Two years in, has GM Brian Burke improved the Leafs?

Brian Burke has been the Toronto Maple Leafs’ general manager for exactly two years. Are you happy with the job he’s done? Has he done enough to even assess his work? Has he lived up to your expectations when he took over the job from Cliff Fletcher on Nov. 29, 2008? There’s really only one way to judge an NHL GM’s work. Look at the roster he’s assembled and decide if the club is going in the right direction.

The visiting Maple Leafs lost 2-1 to the Ottawa Senators in a shootout on Thursday, Nov. 27, 2008. It was the club’s final game before Burke began orchestrating his concert of roster moves in Toronto. We’ll compare that team with the one Burke iced Tuesday night against Tampa Bay.

In goal, in Ottawa, the Leafs started 31-year-old Vesa Toskala, with 41-year-old Curtis Joseph on the bench. This season, the Leafs’ goaltending has been absolutely stellar with 26-year-old Jonas Gustavsson and 33-year-old Jean-Sébastien Giguère. Now, I could go into voluminous detail about how much better Burke’s tandem is but, since you are reading this, I will assume you know just how great Jiggy and The Monster have been this season. Without them, I have no idea where the Leafs would be. Burke has upgraded the Toronto goaltending immeasurably.

On the blueline, that night in Ottawa, D Jeff Finger led the Leafs with 27:49 of ice. Pavel Kubina, Ian White, Tomas Kaberle and rookie Luke Schenn all logged over 20 minutes. Anton Stralman saw nine minutes. Kaberle and Schenn still see major time on the Leafs’ blueline. Kubina, White, Finger and Stralman are out. When he’s healthy, Dion Phaneuf replaces Finger as the go-to D-Man. Add François Beauchemin, Mike Komisarek and Carl Gunnarsson to this year’s equation. I’ll take this group any day. Oh, Komisarek has his troublesome moments. And I’m still not convinced that Gunnarsson is an NHL-caliber defenseman, but it’s impossible to argue with the fact that the Leafs have given up the fourth-fewest goals in the Eastern Conference. Like the goaltending, the D is significantly better under Burke.

Up front is where the “What-exactly-has-Brian-Burke-done?” questions start. Against Ottawa, Matt Stajan, Dominic Moore and Mikhail Grabovski centred the Leafs’ top-three lines. Burke has swapped Stajan and Moore for Tyler Bozak, Nazem Kadri and Tim Brent. Stajan was a wonderful player with the Belleville Bulls in major junior. Not so in the NHL. Bozak has a tremendous upside, although Leafs fans are waiting for that to emerge – even just a little would be nice, Tyler. I’ll take today’s group. Much more potential, especially if Kadri ends up being half the player everyone thinks he will be.

In Ottawa, the forwards no longer with the team were Niklas Hagman, Lee Stempniak, Alexei Ponikarovsky, Nik Antropov, Jamal Mayers, Ryan Hollweg and Andre Deveaux. Only Nik Kulemin remains. Replace those guys with Phil Kessel, Kris Versteeg, Clarke MacArthur, Fredrik Sjostrom, Mike Brown, Colton Orr, Joey Crabb and Colby Armstrong (when he’s not hurt). The old group was plagued with Ponikarovsky and Antropov – two of the most overrated Leafs players of all time! I prefer this group, although Kessel and Versteeg aren’t doing nearly what’s expected of them. 2010’s forwards are better. Marginally.

Keep your patience, Toronto fans. From where I sit, Burke has improved the team in every area – maybe just not as much as you’d like – or expect – from someone so vocal about his intent.

Steve Lansky
While still in high school, Steve Lansky was asked by Edmonton Oilers' head coach Glen Sather to be the team's statistician as they entered the National Hockey League. In 1983, at the age of 22, Lansky became the youngest producer in the history of CBC's Hockey Night in Canada. Lansky helped launch Rogers Sportsnet's fledgling hockey coverage when the network made its début in 1998. He is a highly credible, authoritative source to the point where his depth of hockey knowledge is surpassed by very few. Visit his website at www.bigmouthsports.com

20 Comments

  1. well again there is always next year if mr burke would put his huge ego in the toilet where it belongs than maybe us leaf fans would accually have something to look forward to, but instead mr burke has to be the hero and the “man” trying to change the team over night instead of a 4-5 year process what a joke, note to mr burke YOU AINT SUPERMAN

  2. Pingback: 5 Interesting Details from the 2010 Forbes NHL Team Valuations | The Hockey Writers

  3. This team is near the bottom of the standings and you say Burke has improved them in every area? Why then are most real hockey fans in Toronto calling for Burkie’s head? Have you even glanced at the standings lately? The man is a big-mouth blowhard with no idea of how to construct a winning hockey team. Anybody who attended Team-Building 101 will tell you that a solid competitive team is built with strength down the middle. The Laffs right now have absolutely the worst centre-men in franchise history, let alone in the NHL. This team will not make the playoffs and is going nowhere. That’s why Rogers is taking this time to make a bid for control. The first thing they’ll do is fire Burke and clean house.

