Burke's disaster blueprint

Maple Leafs general manager Brian Burke. (CRAIG ROBERTSON/QMI Agency file photo)

Maple Leafs general manager Brian Burke. (CRAIG ROBERTSON/QMI Agency file photo)

ROB LONGLEY, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 1:59 AM ET

TORONTO - It was a season that started with promise, though the Maple Leafs and their fans have seen that before.

But there was something different as October turned to November, wasn’t there?

And when Christmas came and went and one of the NHL’s most downtrodden teams in recent history made it to the NHL All-Star Break well-positioned to finally make it to the post-season again, the optimism had crossed from imagined to legit.

And then came the crash.

Since the great February fall — one of epic proportions even for a franchise that has had its share of serious low points — the fierceness of frustration directed toward the team is approaching historic levels.

Whether in the modern context of a franchise record (and league-high) seven seasons outside of the playoffs or the Stanley Cup drought that will now hit its 45th spring, the embarrassment continues.

General manager Brian Burke and his front-office team continues to sell hope for the future and, indeed, the depth of prospects seems impressive. But until those youngsters prove it at the NHL level and until the Leafs actually make it to the post-season, the claims are just projection.

So where did it all go wrong? Has it ever been so bad? Is there hope for the future?

All legitimate questions, each with complicated, subjective answers. We’ll address them and more over the next several days as those teams bound for the playoffs prepare for a time of year that is now but a distant memory for the Leafs and the fans Burke has often referred to as the best in the world.

Yes, the franchise record for consecutive seasons missing the post-season has been extended. And with a coaching change from Ron Wilson to Randy Carlyle earlier this month, the challenge of finding a cure by this time next year are even more complicated.

In terms of personnel to fit his coaching style, Carlyle will have different needs than his predecessor and, beyond that, the staples of a Burke blueprint aren’t in place anyway. The fact that the current players seem to have mailed it in is merely an exclamation point on the debacle.

As another losing season ends, can a summer of major change be far behind? Indeed, it will be one of the greatest challenges of Burke’s career. Does he follow his gut and stick with the plan or is the temperature getting too hot?

Piled on that challenge is the sense that fans are more belligerent in expressing their frustration than at any point in recent memory. The chants for Wilson’s head at the end of February were heeded by Burke, who fired his former college teammate three nights later.

The blame, it would seem, can be spread high and low throughout the organization.

Starting at the top, Burke must be stunned at how his plan has stalled almost four years in. No longer does he refer to the historic franchise as Big Blue as a season in which the Eastern Conference was ripe for borderline teams to hit the top eight wasn’t enough to get the Leafs through.

Burke’s blueprint of building from the net out, one of the key points stressed during the manifesto upon his hiring in late November, 2008, has failed miserably.

In net, James Reimer regressed significantly in his sophomore season and there’s a good chance Jonas Gustavsson will leave as a free agent this summer. The team opted not to secure a veteran insurance policy for Reimer last summer and it was a costly decision. Top-flight goaltending, it could be argued, might have been able to snap them out of the February funk that sunk another season.

On the blueline, Burke hasn’t been shy about spending to acquire the talent, but by any measure, the payroll hasn’t been matched by production. Mike Komisarek, his first major free-agent signing, has struggled throughout his time here. At $4.5 million per season — with one more remaining — it has been a costly struggle as well.

Luke Schenn, who played as a rookie in Wilson’s first season and showed signs of being a stud, has been inconsistent as well, while John-Michael Liles has had his struggles since signing a big contract extension earlier this season.

Phil Kessel remains without a big-league centre to justify the cost it took to bring him here while Tim Connolly, the off-season acquisition designed to fill that role, has been effective — on the wing of a checking line.

And on it goes.

While Burke has made some deals to help the club, no matter how hard he tries, he has been unable to make the big splash many expected. Part of the reason is his options have been limited, both at trade deadlines and in free agency, but that only heightens the pressure to get proven players to help out when the prospects are ready.

When the GM was unable to make significant trade-deadline deal this year, the freefall the team was on as Feb. 27 approached only accelerated. Worse yet, a franchise-record home losing streak that has now hit 10 games without a win has fuelled the anger at the Air Canada Centre. For Tuesday’s loss against Carolina — which mathematically eliminated the Leafs — attendance was sparse at the ACC, a rarity no matter how mightily the team has struggled.

If there is an organizational strength, we’ve been told often enough, it’s that the cupboard is finally stocked with young talent. While the AHL Marlies have backed that up with a strong season, the statement doesn’t carry the freight until those players begin to make an impact at the NHL level.

Rookie defenceman Jake Gardiner didn’t need the Marlies, while former No. 1 pick Nazem Kadri has had a toilet seat season — up and down between the big club several times. Others, presumably, will get their chance at training camp next fall.

Arguably the most pressing challenge is for the team to mesh personnel with the coaching tactics and philosophies of Carlyle.

The run-and-gun popularized by Wilson worked well enough during the first half of this season before checking got more serious and the referee’s whistles didn’t blow as often.

The players have to take their share of the blame as well. They looked like they were going through the motions on too many nights.

Burke — and in particular Wilson — often lamented the difficulty of maintaining a viable home-ice advantage in Toronto because opponents tend to get particularly fired up to play here. Whether it’s the prospect of performing in front of family and friends or the Saturday night spotlight of Hockey Night In Canada, the purported handicap has been cited as a crutch far too often.

Burke added an exclamation point to the notion at the trade deadline when he lamented the pressure of performing in Toronto when the incessant trade rumours swirl around them.

But we all know who excuses are for.

The players are out of answers, left to grind through gruelling Carlyle practices in the hope of making enough of an impression to give them a head start on next October’s training camp.

We’ll leave you with Burke’s words when his team was eliminated from playoff contention two years ago. Fittingly, the fiery GM could barely contain his outrage.

“My role model for building teams is (GM) Bill Torrey and the great (New York Islanders) teams,” Burke said. “Skilled. Belligerent. Big teams, built from the net out.

“I’m not interested in a five-year rebuild here.”

Four springs in, that may be the best he can hope for.


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