Instead, the Leafs of 2011-12 became a team that had speed to burn, but one that couldn’t rely on strong goaltending when it was absolutely needed. Under Ron Wilson in the first several months of the season, they earned an honest reputation as a team that was difficult to contain.
But part of what led to Wilson’s firing on March 2 was the players’ inability to adjust when referees began blowing their whistles less often. The Leafs couldn’t find a way through bulky opposition and certainly were not built to fight fire with fire. Mike Brown is a fine fore-checker and all, but when his absence because of injury is painfully obvious, it makes clear the fact that so few other Leafs throw the body around.
Here’s the thing with Burke and the team he thought he could make: It’s not so much that his philosophy changed during the past three-plus years. Given a magic wand, we’re sure he would have materialized out of thin air a brawny, talented team that could win the Stanley Cup.
But what happened along the way was Burke learned that saying one thing and having the ability to back it up went together like oil and water.
“A lot of what Burke said when he was hired was hyperbole, but he really did have every confidence that he could turn the fortunes of the Leafs a lot sooner,” TSN analyst and former NHL GM Craig Button said. “It’s a lot easier to acquire players that fit in your bottom half of forwards, those guys six-to-12, and defencemen who are in the four-to-seven range, than it is to acquire skill and top-end players.”
For Burke, it was crucial to start the Leafs rebuild by acquiring a goaltender who could, eventually, lead the Leafs to a Cup. Yet the Leafs, in the first summer that Burke had an opportunity to make a splash, signed free-agent goalie Jonas Gustavsson, who was tearing it up at home in Sweden but otherwise was an unproven netminder.
Burke finally got Gustavsson signed on July 7 that year, beating Dallas, San Jose and Colorado in the Monster race. The hope was that Gustavsson would replace Vesa Toskala in the future. Among the goalies available in free agency that summer who actually had NHL experience were Nikolai Khabibulin, Martin Biron and Craig Anderson.
Burke’s scouts must have led him to believe he was getting the best goalie on the planet not playing in the NHL when he signed Gustavsson. Said Burke at the time: “I don’t know if I’ve ever worked this hard to get any one player.”
Had this season unfolded as he had wished, Burke’s goalies would have been Gustavsson and James Reimer. The latter, of course, was a draft pick by then-GM John Ferguson Jr. in 2006. Reimer, still just 24, seemingly has the potential to be a starter.
But now, through no fault of the goalie nor Burke, there always will be the worry that the next bump on the head is one that could significantly alter Reimer’s career path. Perhaps that has happened already.
Gustavsson? The one that didn’t get away? Burke signed him and re-signed him a year later. The 27-year-old will be an unrestricted free agent in July. It’s time for Burke to let Gustavsson go. Put simply, had Burke really tried to build from the back end out, there’s a strong possibility the Leafs would be preparing for playoff competition. Sharp goaltending can make a mediocre team look a lot better than it really is.
The truculence and belligerence and all the other words that mean the same thing haven’t become reality in Leafs Nation. What’s more, not every team has to have those attributes to be difficult to play against. No one will argue that the Detroit Red Wings will beat you in the alley and on the ice. The Vancouver Canucks didn’t win the Stanley Cup last spring, but they advanced to Game 7 against the Boston Bruins with a team that many feel wasn’t the toughest around.
Success can be had without it. But Burke hasn’t been able to get that done either.
In fact, many of the players that Burke has acquired during his tenure aren’t physical players. And those who might have played that way in the past mostly have not while wearing blue and white.
The most expensive acquisitions Burke has made through free agency are centre Tim Connolly and defenceman Mike Komisarek. Connolly never will be confused with a player who body-checks people, and there was not exactly a run on his services last summer. For the most part, big-game free agents sign quickly, unless they’re mulling over multiple offers (see Richards, Brad). But that’s not why Connolly still was available when the Leafs signed him to a two-year, $9.75 million US contract a day after the free agency window opened last July.
Komisarek gained a reputation as a hard-nosed shot-blocker with the Montreal Canadiens, but that is not the way he has played with the Leafs. A healthy scratch this season a lot more than he will ever tell his grandkids, Komisarek is under contract for the next two seasons at a $4.5-million US cap hit.