    • While the standings play a part in determining a team’s improvement, they are never the only gauge. While I think history will ultimately judge Burke’s draft-picks-for-Phil-Kessel as a horrible mistake, the thing I like about him is that he always decides on a course of action and acts on it. I get an extremely strong sense from Burke that he’ll do his level best to improve a club that has floundered for years. I like what he’s done with the Leafs in his two years. Are the results of his work in the standings yet? Nope…but they will be.

      • In your article you say, “Burke has improved the team in every area.” Now you say, “he’ll do his level best to improve a club that has floundered for years.” Which one is it, Steve? Has it been improved on will it be improved, maybe someday?

        I live and work in Toronto and the talk around the water cooler is anything but positive. Check the standings or power rankings and ask 99 out of a 100 Leaf fans. They’ll all tell you, this team Burke has assembled stinks and prospects for improvement are bleak anytime soon. Burke has been a sorry disappointment. His better judgement, if he ever had any, has been misguided by his giant ego and impatience to win immediately. Leaf fans refuse to have the wool pulled over their eyes any longer and putting any kind of a positive spin on their current dyer situation is delusional. Don’t even try. You sound foolish.

  4. Your last paragraph nails it, Mike. Once you overpay for even one player, the domino effect is in full force, because it cripples what a GM can or can’t do in the future.

    • My comments were mostly negative, but I failed to say that it’s nearly impossible to blow up and rebuild a team in two years. I think the window is more like four years – unfortunately the shelf life of GM’s and especially coaches is often not that long.

      • The reason most GMs don’t get that prescribed four-year window is that short-sighted fans look at players and ask, “How did he play last night?” rather than, “How is he playing? Is he getting better? Are his habits changing for the good?”

        I think, if the players are there, a fine coach can turn around a team fairly quickly. His presence can provide a kick. Not so GMs. Look at the Pittsburgh Penguins, Michel Therrien took the Pens to the SCF in 2008. But Dan Bylsma was able to take them over the top.

        Is Burke making the team better? You bet he is. But if myopic, love-struck, jock-sniffing fans continue to verbally hack at Leafs’ players, Brian will never get the chance he needs.

        This is the first Leafs’ team in longer than I can remember that I wouldn’t consider loaded with “stagnant” players. That, in itself, gets my thumbs-up. Mats Sundin, Darcy Tucker, Vesa Toskala, Tie Domi, Jason Blake. Where were those guys going? Nowhere. They’d reached their pinnacle and were more than happy to sit back and languish.

        Now compare that group to Nazem Kadri, Tyler Bozak, Keith Aulie, Luke Schenn and Jonas Gustavsson. See a difference? Me too.

        • Just like there is nearly nobody left from two years ago, there will be next to no players from this team that will be still here in two years. Guys that were recruited by Burke as “clean fill” will be sent packing sooner than you think. The bottom line is, this misdirected bunch is at the bottom of the standings again.

          I have no idea what you see in Tyler Bozak. There’s a reason why this kid was never drafted. He’s not NHL material.

          Hey, make a note to check back here in 12 months and re-read my comments.

  5. Bruce Hollingdrake says:

    I’ve heard time and time again that Championship teams are built through the draft. Mtl, Edmonton, NYI, Detroit, Pittsburgh (2 iterations)…
    Does Burke know something we all don’t for he has chucked the whole drafting idea – chucked it East about 500 miles.
    It will be interesting to see where the Bruins and Oilers (with Hall & Eberle) stand vs. the Leafs in about 3 years.
    The Leafs are a little better today – but at what cost?

    • Some championship teams are built through the draft, but fewer and fewer these days. And Taylor Hall ain’t no Sidney Crosby (whom the Penguins absolutely stumbled upon on 2005). I think, today (post-lockout), the draft only factors in so far.

