Brian Burke’s unwillingness to fire coach Ron Wilson, or even consider the possibility, puts the pressure of fixing the current and latest Maple Leafs mess squarely on his broad shoulders.
But here is the grand contradiction of all that is going on with the Leafs: Burke likes the coaching staff and has been steadfast in not wanting to make a change. He also said he believes in his roster and the character of his players. And if he is, in fact, being downright honest, which is his norm, how then do you fix the 28th-best team in hockey?
In the old days, you’d start trading people. But in the salary-cap world, and with players of little value in the trade market, it doesn’t leave Burke many roster options post Christmas. The difficulty, from afar, is that Burke and the Leafs have invested far too much in players who have not lived up to either expectations or their salary slotting.
Other than Clarke MacArthur, Burke has not added a single player to the Leafs roster who in two years has performed at, or beyond, expectations. He has changed both goaltenders, four of his seven defencemen, 10 of his best starting 12 forwards.
It is no longer someone else’s team.
But his main acquisitions of the summer, Kris Versteeg, Colby Armstrong and Brett Ledba are a combined total of minus-35. Armstrong has scored one goal as a Leaf. Lebda, a defenceman, recently played forward.
The four major acquisitions of his first full season — Phil Kessel, Mike Komisarek, Francois Beachemin and Dion Phaneuf — are paid $22.5 million US combined, star money for middle-of-the-pack, or in at least one case, lower than that, players.
How to correct all that? Most GMs would have fired the coach by now, but this much we’ve learned: Brian Burke is his own man. He’s not like most GMs.
This and that
The very real anger of Leafs fans hasn’t been this much on display since the Harold Ballard years. The reason for it, I believe, is that fans truly expected Burke to make a signficant impact in the direction in which the team is going. When that hasn’t happened, and Wilson blames everybody but himself, it only escalates the disappointment of another losing season, especially one without the benefit of a first-round pick to rely on ... Bad timing for the Leafs on their Boxing Day game against the terrible New Jersey Devils. The Devils just fired their coach, John MacLean, and were whipped in their first game under the venerable Jacques Lemaire, who doesn’t take kindly to being whipped ... In between sentences, Jonas Gustavsson smashed another goalie stick over the crossbar ... Don’t know if the Philadelphia Eagles will win the Super Bowl and don’t care. But can’t remember a team with two players of such high excitement — DeSean Jackson and Michael Vick. Every Sunday, they give you something for your money.
Hear and there
When Matt Stajan signed his four-year, $14-million extension with the Calgary Flames, an NHL executive wondered: “Where was that reported, The Comedy Network?” ... What Sidney Crosby is accomplishing this season finally puts him into the stratosphere of great all-time NHL players. He’s not anywhere near Gretzky-Lemieux territory yet, but he’s climbing somewhere near the periphery of that range. And on the subject of Mario Lemieux, the best moments of the second segment of 24/7 on HBO were watching Lemieux on the ice for the first time in five years. His hands are still ridiculous ... If he had no goals this season, Hart Trophy winner Henrik Sedin would still be 15th in NHL scoring ... This is how good a year the Leafs’ MacArthur is having: He is tied in points with Michael Cammalleri and ahead of Daniel Briere, Thomas Vanek and Patrick Elias .... There is no truth to the suggestion that Larry Smith is in charge of American expansion of the Senate ... Great day for TV watching: Green Bay and the New York Giants at 1 p.m., Canada-Russia world juniors at 4.
Scene and heard
This may be more a comment about the NBA than it is about the strength of the Raptors. With a 10-19 won-lost record, the Raps are tied for 22nd in the league. With 12 wins in 33 games, the Leafs are 28th in the NHL. How proud they must be at MLSEL ... The difference between Burke and Bryan Colangelo this sloppy season: Colangelo has a worse roster, but better contracts going forward ... You can make an argument that no Leaf or Raptor deserves to play in an all-star game this coming year. The closest player, Andrea Bargnani, isn’t likely to be asked ... The real question on the Rex Ryan foot fetish thing: Who posted that on the Internet? And if it was Ryan or his wife, isn’t that just a little creepy? ... The phoniest thing ever: In light of the Winter Classic, listening to today’s NHL players reminiscing about growing up playing on outdoor rinks when the majority of them played all their minor hockey and did all their training and practising, indoors ... Can’t decide what I want to watch more: The Franklin American Mortgage Music City Bowl or GoDaddy.com Bowl? So hard to choose ... I see where Charles Oakley is now an assistant coach with the Charlote Bobcats, which begs the question: Will anyone who doesn’t speak Oakley understand a word he says? .... Randy Moss is denying that he called a Nashville call-in show and complained about Titans coach Jeff Fisher. And, in the spirit of the season, we believe him ... And what’s this we’re hearing about the Yankees going after Manny Ramirez? If they’re moving Jorge Posada to DH, what do they want with Manny?
