Back in late 2008, I was ecstatic when the Leafs hired Brian Burke as their General Manager. Burke is outspoken, tough, plays by his own rules and is honorable. He was, and is, my favorite hockey personality and executive. Had I been able to choose anyone to run the Leafs I would have picked myself first, Burke second.
When Burke was fired in 2013, I declared it to be a move of idiotic proportions. Since Dave Nonis did a horrible and embarrassing job as the Leafs GM – and for the love of God, may he soon be fired – I was right that firing Burke was a bad move.
Or was I?
With hindsight being what it is, I think I may have been right for the wrong reasons. You see, clearly Nonis was bad, but was Burke any better? I thought he was, and I loyally supported and defended almost all of his moves at the time. Even as late as November of this year I was still hoping the Leafs could make it work with Burke’s vision. I think now that I may have been blinded by love for my favorite GM. Today I want to go back through Burke’s tenure as the Leafs GM and try to look objectively at how he did.
It was weird in the summer of 2008 because everyone basically believed Burke would be the Leafs new GM, but he kept saying he was loyal to the Ducks, to whom he had another year owing on his contract. Cliff “I’m So Old I Invented Hockey” Fletcher was the GM until Burke finally got out of his contract in late November of ’08.
Not getting here in time proved to be Burke’s first error, because just days prior to his hiring Fletcher – who had no business running the Leafs at this time – made one of the worst trades in franchise history when he sent Alex Steen and Carlos Colaiacovo to the Blues for Lee Stepniak.
To this day, no one knows why the Leafs would make a trade in the middle of the season just days before getting a new GM. As you probably know, Alex Steen is currently one of the best players in the NHL and has been for several seasons.
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From the time Burke took over to the end of the 08-09 season, he really didn’t do much but unload a couple of veterans for picks at the deadline. However, the first instance of his stubborn nature hurting the team came when he inexplicably picked Martin Gerber off waivers on March 4th 2008.
Gerber went 6-5, and the Leafs went 9-9 overall with 3 additional points for getting to O.T after the pickup, and ended up being slotted in the 7th pick for the draft when they otherwise could have easily picked 4th, had Burke just let the team he didn’t even build lose. Also, he could have unloaded more than just Antropov and Moore at the deadline.
He signed Tyler Bozak as a UFA, which I guess was alright.
Overall, the first segment of Burke’s reign was not good. He failed to move higher in the draft – for literally no reason other than pride – and claiming Gerber was just plain idiotic. But really, the worst thing he did was not get here a week earlier and prevent the trade of Alex Steen – and to those who want to give up on Kadri even though he’s just 24, I suggest you look at the case of Alex Steen and his development.
Summer of 2009
The summer of ’09 saw Burke make his best move: he selected Nazem Kadri seventh overall, a steal as it turns out, since he has proven superior to Evander Kane and Brayden Schenn, two players picked ahead of him. The real cost of the refusal to tank the final games of the ’08 season was Oliver Ekman-Larsson.
Looking back at the draft, you can argue he could have been the top pick, ahead of even John Tavares. Either way, had the Leafs lost just ONE GAME more, OEL would have been theirs. Now, I am a huge Kadri fan, but even Kadri would rather have OEL on the Leafs.
(Interesting aside about the 2009 draft: The Leafs picked Kadri, but went on to acquire Peter Holland, Tim Erixon, Phillipe Paradis and Carter Ashton. Kadri is a star, but if you had 5 first rounders, you’d have liked to do a bit better than that, I think).
After the draft, the Leafs signed Mike Komisarek and Francois Beauchemin. Though Beauchemin eventually netted the Leafs Jake Gardiner, you can easily categorize both these signings as failures. Both players played badly for the Leafs and if anything, they just gave Burke the confidence to trade first-round picks, a mistake that continues to haunt the Leafs to this very day.
Had the Leafs not signed either of these two players, you can argue they would never have felt like a good enough team to risk the trade of two first rounders for Phil Kessel.
That summer Burke also acquired Orr, Exelby, Brent and Gustavsson, all who would be non-factors in anything, really, ever.
