June 21, 2012
Everyone is watching Brian Burke
By Steve Simmons, QMI Agency
TORONTO - Under a microscope created by his inability to succeed, and all the circumstances that have surrounded that, the most important work Brian Burke will do as general manager of the Maple Leafs begins Friday.
It will be two weeks, maybe three weeks of determinations, to try and get this right after three plus years of activity without much to show for it.
And Burke will be observed and evaluated, internally, externally, like never before, by a Leaf fandom that has every right to have grown impatient and by a new ownership group, that strange consortium of competing media giants, approved this week by the National Hockey League, soon to be in charge of Burke and everything else that is Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment Ltd.
There is the NHL Draft Friday and Saturday. Free agency begins eight days after the last pick is made. This is trading time. This is planning time. This is why the Leafs hired Brian Burke in the first place: He was the hockey magician known for pulling rabbits out of hats.
He won a Stanley Cup in Anaheim bringing Chris Pronger and Scott Niedermayer to that team.
He built an every-year contender in Vancouver, along with his trusted assistant Dave Nonis, drafting the Sedin twins, Ryan Kesler, Kevin Bieksa. In Nonis' first draft with Burke's staff, he brought in Cory Schneider and Alex Edler. And Nonis traded for Roberto Luongo, which seemed the finishing point of what Burke's teams never had.
Then came Toronto, where Burke will tell you rather defiantly that he is not responsible for the fact the Leafs haven't won a Stanley Cup since 1967, sharing the longest drought in hockey with the St. Louis Blues. What he is responsible for, however, are his four seasons here and what he should be more respectful of are three before that in which the Leafs have not qualified for the post-season. Now his franchise isn't just there in longest time since victory: it is there in longest time since playing a post-season game.
If you count the season lost to lockout, it's eight years. In pro sports, or any other kind of athletic pursuit, that is longer than most athlete's lifetimes. And no one player has been a Leaf through all the misfortune the passionate fans have bravely and loudly endured.
Where does Burke start now, with all of hockey knowing he can't sneak up on them anymore, with his emperor act having been revealed too often, and with looming questions floating in all of the facets of the hockey world about his ability to continue on, his chances to succeed.
Where does Burke start now, when he needs a difference in goal, a difference-maker at centre, size and toughness on the wing, and a newer roster that fits the sandpaper mentality of his first-hired coach, Randy Carlyle. Where and how do you make a difference when desperation is apparent and there really are no more next years for Burke.
He has had his mulligans. There are no more left. He has two seasons left on his contract, but really, he has one season left of goodwill, if he has any of that left after a year of attacking turmoil and mini-feuds galore.
It is a general manager's job, under normal circumstances, to worry about today, tomorrow and the future, all in the same sentence. Burke has all but lost that luxury. Not unlike the way the unsuccessful John Ferguson managed the Leafs -- playing always for this year, leading to deals of ridiculous proportion -- Burke is caught in a headlight.
Today matters. Tomorrow matters. The future may matter, but it won't necessarily be his.
He has traded nicely in the job, bringing in Joffrey Lupul and Jake Gardiner in one deal, Dion Phaneuf in another, and the forever controversial and debatable acquisition of Phil Kessel. In a hockey environment in which trading has been nearly impossible, Burke has been a master of the big deal. He has enjoyed almost no success as purveyor in the free-agent market. He signed Mike Komisarek and Francois Beauchemin (dealt for Lupul and Gardiner), Colton Orr and Colby Armstrong, Clarke MacArthur and Tim Connolly -- and maybe only MacArthur has played to expectations. He went outside the NHL for Jonas Gustavsson and Tyler Bozak and provided them with early opportunities and mixed results. He has yet to draft a player to make the Leafs full-time: Of the 30 teams in the NHL, 24 have produced something of value to date.
Carolina added Jeffrey Skinner and Justin Faulk in one draft. Colorado added Gabriel Landeskog, Matt Duchene and Ryan O'Reilly in a short time.
The Leafs hope they have bodies for the future.
They are not certain of that. The Leaf team that ended last season had 15 of their 20 players acquired by Burke. The leftovers included James Reimer, Carl Gunnarsson, Mikhail Grabovski, Luke Schenn and Nik Kulemin. All of them are expected to go forward in Toronto. What Burke needs to upgrade: The players he has brought in. This is the challenge. This is the time.
Everybody is watching.