And another thing
Is there any truth to the rumour that Ontario Athletic Commissioner Ken Hayashi wanted to cancel Boxing Day? ... A quick holiday tip: If you haven’t seen The Fighter, don’t walk, run to your closest theatre. It’s that good. And they made the Micky Ward movie without really referencing the trilogy of classic fights against the late Arturo Gatti ... My favourite trade of 2010: Darryl Sutter trading away his son, Brett. And tell me, as a parent, you haven’t thought of doing that at least once? ... The Hamilton Tiger-Cats still don’t have a stadium plan. The Argos play in the wrong stadium. So isn’t it worth revisiting the old plan — an outdoor stadium somewhere between Toronto and Hamilton that could house both teams? Hell, if two rival New York teams can play in the same stadium, and it’s not even in New York, surely two southern Ontario teams could do the same ... What were people doing on Christmas Day? Apparently trying to get on Twitter, which was over capacity Saturday afternoon ... All of a sudden, Atlanta is a big-time sports town, with the Hawks, Thrashers, Falcons and Braves all having winning seasons in the same calendar year ... Happy birthday to Norm Ullman (75), Bill Wennington (34), Jake Wetzel (34), Ozzie Smith (56), Carlton Fisk (63), and Mike Willis (60) ... Merry Christmas and Happy New Year to all ... And hey, whatever became of Pat Elynuik?
Jays take a step back
Not impressed so far with Alex Anthopoulos’ off-season. The Blue Jays have traded away a staple from their pitching staff, Shaun Marcum, and have yet to add a body of consequence to their 25-man big league roster. Right now, the roster minus Marcum, closer Kevin Gregg, setup man, Scott Downs, first baseman Lyle Overbay, is weaker in starting pitching, bullpen depth and certainly defensively than they were a year ago. Anthopoulos likes to preach patience, so there is lots of time between now and spring training to add some parts. But after losing out on former Cy Young Award winner, Zach Greinke, Anthopoulos has much to do just to equal what he had when last season ended or could have had, had he brought in Grienke.
We lost them in 2010 but they will never be forgotten. Rest In Peace: Pat Burns, Charlie Francis, Sparky Anderson, Ernie Harwell, Jim Kelley, Mark Dailey, Brendan Burke, Nodar Kumaritashvili, Bob Probert, Gene Kiniski, George Steinbrenner, Dandy Don Meredith, Ron Santo, Bob Feller, Bobby (“the Giants win the pennant”) Thomson, John Wooden, Manute Bol, Baron Mikel Scicluna, Mike (Makhan Singh) Shaw, George Blanda, Don Coryell, Lorenzen Wright, Juan Antonio Samaranch, Gaye Stewart, Eddie Litzenberger, J.D. Salinger, Leslie Nielsen.
Timing wrong on Kovalchuk
The problem with the Ilya Kovalchuk signing, aside from the obvious things like length and size of contract, was that the timing seemed way off. The New Jersey Devils have had a terrific 15-year run, piloted by the superb goaltending of Martin Brodeur and with a team defence that included the best of Scott Stevens, Scott Niedermayer, Brian Rafalski and more. Here’s the problem: Brodeur is nearing the end and he can’t do what he once could. Stevens and Niedermayer and a lot of others are retired and Rafaski is a Red Wing. The structure that made the Devils great is no more and Kovalchuk is the wrong part for the wrong time. How Lou Lamoriello, one of the brightest and most successful minds in hockey, didn’t see that is really astonishing.