Crunch Time For Brian Burke

August 8th, 2011 3 Comments

Since joining the Toronto Maple Leafs in November of 2008, Brian Burke has raised more than a few eyebrows with his aggressive moves.

Of course, the most talked about move, and perhaps Burke’s biggest to date, would be the acquisition of sniper Phil Kessel from the Boston Bruins for two first round draft choices (2010, 2011) and a second rounder in 2010.

While it will be years before we can truly evaluate the trade, Burke has always maintained that he is happy with the deal and if presented with the same circumstances, would do the deal again.

The Bruins selected Tyler Seguin with Toronto’s first round draft choice in 2010, followed by the selection of Jared Knight in the second round. Seguin had an inconsistent rookie season which saw him light the lamp a total of 11 times through 74 games played, finishing with just 22 points. Seguin managed to pick it up a notch in the playoffs (at least in spurts) registering seven points in 11 playoff games en route to a Stanley Cup championship.

Knight spent the 2010-11 season with the London Knights of the Ontario Hockey League, notching 25 goals and 45 assists (70 points), followed by a two point effort in three games as a member of the Bruins AHL affiliate, the Providence Bruins.

While Knight has upside, he is widely viewed as a second line player at best, or more likely a third liner. Truth be told, Knight looks to be a number of years from being an impact player, if ever.

At the 2011 NHL Entry Draft the Bruins selected defenseman Dougie Hamilton with the ninth pick overall, completing the Kessel trade. Hamilton is seen as a future stud on the Blueline, but like every prospect, he will have to prove he belongs before we annoint him as the next Bobby Orr.

In the end, the Bruins were able to turn a disgruntled Kessel into Tyler Seguin, Jared Knight and Dougie Hamilton—two of which (Seguin and Hamilton) are likely to play major roles in the Bruins not so distant future.

In Kessel, Burke got himself a player that finished 21st in goal scoring in 2009-10 with a total of 30 goals and 19th overall in 2010-11 with 32 goals on the season. Elite goal-scorers do not grow on trees, still, there are plenty of hockey fans that feel Burke gave up far too much for a one-dimensional player whose compete level has been questioned at times.

Kessel accomplished his goal-scoring feat playing with second and third-tier talent. Centre’s Tyler Bozak, Mikhail Grabovski and Nazem Kadri all failed to develop any sort of chemistry with Kessel, limiting the snipers ability to use his speed in the neutral zone and light the lamp.
A constant change in linemates also contributed to bouts of frustration and scoring droughts—something Burke hopes will be avoided this season.

The addition of captain Dion Phaneuf to the lineup was another huge move for Burke.

Rumors of too much partying, a bad attitude and poor performance on the ice led to Phaneuf playing his way out of the Calgary Flames organization.

Burke pulled the trigger on a deal that would see Phaneuf, defenseman Keith Aulie and defensive forward Fredrik Sjostrom come over to the Maple Leafs from the Flames in return for an under performing Matt Stajan, the enigmatic Niklas Hagman, veteran Jamal Mayers and emerging defenseman Ian White.

At this point Burke looks to have gotten the better of the deal as Phaneuf assumed the Captaincy and made decent strides towards returning to be the difference maker he once was in Calgary. Meanwhile, Aulie has developed into a very good stay-at-home defenseman with upside.

Sjostrom looks to be on his way out of the Maple Leafs organization this summer, but he did fill a role on the Leafs’ penalty kill and served as a decent defensive player in 2009-10 and 2010-11, while playing for peanuts by NHL standards.

The Flames signed Stajan to what many perceive to be a bad deal, Hagman has 16 goals and 38 points through 98 games as a member of the Flames, while White and Mayers are long gone from the Flames organization, with little coming back in return.

Phaneuf’s salary aside, Burke won this trade in a landslide—especially when you consider how well Aulie has played as a member of the Blue and White, the brutal four-year/$14 million contract Stajan is set to rake in and the poor performance of Hagman thus far.

In acquiring Kessel (a top-six forward), Phaneuf (a top-pairing defenseman) and Aulie, Burke secured three players with which he can attempt to build a playoff-caliber team around.

Sure, the loss of three draft picks hurts, but by going with a sure thing (and Kessel is about as sure a thing as you can get in a trade, scoring 30 or more goals in his first two seasons as a Maple Leaf) Burke made a calculated, astute move that is sure to pay dividends both now and in the future, no matter what the price tag was.

as for the players involved in the Phaneuf deal, outside of White who has blossomed into a decent two-way defenseman, nobody misses any of them.

Of course not every move Burke has made has turned out well.

Burke acquired Brett Lebda, Francois Beauchemin, J.S. Giguere, Kris Versteeg, Mike Komisarek, Matthew Lombardi, Tim Connolly, Clarke MacArthur, John-Michael Liles, Cody Franson, Colton Orr, Mike Brown, Jonas Gustavsson, Luca Caputi, Tim Brent, Brayden Irwin, Joffrey Lupul, Colby Armstrong, Joey Crabb, Mike Zigomanis, Matt Frattin, Christian Hanson, Joe Colborne, Nazem Kadri and others through the draft, via free agency or through trade.

