there will be bodies moved out at some point. Make no mistake, there are still major issues to be solved like goaltending and team defence and a better commitment to systems, but it sounds as though there won’t be any promises about when this team will contend, or assertions players here are trusted to get the job done. But Nonis, as Burke’s assistant GM, is already familiar with the players currently in the system. And perhaps that will smooth the transition to the new guy charged with getting the Leafs back to the promised land.
Maybe the ground-up rebuild has begun.