Burke's methodical madness

BILL LANKHOF, Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 11:09 PM ET

Some people look at the Maple Leafs and see scorched earth.

Brian Burke looks at the scorched earth and sees a blossoming sniper and a defensive corps comparable to the best in the National Hockey League.

Of course, he gets paid to say stuff like that.

Some people look at the Leafs and see a team spinning its wheels in last place. They see an offence that needs a seeing-eye dog to find the scoresheet. Aside from Phil Kessel, the only forward in double figures in goals is Nikolai Kulemin.

They can’t kill penalties and, Jean-Sebastian Giguere — with two shutouts in his Leafs debut — has gone from the second coming of Johnny Bower to tripping over his own shadow, allowing 12 goals in the past three games. Good thing, Brian Burke has a plan.

When the trade deadline came yesterday, they couldn’t give away the unfortunate Jeff Finger (it’s not his fault he’s being overpaid) or Garnet Exelby. They’re coming off an unenergetic 5-1 loss to Carolina that Burke admits left him “bewildered and furious.” And, yesterday Burke rid himself of one of the remnants of this puzzling, ineffectual group as Lee Stempniak heads to Phoenix for a couple of mid-round draft picks. In other words, considering the odds of those picks making an impact on the Leafs in the next few years, it is merely addition by subtraction. Good thing, Brian Burke has a plan.

“I don’t think the experiment worked out as he expected,” said Burke of Stempniak. “I don’t think it worked out as the team expected.” But, then, he could say that about nearly anyone who has worn a Maple Leaf this year.

When the Leafs hit the ice tonight, the only player with more than two years in a Toronto uniform will be Kaberle — and he could either be gone by next season or, said Burke, signed to an extension. All of this can get a bit confusing.

But not to Burke. He has a plan.

To start, he’s not apologizing for giving up what appears will be a lottery pick for Kessel.

“I’d do it again,” he said. “I believe in this player ... a 21-year- old who scored 36 goals in the NHL last year.”

And he took Luca Caputi, also 21, over a deal that would’ve brought a second- and fourth-round pick for Alexei Ponikarovsky. Draft schmaft, as Cliff Fletcher might say. Burke is a GM in a hurry.

“(Luca) is further along. He has played in the NHL, a guy we really liked in junior ... and as a pro. That, to me, has far greater value then a draft pick that I’m not going to see for three, four years. As you can see with the Kessel deal, we’re not interested in a five-year rebuilding plan. We’re trying to improve on a more rapid time frame. In Anaheim, it didn’t take five years.”

So, some people look at the Leafs defence and see a team that has allowed 213 goals, more than every club except Edmonton. Burke? He sees Dion Phaneuf and Kaberle, an improving Luke Schenn and Mike Komisarek coming back from injury. He sees Francios Beauchemin or Carl Gunnarsson and he says he has seen it before and it was good. Very good.

“I’ve always built teams from the blue line out. In Vancouver, when I left, I thought one through six we had the best defence in the NHL. We didn’t have a (Scott) Niedermayer or (Chris) Pronger but one through six we were as good as anybody. I feel like I can put this group up one through six against any other team in the league and say we’re comparable.”

So, maybe Kaberle doesn’t go. Maybe this team can be more than the sum of its modest parts.

“My inclination is to do nothing,” Burke said. “We’ve worked very hard to put this group together. Someone is going to have to blow me out of the water to get any of these guys out of here.”

So, never mind all those ugly numbers, Burke is still selling hope with all the earnestness of a Conestoga wagon medicine man. Maybe, because, right now, that’s about all he’s got.

bill.lankhof@sunmedia.ca


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