December 3, 2008
Burke must deal with Blake
By STEVE BUFFERY, SUN MEDIA
Brian Burke may be a lot of things -- hockey genius, grouch, lapsed member of the Kevin Lowe fan club -- but one persona he will not assume is that of the Grinch, having vowed not to make any major moves before the holiday season.
Of course, when the NHL roster freeze ends Dec.28, all bets are off.
But the roster freeze comes at a perfect time for the new Leafs honcho, affording him the opportunity to get to know his new team from top to bottom before he pulls the trigger on any deals.
Over the next couple of days in Phoenix, Burke plans to sit down with his head coach Ron Wilson and as many players as possible prior to the Leafs returning home on Friday.
He'll also meet with outgoing general manager Cliff Fletcher sometime during the next couple of days, as well as special assistant to the GM, Joe Nieuwendyk, and Jeff Jackson, the Leafs' assistant GM and director of hockey operations.
"I have a lot to learn," Burke said yesterday. "You don't really know a team until you've been there for a while. I can show you Calgary Flames scouting reports all day long and have a pretty strong opinion on how they play, but you don't really know a team until you're with them and you watch them on a regular basis. And this is a perfect time to do that."
Nobody on the current roster is said to be untouchable, with the possible exception of 19-year-old defenceman Luke Schenn, and perhaps Mike Van Ryn, Niklas Hagman and Vesa Toskala. Toskala has been red-hot of late and it seems Burke won't be in any hurry to ship him out, and not just because he's finally coming around after an inconsistent start.
"I believe in him, in fact, we tried to get him early in his career," Burke said of the Finnish netminder.
Having guided the Anaheim Ducks to a Stanley Cup in 2007 and turning the Vancouver Canucks organization around before that, Burke is at the stage of his career when he can do things his own way, at on his own pace, without any pressure to make any panic moves right away.
But there's one move, if he can pull it off, that would confirm his place as a true NHL front-office whiz, and help his new team take a huge step forward.
And that's finding a way to get rid of Jason Blake.
Finding someone to take Blake off his hands should be job No.1. And not just because the Moorhead, Man., native isn't scoring (he has three goals in 19 games, heading into last night's contest in San Jose).
Or the fact that his salary is ridiculous (Blake is in the second year of a five-year, $20-million US deal, and that, of course, makes him extremely difficult to trade).
It's what Blake has done off the ice that has made the 35-year-old winger absolutely expendable.
This is a young team that is learning how to win and to play together and to be solid teammates. With Blake around, that's tough.
Blake already has wigged out (at least) twice this season. Once in Calgary, when Wilson decided to bench him. Another time, when a reporter mistakenly invaded his space in an attempt to get closer to another player for an interview. Blake freaked, loudly and sarcastically offering a lowly scribe his seat and then storming to another part of the dressing room, all the while yelling and carrying on.
That's really what you don't need in a dressing room filled with impressionable young players.
And the situation doesn't promise to get any better.
Blake clearly is frustrated in Toronto, which is understandable. He came to the organization prior to last season having scored 40 goals in Long Island, and with huge expectations on his shoulders.
But for a variety of reasons, including some serious health issues, he managed to only score 15 goals in 82 games. This year, things aren't going much better (three goals in 19 games).
His lack of goal production aside, Wilson hasn't been impressed with Blake's consistency and has dropped him to the so-called plumber line.
Blake, as he said just the other day, does not consider himself a plumber, and never will be happy playing that role. And given that Wilson is not about to hand Blake a spot on the top two lines just to make his frustrated forward happy, expect Blake to continue his grousing and gripping.
Leafs fans are willing to give Burke plenty of time to turn the organization around (and thanks to Cliff Fletcher, that's begun).
But it will be a major failure on his part if he's unable to find a way to deal Blake. And soon.