Brian Burke Fired: The Enemy You Know

by Jacob Saltiel
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Not so good… Not so good.

Yes, the timing is odd for firing a general manager, and, yes, Burke’s final legacy as GM of the Leafs remains unclear, but based on the last 4 years, it’s doesn’t look good.

From the Canadiens’ perspective, it’s better the enemy that you know than the enemy that you don’t, and while Burke was extremely astute at picking up undervalued assets through trade, the organization’s ineptitude at the draft, signing unrestricted free agents, and the glaring overpay for Phil Kessel left the Leafs less of a rival and more of an object of pity for Habs fans, who have been left free to hate the Bruins for the last 4 years.

A quick glance at the current Leafs’ roster reveals that almost all of the players currently on the team have been acquired by Burke, except for a few draft picks, such as Carl Gunnarsson or Nikolai Kulemin, left over from John Ferguson Jr.’s tenure.

Over Burke’s regime, the Leafs have never finished higher than 13th place in the East in goals allowed, including a non-misprint of 367 goals allowed 2009-2010. Check it out:

Goals Against (Rank in Conference):

’09: 293 (15th)

’10: 367 (15th)

’11: 251 (13th)

’12: 264 (14th)

So the Leafs haven’t been able to play defence, who did Burke bring in?

Mike Komisarek, Dion Phaneuf, Francois Beauchemin, John-Michael Liles, Keith Aulie, Carl Franson, and Luke Schenn were some combination of drafted, traded for, and signed. Darren Dreger was, at the time, quite fond of saying “The Leafs are starting to get some big horses on the backend”, which statement, given the quality of that defence over the past few years, might not have been a metaphor.

Meanwhile in nets, barring a short stretch of games played by James Reimer in 2010-2011, the goaltending of the Leafs has been mediocre (J.S. Giguere) or awful (Jonas Gustavsson). The hype around Gustavsson, whose nickname, “The Monster”, was reported by, again, Dreger, before having played a single NHL or AHL game, probably highlights just how desperate the goaltending has been.

The forwards, on the other hand, have not been all bad. Leaving aside for now the price they paid to acquire him, Kessel has scored at least 30 goals every season for the Leafs, often playing alongside below-average centremen. Discount pickups such as Clarke MacArthur and Joffrey Lupul have scored at least 20 goals as Leafs, while former Hab Mikhail Grabovski has provided good 2nd line quality offence for the relatively low price of a 2nd round pick and late round prospect.

Here’s how the Leafs ranked in Goals Scored over Burke’s tenure:

Goals Scored (Rank in conference)

’09: 250 (7th)

’10: 214 (13th)

’11: 218 (11th)

’12: 231 (6th)

While inconsistent, they’ve twice been in the top 8 in scoring despite minimal 3rd and 4th line contributions. Burke’s clearly stated philosophy of having 2 scoring lines  and 2 gritty lines might be at fault here. The acquisition of players such as Joey Crabb, Mike Brown, David Steckel, and the minutes given to Jay Rosehill and Colton Orr over the years has been typical, and almost certainly hasn’t helped that offensive ranking, despite any advantages in grit they may represent. Here’s a philosophy: how about acquiring the best possible players for your coach?

The result of this combination of players is that the Leafs have never finished higher than 10th in the eastern conference in goal differential, and have never been closer than 8 points, or 4 wins, from making the playoffs during Burke’s tenure.

Not pretty, but then, given the mess he was left with, it’s not entirely reasonable to blame the results on Burke. Oft repeated but still worth repeating, the team is still paying Darcy Tucker. Vesa Toskala was the starting goaltender based on the assets (1st, 2nd round picks) unloaded to acquire him when Burke arrived. Matt Stajan was allegedly the centre of the future. The team’s best player, Sundin, had just left the team with his contract expired- despite high demand from playoff teams for his services the previous year.

To Burke’s credit, he quickly turned over the team, trading away overpaid veterans, signing valued free agents and made the team younger and more talented.

Burke signed Tyler Bozak, who, considering he was signed for nothing more than money, was a steal. In the same vein, the signing of Clarke MacArthur was also a mostly low-risk investment that turned into a 20-goal scoring asset.

When making trades in this manner, Burke is at his best. Consider that he signed Beauchemin for free, and then, when Beauchemin’s contract was due to expire, somehow got Jake Gardiner and Joffrey Lupul for him. This is the type of trade all fans want their GM’s to achieve.

Similarly, Burke was able to trade nothing but spare parts (Hagman, Stajan, White, and Mayers) for Dion Phaneuf, who although being on an expensive contract, is a young defenceman who can score and hit, though at the time his dubious skills as an actual defender were not quite so glaring. Still, the fans of 28 other teams would have killed to be on the Phaneuf end of that deal.

And on it goes; turning Kaberle(!) into a 1st round draft pick, and a conditional pick along with recent 1st round pick Joe Colborne was also a great trade.

In fact, because of these types of acquisitions, the Leafs, in general, have much more talent than 4 years ago.

The above-mentioned is, however, a small consolation when you consider the disastrous Kessel trade. In retrospect, it’s easy to say that Burke was overconfident in his team when he made the trade. It’s easy to say that he overpaid for Kessel, and, indeed, he did pay a steep price, but then he thought he was getting a star player who could score 40 goals, and there’s still time to be proved right on that.

Where he really erred was in the evaluation of the quality of his entire team, and how the pieces fit together. This oversight resulted in handing 2 top-10 picks in strong drafts to a division rival and accidentally trading away the possibility of drafting young, cheap players that could lead the team for years. Burke’s outburst that “the Penguins won a god-damn lottery” shows how little he values the years of cheap control that come with players just entering the league compared to veterans with more clearly defined skills who cost more to pay and trade for.

Nonis will take over the team, one that, after this season, won’t be in terrible shape cap-wise. They have several recent draft picks who might become core pieces in the next 5 years in the form of Tyler Biggs, Stuart Percy, and Morgan Rielly, and after next season, their only long-term commitments are to Mikhail Grabovski, James van Riemsdyk, and John-Michael Liles on respectable contracts. If Van Riemsdyk develops into a 30 goal scorer, then his contract will be undervalued.

Goaltending and defence will remain a problem, but at least Nonis will have some assets to trade in order to improve. Besides, replacing Burke with his assistant likely won’t improve the scouting and development team that produced Schenn and Kadri, though there are still a few years to determine how good they may be. As of this moment, it looks like Burke was quite capable at acquiring good players, but he never managed to put together a good team. Habs fans can await to see what his successor can trade for Luongo a second time, and what else he will make of what was left to him.

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