Same Story, Different Characters

Ryan MatlackContributor IMarch 4, 2009

After tonight’s game against the New Jersey Devils, life at the Air Canada Centre will be different—hopefully.

It’s not that a win or loss against the Atlantic Division leaders will make or break the Toronto Maple Leafs season.

It will make little difference, despite the fact that it would add a fifth game to a win streak that has probably surprised even those within the Toronto locker room.  

It won’t matter—the Leafs will most definitely miss the playoffs, again.

Alas, this is nothing new in Toronto, as arguably the most storied franchise hasn’t played more than 82 games in a season since the 2003-04 season, the year preceding the NHL lockout.

So why will things be different at the ACC, down Bay St. and the rest of Toronto, the province of Ontario, Canada, and wherever “Leafs Nation” lies?

Brian Burke.

It is his turn to wear the bulls’ eye suit complete with the target stitched on the jacket’s back.

John Ferguson Jr. was stripped of arguably the hardest job in hockey during the 07-08 season, and interim Cliff Fletcher handed it over midseason to Brian Burke, along with the role of president.

Despite what many saw in the motion picture comedy, “The Love Guru,” Jessica Alba was not the owner or president of the Leafs, much to the disappointment of many blue and white die-hards. Before Burke took the role, it belonged to the often-ridiculed Richard Peddie, who didn’t have the sports background and long, smooth legs to hush critics.

Burke has only been with the team for a couple of months since trading in the sunshine and a championship defending team for colder weather and an even harsher, yet faithful following. Yet, by the trade deadline on Wednesday at 3 p.m., the decisions made by the 53 year-old could make or break his stint in Toronto.

It has been well-documented in Toronto and throughout the NHL rumor pipeline that Burke and his front-office staff will be among the busiest, trying to work out deals, blockbuster or not. There has been little change so far this season, as the Leafs have only acquired veterans Brad May and Lee Stempniak.

However, it won’t take a multi-team, multi-player trade, such as one that brought Leaf legend Doug Gilmour to Toronto, to turn around the franchise’s fate and send them to the Stanley Cup playoffs.

What Burke has been known to do throughout his career is stay clear of the newspapers and blogs for advice and focus on his master plan. This is the perfect attitude for a Toronto General Manager, as nine people have accepted the pressure filled position and eventually or instantly collapsed since 1967, the last time Toronto captured Lord Stanley’s Cup.

Will Burke be one of those nine, just another name to the infamous list, another character in the ongoing tragedy that is the Toronto Maple Leafs? Or will he make the trades that have to be made? Will he start over, something the Leafs halfheartedly tried to do following the lockout season, mixing aged veterans with undeveloped prospects?

It is unlikely he will have the start that Ferguson had in the 03–04 playoffs, as the ex-GM led the team to the Eastern Conference finals. However, that team was the fifth straight to make the postseason, dating back to 1999.

The lockout apparently affected Ferguson's negotiation skills, as a handful of solid contributors to those playoff teams left via free agency, thus ending a promising streak of success that started in the previous century.

No, Burke isn’t looking to win any popularity contest, so he will be aggressive, but not trigger happy, and make moves that will create a competitive team down the road, not one that will limp into the playoffs. If he makes a couple trades, picks up a draft pick and an emerging stud, a year from now he might be winning those popularity tests.

Although the cup drought is continuing to eat at Leaf Nation, patience still needs to be Burke’s most treasured asset.

He shouldn’t be rebuilding, because he doesn’t need to—he can reload. Luke Schenn, the lone untouchable, and Jason Blake, the veteran top scorer, should be built around. Antropov is the least likely to stay, and joining him on a plane out of Toronto could be long time Leaf Tomas Kaberle.

Along with Alexei Ponikarovsky and Matt Stajan, they are the last pre-lockout Leafs. The four teams those Leafs played on have been rebuilt and forgotten, and now Burke will make positive use by the roster that escaped the Ferguson Era.

This will create a new era, the Burke era. However, through out the 42 Cup-less years, Leaf fans haven’t wavered. They continue to sell out the home arena, whether it was the old Maple Leaf Gardens or the new ACC. Similar to the Red Sox Nation and Fenway Park, Leafs season tickets are passed down from generation to generation.

The biggest Leaf skeptics will reason that even with the losing seasons, the rink is always filled, and Toronto management will be content as long as ticket sales stay sky-high. But that isn’t Burke’s mentality, and he showed it by nurturing a dedicated hockey following in a city where the temperature is always colder inside the Arena.

If the Burke era doesn’t pan out, a legitimate possibility despite his recent track record,  the tenth GM might not be dealing with the same fan base. Nor will the eleventh GM. One generation won’t bother driving to the arena and will cash in the season tickets, turning their back on the team their relatives lived through.

Toronto fans see the resurgent seasons teams in Chicago and Boston are having, and they are growing restless. Burke may be the savior, a different name who helps write a triumphant chapter in the recently dark Leaf history.

If not, that GM suit with the growing target on its back will continue to be worn. Sadly, we might reach an age when people grow tired of shooting arrows towards it.