Leaf Nation breathed a sigh of relief when Brian Burke was announced as the club’s new General Manager. The no-nonsense, straight-talking Burke was supposed to lead a turnaround for a franchise that’s been a smash at the box office but a bust on the ice.
Sports lawyer Gordon Kirke scoured the hockey world in search of a saviour for a franchise which last celebrated a championship in 1967. Kirke initially set his sights on Detroit’s Ken Holland, but his advances were rebuffed, so settled on Brian Burke, the man who many consider the best hockey mind in the game.
One year into his tenure, Burke has shown more bravado than good judgment, a flair for the coveted sound bite and a knack for showmanship.
In the off-season, he drew headlines with his headlines, vowing to pursue a deal for the Islanders first overall pick. “Whoever has the top couple of picks, we are going to go after them. We'll immediately attempt to move up," Burke said. "We're going to talk to everyone between us and the first pick and see what the landscape is.”
Burke threw his colleagues a bone, dangling roster players and prospects to move up in the draft. But his fellow GMs wouldn’t bite, and he walked away from the draft empty-handed.
His lack of moves were a blessing. Rumours abound that Burke tried actively to peddle all-star defenseman Thomas Kaberle as part of a package only to be denied. Where would the hapless Leafs be had he succeeded in moving Kaberle, one of the game’s best puck-moving defensemen and the team's leading scorer?
Burke abruptly signalled a shift in strategy. No longer would the Leafs build through the draft; instead, Burke would pursue proven, young talent. Phil Kessel, a speedy winger caught in a contract dispute with the Bruins, was identified as a future 40-goal scorer and worthy of an offer sheet.
The irony of such a tactic was apparently lost on Burke who two summers ago publicly skewered Edmonton’s Kevin Lowe for a similar move, calling Lowe “gutless” for signing Dustin Penner to an offer sheet with the Ducks up against the salary cap.
Throughout the summer, Burke sent Toronto sports fans scrambling for their dictionaries as “truculence” became the theme for the new-look Leafs. The off-season additions of Colton Orr, Grant Exelby, Mike Komisarek, and Fillip Beauchemin were supposed to make the Leafs tougher to play against.
Those moves raised eyebrows in Montreal where Bob Gainey and Jacques Martin questioned the Leafs physical approach. “It’s a little out of character to where the NHL is going,” Gainey said on the eve of the season.
Martin wasn’t much impressed either. “They have a new (defence) and a physical presence there, but you look at the first three lines and they don’t have any fighters there...you look at Detroit and Pittsburgh...they went to the Cup final (on skill, not fighting). That’s the goal, to win the prize,” he said.
Burke was adamant that he’d assembled a playoff calibre team. “We have higher expectations for this group. It’s not the same group. We’ve made some changes. It’s our goal and our intent to make the playoffs,” he said confidently. Four months later, the Leafs are third from the bottom with no first round pick.
Somewhere along the line, Burke made a gross miscalculation on the talent level of this team. Last year’s edition of the Leafs, defensive problems aside, scored in bunches. Part of Toronto’s offensive woes is the result of Burke dumping 20-goal scorers Dominic Moore and Nikolai Antropov at last year’s trade deadline.
Of course, the season didn’t start without another controversy landing on Burke’s lap. This time he was involved in a dust-up with Canucks GM Mike Gillis who filed tampering charges against Burke, who revealed the players involved in a potential Canucks-Lightning draft day deal.
Burke is no stranger to spilling the goods. Two years before, Burke drew Gainey’s disdain for disclosing the latter’s private discussions at the 2007 entry draft.
At the close of last season, Burke spoke with the media about what he called “Blue and White” disease, a term he used to describe players who had grown too complacent playing in Toronto. One wonders whether Burke confused “Blue and White” disease with “foot in the mouth.”
And so as the season inches forward, the albatross around Burke’s neck grows heavier with each Leaf loss. Has he indeed, unwittingly, dealt the first overall pick to the Boston Bruins? Worse still is the prospect that the Leafs flounder again next year and lose another top draft pick. But fate could not be so cruel as to deny the Leafs two first overall picks.
In a short span, the on-ice product has gone from bad to worse, thanks in no part to Burke’s moves, acquisitions, strategy, and approach. And with no draft picks, this year or next, the immediate future looks bleak.
The GM renowned for his intellectual acumen and front-office skills has dug himself into a quagmire with the Kessel deal. Time will tell whether he can dig himself out.
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