Beauchemin, Versteeg, Giguere, Lebda and Hanson have all been shipped out or are moving on to other organizations. Each had various levels of success and failure with the Maple Leafs—none really fit into Burke’s long-term plans.

Of those aforementioned players, Connolly, MacArthur, Armstrong, Lupul, Liles, Franson and Komisarek (who is still a huge question mark) are expected to make major contributions this season, while Orr, Lombardi (who has not set a date for return after an early season concussion caused him to miss most of the 2010-11 season), Colborne, Kadri, Gustavsson, Caputi and Irwin are still viewed as players that require a little patience and development before they will make a major impact, if any this season.

Burke also shipped veteran defenseman Tomas Kaberle off to the Bruins, which, given the return (the Bruins first round draft pick in the 2011 NHL Entry Draft and highly-touted centre prospect Joe Colborne—a former first round draft choice), helped soften the blow of giving up three picks to the Bruins in the Kessel deal in the minds of many Maple Leaf fans.

When everything is said and done, Burke has done a complete overhaul on the team he inherited. In fact, only three players—Luke Schenn, Mikhail Grabovski and Nikolai Kulemin—remain from the NHL roster Burke inherited.

With that in mind, Burke is officially on the clock. This is his team and his players. It is his moves that gives this team it’s moxy, makeup and skill level and now it is time for this team to show some improvement.

Once defenseman Luke Schenn is signed, the Maple Leafs will enter the 2010-11 season with a payroll that should approach the $64,300,000 cap limit.

No longer can fans say that MLSEL is to blame for the teams failures due to insufficient funds being spent. No longer can fans suggest that Burke is shackled by bad contracts or mistakes of the past. This is Burke’s baby, his team, his reputation on the line.

In order for Burke to assemble the current roster he has had to take chances and have a measure of faith that his trio of china dolls—Tim Connolly, Matthew Lombardi and Joffrey Lupul—will somehow be able to avoid long term injury this season.

Let’s face it, anything Lombardi contributes this season will be considered a bonus. If Connolly and/or Lupul find themselves on the sidelines for an extended period of time the Maple Leafs’ playoff hopes will be slim at best (if they aren’t already).

Burke has also put a lot of faith in sophomore goaltender James Reimer who will enter the 2011-12 season with just 37 games worth of NHL experience.

Reimer’s 20-10-5 record, 2.60 goals against average and .920 save percentage in 2010-11 was impressive, but is Burke asking too much of a 23-year old goaltender to lead one of the youngest teams in the NHL to the playoffs?

Burke has shown faith in players where others (including the fans of the Blue and White) have not. With just about every fan forum demanding he be let go, Burke showed a ton of confidence in Mikhail Grabovski when he re-signed the historically inconsistent forward to a three-year $8.7 million deal in July of 2009.

Burke was finally rewarded with a career year from Grabovski last season when he scored 29 goals and 58 points on a line with Clarke MacArthur (whom Burke signed as a free agent after he was abandoned by the Atlanta Thrashers after he was awarded a large salary arbitration contract) and Nikolai Kulemin—whom many Leaf fans were waiting to see if he could fill a top-six forward position.

In fact, Grabovski, Kulemin and MacArthur all had career years, combining for 80 goals and 177 points, which made them one of the most potent trio’s in the entire NHL last season.

Without question, the team Burke has assembled, combined with the improved organizational depth points to a job well done for Burke and Company. The question is, should Burke and Co. fail to make the playoffs this season, or at least give it one heck of a shot, will the Leafs Nation turn their backs on him—will they demand Burke be the next to go?

More likely, head coach Ron Wilson (a close friend and trusted confidant of Burke’s) will find his head on the chopping block before Burke is asked to step down, but that’s another story for another day, so I digress.

When it comes to Stanley Cup Championships, fans of the Toronto Maple Leaf have been forced to be extremely patient (The Leafs last won the Cup in 1967). That said, this is not a patient fan base, especially when it comes to developing talent—never has been, never will be.

In order for Burke and His troops to be successful, that historically short patience with prospects and management will need to change. In fact, the Leafs Nation will need to exhibit more patience than ever before if they truly want their beloved Maple Leafs to develop not only this roster, but the organization as a whole, which is what really counts in the end.

In all fairness, Burke has done a very good job thus far. For his vision to be successful he will require time and patience not seen before by Leaf fans. This is the way of the new NHL, this is the route that most teams take en route to playoff success and, dare I say, Stanley Cup Championships.

Should Burke’s team miss the playoffs this season it wouldn’t come as a huge surprise to many, however disappointing that might be.

Yes, Mr. Burke, the clock is ticking—this is your time (and the time for your team) to shine…here’s hoping the clock doesn’t strike midnight before your master plan is followed through to the end.

Until next time,



  1. Ross M says:

    Nice read Mike. Good summary and lead-in to the upcoming season. The way I see it, Lombardi may just be ready to step-in by mid season. At this point he would be a suitable stop-gap if Connolly gets injured. Given Kessel’s luck, Connolly and Lupul will both get injured and he’ll be stuck with 3rd liners again.


  3. MarkRitter says:

    Well, let’s hope at least one of them can stay healthy!

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