Is Brian Burke’s Plan Flawed?

March 14th, 2012 16 Comments

If you have ever played a game of Texas Hold’em Poker you will inevitably watch a number of short stacked players make a final push to stay in the game by offering up an all-in move.

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.

Adding to Burke’s disappointment are the sub-par performances of Jonas Gustavsson, Matthew Lombardi and Luke Schenn, who  combined to eat more than $8 million in cap room themselves.

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.

Forwards Tim Connolly, Joffrey Lupul, Matthew Lombardi, Clarke MacArthur, Colby Armstrong, Tyler Bozak and David Steckel will all be unrestricted free agents in the summer of 2013-14.

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,

Peace!

 

 

16 Comments

  1. Eli White says:

    If the Leafs are not competative over the next 2 seasons…..do you really think Kessel and/or Phaneuf (both UFA’s at the end of 2014) will be in a Maple Leaf Jersey in the 2014-2015 season?…I don’t!!!

  2. i couldnt agree more to many quick moves. burke should take his time in the trades.the leafs are going no wheres fast . or maybe get a new GM

  3. nhl fan says:

    Good article Mark.
    I like much of what Burke has done.His biggest flaw was jumping in the free agent market for a quick fix. I have never been a fan of free agent signings, they rarely work out. That goes for any team not just the leafs. When Burke took over, i knew he had a hard time ahead of him. No prospects except Schenn maybe Kulemin at the time. Your best forward was Antropov and best defenceman was Ian White maybe Kaberle. He basically had nothing to work with.

  4. Mark Ritter says:

    nhl fan-

    Agreed. Burke really had little to work with. His attempts to speed things up, albeit good willed, look to have backfired in many ways, but there are also a few highlights such as the acquisition of Kessel (we can debate the merits), Gardiner (who looks like the real deal, and the tremendous amount of prospects in the stable.

    In order for us to see the real impact Burke has made we will have to fast forward a couple of seasons, at which point the prospects will start paying dividends. If Burke drafted right, we’ll have a very competitive team on our hands, if not, it will be a disaster.

    I like Burke, but I do find he tends to overpay for free agents. I wish Burke had been here 20 years ago when the leafs could get away with outspending teams, Burke would have been a powerful foe with a limitless wallet in toe!

    Peace!

  5. Mark Ritter says:

    Gerry- at least you finally got your wish and Wilson was fired…that’s working out well so far, eh?

  6. MarkRitter says:

    No. I don’t think either one of Kessel or Phaneuf will stick around if the Leafs show negligable improvement. That said, if the price is right anything can happen, right?

  7. Dave says:

    Nice piece dude. It appears theres not too much optimism surrounding the club these days – and for good cause. I think Burkie needs to find the reason for such a collosal collapse, make the adjustments needed and move forward. Easier said than done though right? I just feel like theres more to the story than we know. This losing strech is just beyond imagination or explanation…..

  8. nhl fan says:

    I agree Dave. I think there is more than meets the eye.

  9. Mark Ritter says:

    Dave-

    Without a doubt man, there has to be more than meets the eye. At the beginning of the season a lot of Leaf bashers pointed to the fact that the Leafs had an easy schedule early on in the season. I agreed with them at the time, but hoped the team would crank mit up mid-season when the schedule got tougher and the games meant more. Well, we all know what happended, and here we are within a stones throw of a lottery pick!

    In-fighting? Lack of leadership? A rash of injuries? Naked pictures of the players? Somehting’s up for sure!

  10. peterj says:

    First of all the Leafs were not as good as some people thought they were in October, and they have been defencevely challenged with regard to team D from the get go. It should now be obvious to all that the Kessel trade was a bad trade for Toronto. By the time the Leafs are ready to go deep in the playoffs(2-3 years if they are lucky) Seguin will be the better player regardless what the other 2 players in the trade do in the NHL. Burke would be better off following Damien Cox’s idea and trade Kessel for players more in line with Carlyle’s coaching style. Kessel is an excellant 400 goal scorer but not a player you can build a team around but more of a piece you would add when your team is on the cusp going deep in the playoffs. Two years from now the Leafs still will not be ready to challenge for the Cup,and Kessel will be a free agent and I doubt he would want to resign with the Leafs based on what has happenen with the team and the struggles they face in the next couple of years.

