Is Brian Burke’s Plan Flawed?

November 19th, 2010 2 Comments

When Brian Burke took over the job as general manager of the Toronto Maple Leafs from Cliff Fletcher many in Leafland were ready to start planning the Stanley Cup parade route right away.

Burke, who had already won a Stanley Cup with the Anaheim Ducks had a reputation for shaking things up, making deals and, most importantly, making both players and management accountable for their actions or lack thereof.

Burke promised a more competitive environment. He promised that the “cottage atmosphere” at the Air Canada Centre was over and he promised to add some much needed talent and depth to the Maple Leafs system.

While nobody can argue that Burke has added an element of depth to the organization, one could argue that he has failed to add the talent.

Blessed with the ability to shop for players via the College ranks and overseas, Burke was able to sign the likes of Tyler Bozak, Jonas “the monster” Gustavsson, Brayden Irwin, Marcel Mueller and others.

Bozak and Gustavsson looked to be decent NHL talents, but it will be a while before we can effectively evaluate the likes of Irwin, Mueller and others.

Burke has also used free agency to add players to his roster, signing the likes of Colby Armstrong, Colton Orr, Tim Brent, Francois Beauchemin, Brett Lebda and Mike Komisarek to contracts.

Burke also plucked Kris Versteeg from the Chicago Blackhawks this summer for a combination of draft choices and Prospects.

The jury is out on the effectiveness of both Beauchemin and Komisarek, while the additions of Versteeg (who looks to be turning the corner) and Armstrong have yet to really translate into more wins.

In an effort to fast-track the Maple Leafs into respectability Burke made a couple of key trades that netted him veteran goaltender J.S. Giguere from Anaheim, hard nosed (well sometimes) defenseman Dion Phaneuf, penalty kill specialist Fredrik Sjostrom and prospect Keith Aulie from the Calgary Flames.

Of course the deal that garners the most attention is the one that saw two first round draft choices (2009-10 and 2010-11) and a second rounder (2009-10) go to the Boston Bruins in return for proven thirty goal scorer Phil Kessel.

The two 2009-10 draft pick’s turned out to be Tyler Seguin and Jared Knight. Now, with the Leafs once again sitting in a lottery position, Leaf fans are burdened with the fact they could watch another top prospect head to Beantown while their team continues to disappoint.

With a little over two seasons under his belt, Burke has all but completely “re-tooled” the Maple Leafs, but he has far from “re-built” the team, at least not for the better, not yet anyways.

On paper the maple Leafs looked to have an impressive group of defensemen led by the likes of Tomas Kaberle, Phaneuf, Beauchemin, Komisarek and Luke Schenn.

Thus far, the team defense has been much better, giving up a total of 2.78 goals per game this season (16th overall) compared to 3.21 goals per game in 2009-10 (29th overall).

Unfortunately, as much as the team has improved defensively, the same cannot be said about the offense, averaging 2.56 goals for in 2009-10 (25th overall) compared with the 2.39 goals per game this season, which ranks them 27th overall.

While there have been a number of bright spots in the Maple Leafs roster this season (Mikhail Grabovski, Clarke MacArthur, Tim Brent, Mike Brown, Luke Schenn, Phil Kessel and Nikolai Kulemin, the overall picture has not changed.

Through 18 games the Maple Leafs sit tenth in the Eastern Conference, 23rd overall, which, while a bit of an improvement over finishing 29th overall last season, does not supply the fans with a lot of confidence that the Maple Leafs are going to contend for a playoff spot.

With the team continuing to wade in the waters, many Maple Leaf fans are beginning to wonder of Burke’s plan is flawed?

Burke’s penchant for wanting to speed up the re-tooling process may, in fact, be hurting the long term future of this organization and it doesn’t start and end with the Phil Kessel acquisition, but it does remain the fans main bone of contention on some nights.

While nobody has a crystal ball, it is pretty easy to say that if Burke allowed the Maple Leafs to bottom out the past two seasons that the club may very well have added Seguin or Taylor Hall to the lineup, as well as a number of other top-flight prospects.

Would the rebuild process have been the smarter option for Burke?

And, what of the fans of the Maple Leafs? Does anyone out there really believe they would have lit the ACC on fire and or called for Burke’s head had Burke optioned to take the long road instead of trying to push the envelope towards respectability by bringing in big-ticket players such as Giguere, Phaneuf, Komisarek, Versteeg and Armstrong?

A strong argument can be made that the Maple Leafs would be much better off in the long run had Burke just stayed the course, which is to say perhaps Burke should have just let the team hit rock bottom and slowly made the accent back to respectability.