If anything, Komisarek, an engaging person off the ice who has bitten his tongue all season, represents Burke’s flimsy view of his defence corps. Where the talk of the group usually has centred on its depth, that’s in numbers only. We know Dion Phaneuf has his detractors, but would Carl Gunnarsson, for example, be a top-two defenceman anywhere else in the NHL? Cody Franson is a big kid at 6-foot-5 and 213 pounds, but even he will tell you that physical play for a guy his size always has been an issue. Luke Schenn might one day develop a mean streak, but under Wilson, instead was stunted.
Another of Burke’s big-time acquisitions on the blue line, John-Michael Liles, is the lone Toronto blueliner under six feet. Pugnacious? No.
Burke’s group of forwards never became what he envisioned. Of the two marquee forwards, Phil Kessel is speedy and gifted and can score goals, but steers clear of traffic. Joffrey Lupul’s resurgence this season was ended by a shoulder injury, but he did more than enough to be the Leafs’ nominee for the Masterton Trophy.
After those two, there are a lot of serviceable players — Mikhail Grabovski the best among them — but none will grab you by the throat.
Two players that Burke figured would demonstrate truculence, Colton Orr and Jay Rosehill, instead have spent chunks of the season in the minors. Colby Armstrong is enthusiastic, but has been hurt a lot and when he is healthy, has had trouble keeping up with the pace.
On the other hand, Matthew Lombardi darts around like a waterbug, but no one is going to ask him to hit anything. Burke has several of both kinds of player — fast and unwilling to play hard or slower but with a bent for physical play.
But once teams found a way to take speed out of the Leafs’ game, the club was stuck with not a lot of either one.
Burke had to swallow a ton of pride when he sent Orr to the Marlies in January, but the truth is, the NHL is moving past the one-dimensional player. Fight if you want, fine, but you had better bring something else to the dance.
What’s troubling, if you’re thinking that way, is that Burke hasn’t been working with a skeleton staff. Where he and every other NHL team have to work within the restrictions of the salary cap with regard to the player rosters, no such limits influence Burke in the hiring process with the front office. Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment has done all it can to provide Burke with the financial help to fill out a staff as he sees fit, and it has become one of the biggest in the NHL. But the enlarged staff hasn’t found a common ground on procuring the right players to ensure success both in the short and long term.
The rambunctious style that Burke purports to like is more in line with the coaching philosophy of Randy Carlyle than it was with Wilson. Burke said as much when Carlyle was hired and signed to a three-year contract in March. Carlyle’s hockey team in a perfect world will bruise along the boards, cycle the puck and be a terror in the corners.
As much as it has been a test for Burke to get the Leafs organization on the right track, the hardest challenge to conquer could come between the end of the regular season and the start of training camp in September.
The Leafs don’t scare anyone. Do teams that have the right balance of skill and the other intangibles that make them great have to worry about battles to stay out of the basement in their respective conferences?
In order for Burke to finally get around to building the kind of team he has always wanted, and one that his coach wants as well, he’s going to have to skew more toward an overhaul than minor tinkering.
He’s going to have to do it in an NHL world that isn’t chock-full of those kinds of players in free agency. George Parros? It’s going to take more than that.
Trade-wise, Burke is going to have to deal with colleagues, many of whom have zero sympathy for him as the Leafs have failed miserably, who won’t be willing to give players away.
In other words, Burke is going to have to be both tenacious and skilled when he attempts to revamp the roster this off-season.
We’ll be curious to see how that all unfolds.
Pens amused by Burke rant
PITTSBURGH — It didn’t take long for Maple Leafs general manager Brian Burke’s assessment of the Pittsburgh Penguins’ rebuild to make its way to the Consol Energy Center.
And you can bet there was a certain amount of laughter in the players’ lounge when the topic came up, according to a couple of Penguins players.
At his season-ending press conference, Burke dropped an instant classic when he was asked about following the Pittsburgh model to success.
“Pittsburgh model, my ass,” Burke said at the Air Canada Centre on Tuesday. “They won a lottery and they got the best player in the game.”
Burke, of course, was referring to Penguins captain Sidney Crosby, whom the team was able to select first overall in the 2005 entry draft.
“We played most of the season without Sid and we did all right,” Penguins defenceman Brooks Orpik said on Wednesday prior to his team’s playoff opener, a destination the Leafs have yet to visit under Burke’s watch. “Definitely, there were some years where we got some high draft picks, but just because you draft high doesn’t mean you are automatically guaranteed guys are going to pan out.
“I think we got lucky with some guys, but that’s just the way it is.”
— Rob Longley