  11. peterj says:

    That should read 40 not 400 LOL.

  12. Dave says:

    SHAAAWING!!!!! Kessel scores 400….we can all dream brother! 40 will still be a nice touch. Truth be told, he did play a pretty good two way game through the first 50 games. For some reason, he did a disapearing act after that. Not sure why really. I think Lupul has helped his two way game greatly throughout those games. And kudos to Wilson for getting him to play (yes my one kudo to Wilson Mark). Let hope he learns to be more consistant. He certainly has in terms of scoring this year. He’s still young boys. I agree though there are flaws but he has a ton of time on his side to correct them and round out.

    Dave

  13. Mark Ritter says:

    Hey Dave—

    I’ll assume you are referencing the article in the Star this week. For starters, I discussed trading Kessel a year and a half ago! At the time, I felt LA would have been a good fit. Like Peter said, Kessel will likely score 400 goals in his career, but he might not be “the guy” on your team. At the time I discussed moving Kessel I had looked at LA giving up Brayden Schenn, Andrei Lokitinov, Colten Tuebert or Jonathan Bernier. That would have amounted to three firsts (if Bernier was included) or two firsts and a fifth (Lokitinov was a fifth rounder). Outside of Bernier, none of those prospects has really made a big impact yet, although Schenn looks to be the real deal. The point is, even a trade that involves three excellent prospects coming your way can bite you in the ass, and none of those players are gonna score you 30-40 goals a season for the next decade like Kessel will inevitably do. Which brings us to your final point—Kessel is young, has a ton of upside and could round out the flaws in his game given time. I don’t ever think he will be a reliable two-way guy, but hey, Alex Mogilny became that type of player after a stint in New Jersey, so anything is possible, right?

  14. Mark Ritter says:

    Hey Dave—

    I’ll assume you are referencing the article in the Star this week. For starters, I discussed trading Kessel a year and a half ago! At the time, I felt LA would have been a good fit. Like Peter said, Kessel will likely score 400 goals in his career, but he might not be “the guy” on your team. At the time I discussed moving Kessel I had looked at LA giving up Brayden Schenn, Andrei Lokitinov, Colten Tuebert or Jonathan Bernier. That would have amounted to three firsts—the price Burke gave up for Kessel— (if Bernier was included) or two firsts and a fifth (Lokitinov was a fifth rounder). Outside of Bernier, none of those prospects has really made a big impact yet, although Schenn looks to be the real deal. The point is, even a trade that involves three excellent prospects coming your way can bite you in the ass, and none of those players are gonna score you 30-40 goals a season for the next decade like Kessel will inevitably do. Which brings us to your final point—Kessel is young, has a ton of upside and could round out the flaws in his game given time. I don’t ever think he will be a reliable two-way guy, but hey, Alex Mogilny became that type of player after a stint in New Jersey, so anything is possible, right?

  15. Jake says:

    We all know Burke is an epic failure in his attempts to improve the Leafs . They are not one bit better now than when Burke took over their stats are still the same horrible numbers .

    His big plan to build a team around Phillis Kessel and Diane Phaneuf is a backfire resounding through the hockey universe . burke has tried to bolster this team with fillers like Connolly , Armstrong and Lombardi and why is he paying Franson to warm a seat in the press box ?
    Not much else can go wrong when Grabovski’s line is not scoring like they were last season , Reimer gets concussed and Gustavsson is hot and cold . It seems Burke’s idea of team depth just isn’t brilliant and the prospects are mediocre 3rd line talent just more of them .
    The idea of Phillis kessel ever being a two way player or any kind of a game breaker seems to be lost in the fact Kessel is as soft as a babies bottom and when the games get rough he just dissappears . It is always easier to score when games don’t count for much but where is he when its is a must win game ? Phaneuf has been less than stellar his heavy shot doesn’t find the twine often enough and he goes out of position to make those big spectacular hits .
    Burke has to do better Phillis Kessel and Diane Phaneuf just aren’t good enough to lead a contender .

  16. […] of dead weight, electing to put underperforming forward Tim Connolly on waivers this afternoon.Former Maple Leaf GM Brian Burke signed Connolly, 31, away from the Buffalo Sabres last summer via free agency, awarding the […]

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