      Over the last five years, the 2010 SC champion Blackhawks only drafted two players who went on to play in the NHL. Fortunately for them, those players were Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews. In order to build a champion through the draft, a team has to draft extemely high many years in a row.

      Today, strong teams are built with groups of players who play better for your team than they did with their last team. It’s as simple as that. You can get those guys from anywhere.

      • The reality of the NHL today is EXACTLY the opposite of what you said!

      • Bruce Hollingdrake says:

        Tell me if I’m wrong here, for the past few years.
        Stanley cup winners:
        2010 Chicago drafted Kane & Toews
        2009 Penguins drafted Crosby, Malkin,Letang, Talbot…
        2008 Wings drafted Lidstrom, Zett, Datsyuk
        2007 Ducks drafted Getzlaf, Perry
        2006 Hurricanes drafted Staal

        don’t you see the pattern ? the whole team doesn’t come from the draft but the Heart does. Where is TO’s next great captain – it’s Seguin in Beantown.

        • Correct…except the Heart does not HAVE to be drafted first overall.

          Lidstrom 53rd, Datsyuk 171st and Zetterberg 210th.

          Leafs still drafted seven guys last June. Frankly, I don’t think “leader’ and “high-draft choice” are mutually inclusive.

          For every Sidney, Jonathan and Eric, there’s a Greg Joly or Gord Kluzak.

          Leafs took Jiri Tlusty, Alex Steen, Carlo Colaiacovo and Nik Antropov as first rounders. Want them back? Me neither.

        • Bruce Hollingdrake says:

          I love an article that generates feedback like this – nice job.
          We’ll need a sequel at the end of the season.

        • Looking at the past 5 winners you listed, those also weren’t teams built in one two or three years. It took effective/lucky drafting, development, and most importantly patience by management (with the exception of Chicago who essentially went Cup-or-bust last year).

          If players weren’t ready, they weren’t forced into an NHL lineup. Fleury spent time in juniors and the AHL for the Pens, Jordan Staal was forced to play only penalty kill his rookie year (now a Selke finalist), Holland left Zetterberg in Sweden until he totally dominated the competition before bringing him over.

          I’m sure it’s been overdiscussed in Toronto, but bringing up Kadri for all the wrong reasons was the first sign I’ve seen of Burke starting to crack and deviate from his original plan. The kid needed at least a year in the AHL to learn how to actually play responsible hockey and gain confidence – instead he’s thrown into a situation where he’s almost destined to fail. Burke/Wilson now have to justify the promotion by force-feeding him top line minutes instead of allowing him to develop the right way.

          The other example of lack of patience is overpaying for mediocre free agents. Even the best intentions and promises from Burke can’t be fulfilled when the team is searching for players to demote to open up cap space. They demoted Finger this year to open up room, but what happens next year when it comes time to give raises to Bozak Schenn Gustavsson Gunnarsson MacArthur etc? Komisarek can’t be demoted.

          In a salary cap world, a small handful of overpayments is enough to ruin a team. Signing guys like Armstrong at 3m and Komisarek at 4.5m is overpaying – it was when they were signed, and it still is. Sure they fit the ‘mold’, but at what price?

  6. Nobody would argue with the fact that the present lineup is probably superior to the JFJ engineered lineup. The REAL beef with Burke has to be that he has not delivered the team he promised -”strong, truculent, a team that Leaf fans haven’t seen before” were his words. Well, this current lineup is inches shorter, pounds lighter, and even less menacing than the previous group. The fact is, Burke was right – a strong truculent team is tough to play against, and fun to watch. A small, soft team like the one he’s assembled is a disaster. He’s failed to deliver. Period.

    • Interesting points. I think Leafs’ fans would be happy with any team that’s winning. The Leafs don’t strike me as small. And they don’t really strike me as soft. But they lack an incredible amount of desire and work ethic. That’s what’s killing this 2010-11 group right now.

      • Steve, what you see as lack of desire and work ethic is actually FEAR. Leaf forwards are the 5th shortest and lightest in the league – they’re terrified to go into the corners every night and get their asses kicked. They back off because they still have a survival instinct. Burke has put together a team that cannot compete.

        • Fear is a powerful motivator, all right! Don’t forget, they’re also the youngest! I think that might be your biggest factor right there. You and I both know that there is absolutely no substitute for experience. But, that having been said, they certainly are not corner-diggers, are they?

Subscribe to our mailing list

* indicates required Email Address * Name Email Format html text mobile