This is what Brian Burke does. He isnít much of a singles hitter. He swings for the fences.
Sometimes home runs. Sometimes strikeouts. Rarely, can the man be dull.
Today, Dion Phaneuf is a Maple Leaf. If someone had suggested last month or last year that this was even a possibility, we might have all laughed about it. Phaneuf was supposed to be on the Canadian Olympic team. Thatís what everybody said. Now, in a season gone wrong in Calgary and Toronto, he is a Leaf. This is Part 2 in the building of the Burke regime in Toronto, one year and two months later than some people had hoped.
This is Burke making the Maple Leafs his team. Yesterday was a day of statement trades for the Leafs: They didnít just get rid of players. Burke systematically eliminated from his roster those he had nothing to do with acquiring. In one brisk afternoon, 30% of his playing roster was sent packing. This is the beginning of the housecleaning ó Burke doing what he has done before.
Finally, these are becoming his Maple Leafs.
Phaneuf is a building-block defenceman, not without questions, not without issues, just a kid at 24 who has scored almost as many goals from the back end as Matt Stajan has scored playing centre. Phaneuf is the kind of player Burke loves to target. Talented. Edgy. Troubled. Mysterious. And, yes, truculent. Phaneuf is all of those things. He could be the next Chris Pronger. He could be the next Bryan McCabe. Thatís the rub.
But Burke doesnít seem to care much about what other people say, that Phaneuf was about as popular as dandruff in the Calgary locker room, that the Flames will probably have a going away party for Phaneuf without him. He cares what the player can be, what he believes he can be. The rest, he figures, will take care of itself.
That is all part of the homer/strikeout balancing act. This is twice in this hockey season that Burke has made a splash on the rather inactive trade market. The rest of the National Hockey League has sat around and twiddled thumbs and complained how deals arenít made anymore: Burke canít stand losing, canít stop pushing and, for a high price, he brought in a sure-thing goal-scorer in Phil Kessel and, for less of a price yesterday, he wound up with Phaneuf.
Two players to build his new team around. Two players of immense upside and significant doubt. Where else can you find established kids who can play? They come with an asterisk. The new Leafs are about to be built around a goal scorer and a monster defenceman with a huge slap shot who are not revered as leaders, not considered the best of guys and maybe, like the general manager himself, are the kind of players who rub people the wrong way. That can work or it can blow up. But the allure of the home run hitter remains. The gamble is impossible to resist.
And along the way, the Leafs need to find out if Phaneuf is like Pronger was in Hartford, too young to take over a team, too immature to understand how to make the right decisions, too undisciplined for a structured system. This is like buying in on a stock at the right time: The owner was desperate to sell, the price was as low it will ever be, the upside is potentially grand.
Burke likes to say he builds from the blue line out. In Anaheim, he took over a team that had a defence of Niclas Havelid, Vitaly Vishnevsky, Sandis Ozolinsh, Ruslan Salei, Lance Ward and Keith Carney. When the Ducks won the Stanley Cup just two years later, they had Pronger, Scott Niedermayer, Francois Beachemin and Sean OíDonnell, Joe DiPenta and Kent Huskins on the back end. Burke not only had changed all six rearguards, but he rid himself of four European defencemen along the way.
The change in culture, chemistry, attitude and ability was not just necessary when Burke took over the Leafs. It was mandatory. Amazing how all this happens after Jamal Mayers asks to be traded.