If Brian Burke wanted to turn the Maple Leafs into a winner as quickly as possible when he was hired in November 2008, one couldn’t blame him.
After all, he barely was 18 months removed from a Stanley Cup title as general manager of the Anaheim Ducks, and there was no five-year plan required to ensure the Ducks lifted the Cup for the first time.
Patience or no patience — during his time as Leafs GM, Burke has both preached it and said a five-year plan was of no interest to him — Burke has come nowhere close to building the kind of team he helped put together in short order in Anaheim.
Of the 26 players whose names were on the Cup roster in the spring of 2007, Burke acquired, through trade or free agency or waivers, no less than 16 of them after he was hired as GM in June 2005. There were some who made enough appearances in a Ducks uniform to get their names inscribed on the silver mug, then were never heard from again.
And of the 10 that Burke inherited, several were important cogs or were on the verge of becoming that. A pair of 2003 first-round draft picks — forwards Corey Perry and Ryan Getzlaf — put the exclamation marks on solid sophomore seasons when they played integral roles in the Ducks’ Cup run. Getzlaf led the Ducks in scoring at the conclusion of the playoffs with 17 points and Perry was right behind with 15. Getzlaf and Perry were on the verge of NHL stardom.
Burke has said numerous times during his tenure as GM of the Leafs that it’s paramount to build from the net out (a tenet that every GM should hold), but in Anaheim, he didn’t have to do that. Jean-Sebastien Giguere, one of a few players who were part of the Ducks team that lost against the New Jersey Devils in the 2003 Cup final, already was minding the Ducks goal. His backup, Ilya Bryzgalov, had been selected by the Ducks in the 2000 entry draft but had appeared in only two games for Anaheim prior to the lockout that killed the 2004-05 season.
At forward, Burke was able to construct the kind of team he has tried, but failed, to build in Toronto. A mix of skill and brawn? The Ducks had it, and a lot of it was Burke’s doing.
With the re-acquisition of Teemu Selanne in the summer of 2005, Burke got a bit lucky. Selanne was coming off a 16-goal season with the Colorado Avalanche and was not getting any younger, having turned 35 a month before Burke signed him as a free agent. But Selanne scored 40 goals that season and then had 48 in the Cup year.
No other forwards Burke brought in had as much impact on the scoresheet, but Travis Moen, Todd Marchant, Bray May and Ryan Shannon all aided in carrying the load.
Where Burke made the biggest contribution to the Cup-winning team through player moves was on the blue line. And like he would eventually do in Toronto, where only one defenceman, Luke Schenn, remains from the roster that he inherited in 2008, there was a large overhaul.
The differences couldn’t be more distinct, though. None of Dion Phaneuf, Mike Komisarek, John-Michael Liles and Cody Franson, all acquired through trade or free agency, could have been asked to have a similar impact to those Burke got in Anaheim.
Perhaps he has over-estimated each — in Phaneuf, Komisarek and Liles, you could win that argument rather easily — but that was not the case in Orange County.
Burke signed Scott Niedermayer as a free agent in August 2005, the same month Randy Carlyle was hired as head coach. Not quite a year later, Burke traded for Chris Pronger, sending future Leaf Joffrey Lupul, Ladislav Smid and three draft picks (one that became Jordan Eberle) to the Edmonton Oilers.
Niedermayer, one of the NHL’s smoothest and steadiest defencemen, already had three Cup rings from his time as a New Jersey Devil. Pronger, who would just as soon run you over as skate past, would have been the No. 1 defenceman on the majority of other NHL teams.
The Leafs have no one approaching the experience and leadership Niedermayer and Pronger took to the Ducks.
It wasn’t just that pair that got it done. Burke had acquired Francois Beauchemin in a trade with Columbus the previous season. In an overall performance that he has not matched since, Beauchemin averaged more than 30 minutes a game through the Cup march.
Burke thought Beauchemin could be a cornerstone on the Leafs blue line, signing him in July 2009. Didn’t work out that way. Beauchemin was traded back to Anaheim in the deal that sent Lupul and Jake Gardiner to the Leafs. It has turned out to be the best trade Burke has made, including the fleecing of the Calgary Flames in the Phaneuf swap.
With Anaheim, Burke also acquired another rock for the blue line in the form of veteran Sean O’Donnell.
Others who played that spring on the Ducks blue line — Kent Huskins, Joe DiPenta, Ric Jackman — were Burke hires.
In the two seasons between the Ducks’ 2003 Cup loss against the Devils and their Cup win, Anaheim lost in the Western Conference final in 2006 against the upstart Oilers in Burke’s first year on the job. They missed the playoffs in 2004.
Burke did some good things to build a solid club when he was the GM of the Vancouver Canucks from 1998-2004. When Burke took over in June 1998, the Canucks had missed the playoffs the previous season. The next two years didn’t include the Canucks in the playoffs either.
But though the Canucks then went on a four-year run of earning at least 90 points — topping out at 104 in 2002-03 — they were a playoff disappointment under Burke. In three of the four seasons they advanced to the Cup tournament with Burke as GM, the Canucks were eliminated in the first round. Maybe playoff-starved Leafs Nation will see that as success. In reality, it’s not.
And that whole thing again about building from the net out? If only Burke had the “problem” that has become the Roberto Luongo-Cory Schneider one-two punch. When he was in charge of the Canucks, Burke hung his hat on Dan Cloutier. Also in the mix at times were Felix Potvin, Bob Essensa, Peter Skudra and Alex Auld. None are going to the Hockey Hall of Fame without paying an admission fee, like the rest of us, first.
Burke’s fingerprints were still on the Canucks team that lost in Game 7 of the Cup final last June against the Boston Bruins.
The behind-the-scenes manoeuvring that enabled Burke to draft the Sedin twins in 1999 finally bore fruit when Henrik and Daniel played vital roles in the Canucks’ path to the final. Ryan Kesler was selected by the Canucks 23rd overall in 2003. Defenceman Kevin Bieksa, who logged more than 25 minutes in the playoffs, was a Burke pick in 2001. Defenceman Sami Salo had been acquired in a trade with Ottawa in 2002.
But Luongo, without whom the Canucks would not have gone as far as they did, was acquired by David Nonis in 2006, a year after Burke headed south for Anaheim.
So Burke had a big Irish hand in the Ducks’ only Cup title. But you know what? That’s it. We’re not talking about Ken Holland or Lou Lamoriello here. There has been no building of teams that consistently challenge.
Perhaps it shouldn’t be a surprise to those in Leafland that Burke’s ability to turn the organization around has taken longer than anyone, including Burke himself, envisioned.
Burke is in the same boat as Jim Rutherford in Carolina, Jay Feaster when he was the GM in Tampa Bay, Stan Bowman in Chicago. One Cup title, which, in an NHL that now prides itself on parity, is not a bad thing.
But for now, as Leafs fans realize with each passing day, nothing more.