But Burkie wasn’t done. With no inkling that his UFA singing would eventually haunt the team forever, he made an under the radar trade that today looks just as horrible as the Kessel trade: he sent Anton Stralman, Colin Stuart and a seventh round pick to the Flames for Wayne Primeau and a second round pick. Now, you might recall that today Anton Stralman is currently among the best defensemen in the NHL.
So, even though the Leafs made their best draft selection since Wendel Clark, they managed to set the table for years of continued failure by signing two unnecessary UFA’s and making what turned out to be another of the NHL’s most recent worst-trades-ever.
Burke kicked off the 2009-2010 season in style, making a blockbuster trade for Phil Kessel, famously sending draft picks that would end up being Dougie Hamilton (he’s having a Norris worthy season this year) and Tyler Seguin (just competing for the Hart and Art Ross before his injury, no big deal).
Now, I have defended this trade for a long time. I distinctly remember arguing with my friend Francois the night it happened – I was excited, he said it was too much to pay for a winger. Well, six years later and Francois and all the critics were right. Perhaps I was blinded by my love of Burke, or how exciting Kessel was, but it’s no excuse. This was a bad trade from the day it happened.
Now, there was no reason for Burke to think that he’d end up surrendering such high picks, but he should have known the chances of success in building around an offensive winger. Or, he should have asked himself where he was going to get a centre to play with the kid he just acquired.
The fact is, this trade is a nightmare and it could not have worked out worse. The Leafs wasted five amazing years from Kessel and failed to surround him with good enough players to win, and now we are where we are.
A month after Kessel was acquired, the Leafs, seeming in love with trading first rounders just before they reach the age (24) where (if they are non-superstars) they are likely to develop into useful NHL players, traded the oft underrated Jiri Tlusty to the Hurricanes for the never-to-play-in-Toronto Phillipe Paradis.
Two months after that, the Leafs acquired Dion Phaneuf in a lopsided trade with the Flames. Say what you want about Burke or Dion, but getting him for Stajan, Hagman, Mayers and White was and remains an absolute steal.
As the season wound down, the Leafs moved out Toskala, Blake, Ponikarovsky and Stepniak for mostly nothing other than goalie J.S Gigure and a pick that would become Sam Carrick.
The Leafs finished the year 30-38-14 and were second last in the entire NHL. The reward was that Boston got to pick Tyler Seguin.
Conclusion of Part One
As you can see, the first year and a half of Brian Burke’s tenure in Toronto was disastrous. Calling it an atrocity or an abomination would probably not be quite descriptive enough. If he had tried to fail on purpose, it scarcely could have been worse. And I say this as someone who likes Brian Burke, who argued that he was doing a good job, that his old- school ways still had a place in the NHL and that he should not have been fired.
From November 2008 to April of 2010, you’re talking about just one year and five months. During that time, the Leafs rid themselves of Steen, Stralman, Tlusty (who was actually amazing in the lockout year) Seguin and Dougie Hamilton.
It is not even up for debate: if the Leafs had four of those five players today, they’d be much better off. In Burke’s first seventeen months, all we can really credit him for is the Phaneuf trade and the drafting of Kadri. Against him? Gerber, Stralman, Pride, Tlusty, Hamilton, Seguin, all his UFA signings, two season with horrible records and more.
More? Is that even possible? Arguably, yes. Had he not had his ridiculous “five year rule” about contacts, the Leafs could have signed Kessel to a salary cap friendly ten or twelve year deal instead of the five year deal they did sign him to. Had the Leafs locked up Kessel long-term, they’d be in a much better bargaining position today when they want to trade him.
Don’t forget this was also the year that Burke tried to sign the Sedins. Vancouver ended up signing them to $6 million dollar cap hits over five years, but had Burke been willing to do longer deals, who knows what would have happened.
Overall, Burke’s first seventeen months were a disaster. Tune in tomorrow as I take you through the 2010-11 season and beyond as we discuss the brutal tenure of Brian Burke, Leafs GM.
Covering the Leafs for the Hockey Writers.