While Burke could be applauded for his re-tooling, the fact remains that there are very few hockey experts that are under the illusion that the Leafs are a playoff team this season and, if you listened to Burke over the past two years, that has always been the goal…to be a playoff team.

The Maple Leafs top-six forwards have struggled all season long, especially on the power play, which, without the benefit of the past two games in which the power play has scored a total of six goals, would be amongst the league’s worst.

Burke is a man of action, a man of integrity and a man with a vision, the question is, is his vision flawed?

The debate will rage on as to whether or not he made the right decision to speed up the process toward respectability, but the reality is this team is not much better off than when Burke came aboard and, given all the monies he has spent on talent and the faith he has shown in his troops, coaches and management team, it is somewhat troubling.

Would Toronto Maple Leaf fans idly sit by while Burke let the Maple Leafs hit rock bottom? Probably not, then again, after all they have been through does anyone out there really think they would abandon ship?

I am not talking about one season of futility, we are talking about 3-5 seasons of horrible hockey, followed by a steady climb out of the cellar, followed by a string of successful regular season success and playoff runs that the fans of the Washington Capitals, Pittsburgh Penguins, Chicago Blackhawks (all of whom hit rock bottom at some point) and others have recently enjoyed.

The truth is, mediocrity stinks! And, given the way the Maple Leafs have played since Burke arrived, that is exactly what the Leafs are, a mediocre team that, while talented in some areas, may never get to the next plateau.

To be fair, there are a number of Maple Leaf fans that tend to think the team is on its way back to respectability. The trouble with that is, once the team hits respectability (i.e.: a playoff team), there may not be enough talent in the system or via free agency to take the next step, especially when the team looks headed for cap issues as early as next season.

We are only 18 games into the season and, in my opinion, Burke’s grand plan still has another 2-3 years to go. That said, I still wonder if Burke’s plan is/was the right way to go, I wonder if his foresight is flawed and whether or not this team can win a playoff round or two in the next 2-3 years?

Ask yourself this…if you could take all of Burke’s moves back, would you let the team bottom out and rebuild through the draft or would you stay the course that Burke currently has this team following?

Time will tell which strategy was the right or wrong one to follow. What would you do?

Until next time,



  1. swelldogk says:

    He’s made some great moves, getting rid of Blake, Toskola, and few other players. However, ya he’s made some “rushed moves”. But, bottom line he should have dipped into the draft, and maybe eased of the budget spent on defence!!!!! Ya i know from the goaltender up, he says, but seriously. However, he ‘s the gm of the leafs, and not all leaf fans are realists like myself, and i know the 1967 time line is a bitch to live with, but the Kessel trade may have increased it’s length.

  2. Xalvion says:

    Well, Mark, this is the million-dollar question, isn’t it?

    If building a team were something that is done strictly on paper, then I’d say the answer to your question is yes, Burke should have allowed the team to bottom out, picking up the best possible draft choices in the process.

    Trouble is, teams are not built on paper (or in a vacuum). There are some dynamics at play here that suggest that BB was not wrong to take the approach that he did.

    #1 The attitude on this team STUNK. Far too many players with that “country club attitude” (Blake and Toskala were the worst offenders, imho, but not the only ones). That air of “hey, whatever” had to be eliminated before any building began, lest it infect those new foundation stones, perpetuating the problem. Whatever you might think of Dion Phaneuf and JSG, they have heart and aren’t afraid to say what needs to be said.

    #2 Playing hockey in Toronto takes a special breed of player (at least it does if you’re expecting success). Stajans and Blakes and Toskalas and Stempniaks aren’t going to win here. They’re just not. We need guys who can thrive under the magnifying glass. Guys like Killer and Wendel and the Eagle don’t grow on trees, but that’s what you need. We had NONE of those type of players last year. Kessel wants to be that kind of guy, but the jury’s still out on him (and will be, for me, until he learns to thrive when we play the Bruins). He might be foundation stone #1. We’ll have to see. Phaneuf is stone #2, I think, and Gustavsson could be #3. Is Versteeg #4? Maybe. Are any of those players on anyone’s Top Ten List for “best players in the NHL”? No, but that’s not what I’m talking about. The “best players” don’t always win (see Kovalchuk/Gaborik).

    Bottom line is, the status quo rarely works when the established mindset is one of complacency. Burke had to do 2 things when he came to town: change the roster and the attitude. You can remake the roster slowly, if you want, but it’s hard to change an attitude slowly. That’s something that requires dynamite.

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