Is Brian Burke’s Plan Flawed?
An all-in move involves a player pushing all off his poker chips into the pot with the hopes that he will (against the odds) get lucky and win the pot. More times than not the final push leads to a loss with the player having to push in his chair after losing what little money he had left.
Building a hockey team can be like a game of poker. Every team has its fair share of ups and downs just as every player has its fair share of winning hands and bad beats. Ultimately, one player or one team will emerge as the winner and few remember the battles along the way.
Since his arrival in Toronto, Toronto Maple Leafs general manager Brian Burke has had his fair share of winning hands, but more often than not he has had to endure a number of bad beats.
On the surface, the acquisitions of Dion Phaneuf, Mike Komisarek, Colby Armstrong and Tim Connolly looked like big wins for Burke. But over time, each of these players has let Burke down in one way or another, which has turned many of Burke’s best moves into a bunch of bad beats.
Fans of Phaneuf will point to the fact that he was elected to the all-star game this season, but detractors will say he never really should have been there in the first place, and while we can confidently say Phaneuf is having his best season since joining the Blue and White, he is still a long way away from the impact player he was in his early years with the Calgary Flames and his leadership and spirit on the ice have been questioned on countless occasions this season.
When Mike Komisarek came to the Maple Leafs he was regarded as one of the fiercest defensemen in all of hockey. Sadly, when Komisarek packed his bags for Toronto it appears as if he forgot to pack his mojo, which has been missing since the first day he stepped onto the Air Canada Center ice.
Like Komisarek and Phaneuf, Armstrong and Connolly have all had their fair share of struggles as members of the Blue and White. With approximately $20 million committed to these four players it is easy to suggest that each and every one of these players has let Burke down.
When you add it all up, that’s roughly $30 million in cap space that Burke has tied up in questionable players, which must have the burly Irishman’s temper boiling from time-to-time.
Don’t get me wrong. At the time of these acquisitions Burke received his fair share of praise from fans and media alike. That said; there was always an underlying fear that Burke may have overpaid for the likes of Komisarek, Connolly, Phaneuf and Armstrong, but given how few options Burke had, he had to overpay at times.
Or did he?
Burke’s insistence on speeding up the rebuilding process in Toronto has, at times, put his team’s success in jeopardy, both in the short and long term.
Whether it was Burke shipping off three draft picks (two firsts and a second round draft pick) to the Boston Bruins for the services of Kessel, the risky move of taking on Phaneuf’s salary and subsequent election as team captain, or the poor signings of Connolly and Komisarek, Burke’s wheeling and dealing, while moderately successful overall, may do more harm than good in the long run.
Burke’s most recent move was to sign second line centre Mikhail Grabovski to a five-year, $27.5 million contract. While just about every expert will acknowledge that there were few options available to Burke via free agency this summer, the Grabovski contract is yet another example of Burke being all but forced into paying too much to keep a good (but not great) player in a Maple Leaf uniform.
Once again, fans wonder if Burke should have passed on Grabovski’s demands, instead opting to take a long term approach to building his team rather than looking for that quick fix.
Don’t get me wrong, Grabovski is an effective forward and a valuable asset for the Maple Leafs, but how does Burke justify paying Grabovski more than Phil Kessel?
Maybe I’ll be proven wrong and Grabovski’s contract won’t look as bad over time? But isn’t that what Burke said about Komisarek’s contract and isn’t that what we are all telling ourselves about the deal Luke Schenn signed?
According to capgeek.com the Toronto Maple Leafs have a total of 18 players under contract for the 2012-13 season, carrying a cap hit of $57,743,333. That leaves Burke just over $6.5 million to make improvements to his team in the off-season which, unless there are significant increases in the salary cap (keeping in mind the CBA is up for renewal this fall) is not much with which to improve the hockey club.
Holes on defense, down the middle and between the pipes suggest Burke will need to make a number of key signings this summer. Barring that, Burke will have to use the trade route to acquire the talent he needs to compete.
With so many bad contracts in toe, it would appear that Burke will have trouble trading away problem players, which means Burke is likely going to be stuck with the hand he has built, which could mean another season of futility in 2012-13
Of course, there is a light at the end of the tunnel.
The 2013-14 season should offer Burke plenty of options with respect to both building his team and shipping out dead weight.
This means Burke will have the opportunity to re-sign the players he deems valuable to his organization or letting some or all of those players walk. While it is still early, outside of Lupul, it would appear that none of the aforementioned players will be with the Maple Leafs after the 2013-14 season, which means Burke will have plenty of cap space to play with.
Barring a significant raise in the salary cap or a number of trades which serve to shed salary it appears as if the next two seasons will feature a roster that will be very similar to the one we watched compete this season.
The saving grace for Burke might just be his prospects.
Forwards Joe Colborne, Nazem Kadri and Marcel Mueller are said to be close to NHL ready, while the recently acquired Carter Ashton and early season success story Matt Frattin are already getting a look this season.
Defensemen Jesse Blacker and Korbinian Holzer (who is a restricted free agent this summer) also look to be close to joining the big club, but nothing is written in stone, especially where young defensemen are concerned.
Between the pipes James Reimer is young enough to regain his form and assume the starting goaltender status with the Maple Leafs. With Jonas Gustavsson’s status up in the air (he will be an unrestricted free agent this summer) there is a chance that Burke will bring in another goaltender via free agency or look to promote Mark Owuya, Jussi Rynnas (RFA this summer) or Ben Scrivens (RFA this summer).
Of course, there is a slight chance that Greg McKegg, Brad Ross, Tyler Biggs, Stuart Percy or Jerry D’Amigo makes the jump to the NHL, but at this point all of them are long shots to be making a significant impact on the Maple Leafs fortunes by the 2013-14 season.
When you look at the big picture it appears as if Burke has his team on the right track, at least long term. Without question, the next two seasons are going to be a struggle for the Maple Leafs. A lot of their struggles will come from salary cap concerns and a lack of overall talent, but if Burke can somehow find a way to augment his roster with a couple of key additions the road to success should be a lot easier.
Let’s face it, there is plenty of pressure for Burke to not only make the playoffs, but to make a long run over the next two seasons. It would appear as if Burke’s best chance for success is not now, not within the next two seasons, but rather that now all important 2014-15 season. This is when Burke should see a number of current players evolve into leaders (Kessel, Phaneuf, Gardiner, etc.) and his prospects finally pay some dividends and when his salary cap restraints will open up.
The road to success is never an easy one, nor is it quick. Burke would be wise to stay the course and prepare his team and his salary cap for future success.
Until next time,