Admittedly, one of the worst things about being a fan of the Toronto Maple Leafs is having to associate yourself with the fanbase. They run the gambit from being just about as hopelessly optimistic as a Buffalo Bills fan to so pessimistic, it makes you wonder if they're just manic-depressive masochists.
At the center of the storm sits Leafs GM, Brian Burke. One thing that I find amazing about Leafs fans, or any group of passionate people, is how quickly they make decisions about people. Personally, I'm taking a "wait and see" approach to Burke's reign, but there certainly is no shortage of folks in Leaf Nation who have explicitly made up their minds.
Being from New York, I can very well make the comparison of Brian Burke to our much abhorred governor, David Paterson. Taking control of something in a less than ideal state, and having to be the one who does the questionable, unpopular things in an attempt to right the ship is something that they have quite in common.
The latest jabs at Burke are manifesting rapidly over the recent trades for Dion Phaneuf and J.S. Giguere. Perhaps it's simply my nature, Leafs Nation, but let's give this one a little time, okay?
In the words of head coach Ron Wilson (the other detested Yank in T.O.), "In one fell swoop we've become the youngest team in the league." If you want to rebuild a franchise, that's sort of what you're aiming to be—at some point at least. The average age of the Toronto Maple Leafs is now between 26- and 27-years-old. A far cry from the pre-lockout, and even the first few years after, when former GM John Ferguson Jr. spent some of the farm on the likes of the already aged Brian Leetch to add among the likes of Gary Roberts, Mats Sundin, Ed Belfour, Joe Nieuwendyk, Owen Nolan, and Alex Mogilny (just imagine if it were 1994 instead of 2004 when this team was assembled...).
In subsequent years, the Leafs wasted time with Jason Allison (to be fair, he did produce quite consistently), Eric Lindros, Michael Peca, and Jason Blake—all the while not getting any younger. The "youth movement" coming out of the lockout consisted of Carlo Colaiacovo, Alex Steen, Kyle Wellwood, Jiri Tlusty, and Matt Stajan. Somewhere in there could have been Tuuka Rask, but JFJ figured that Andrew Raycroft was the "real deal."
What Burke faces, in remaking this franchise, is not by his design. With only one draft, one free agency period, and not even a full year under his belt as GM, many a Leafs fan figure that he needs to go; others are convinced he is sure-fire savior.
Somewhere around three-quarters of the way through his first full season, Burke has been pulling the strings to remake the team in his image exactly the way he said that he would. He builds from the net out, and there's a lot of money floating around the blueline between Mike Komisarek, Francois Beauchemin, Tomas Kaberle, Jeff Finger, and now, Dion Phaneuf. Replace Finger's name with sophomore Luke Schenn, and you've got a pretty solid top five for rearguards going forward any way you look at it.
In net, Burke has cut loose Vesa Toskala, which is a pure victory in itself, and brought in Jean-Sebastien Giguere from Anaheim. The onus is not on Giguere to be the Leafs No. 1 until he's fit for the pasture, but rather to be a mentor for Jonas Gustavsson. There's a reason that the Leafs chased the Monster over the summer, and a reason why Burke hired legendary goalie coach Francois Allaire. Giguere is a model of success for Allaire's butterfly style, and with Gustavsson eager to learn, this move makes a lot of sense down the road.
Both the trade for Phaneuf and Giguere helped the Leafs get rid of some dead weight. Of the 10 players dealt, only Hagman and White had anything to offer. Sorry Stajan fans, I was never enamored with him. Plus, the Leafs have Tyler Bozak, who looks impressive less than 15 games into his pro career, and first rounder Nazem Kadri, who is almost certain to make the club next season. There's still much to be seen from Bozak, and everything to be seen of Kadri, but I don't think we'll be missing Matt Stajan in Toronto.
Another area that Burke addressed was scoring, though less of a fashion than building from the net out. Phil Kessel will score. He needs a set-up man. What the Leafs lack up front is a big, strong power forward who can give him room and get the puck deep. Right now, Kessel is doing both jobs of getting the puck into the zone, and trying to set himself up. While he can do it, his goal production will slag and is slagging. Those who say that he is underachieving are dismissing the fact that he has been quite consistent at finding the open man. With 17 goals and 16 assists, he has 33 points in 44 games.
Burkey will undoubtedly have to address the forward situation in the free agency and season to come. One thing (actually two things) that need to be put to the pasture is the draft pick drama. The Leafs underachieved so far this season. Alright, we get it. Nobody pegged them to be the bottom feeders that they have been, and everyone knows that the price was high for Kessel. Burke's responsibility, more so than recovering those picks, is to get the right person to play with Kessel. Mats Sundin was great, but he never had "that" winger. Kessel is capable, but he needs "that" center. Maybe it's Bozak, maybe it's Kadri, maybe it's another trade, but that will be a crucial piece of the Leafs' future fortunes.
So far, Burke has been putting the building blocks in place. There's young talent with lots of time to develop from the forwards to the goaltenders. The Phaneuf trade bought Burke more time to develop a young team, and Ron Wilson is one of the better coaches at developing young players. Oh yeah, he is also the second-most winningest coach among active NHL coaches.
For Burke, it seems that the saga never ends, and no matter what he does, he receives either more praise than he should, or his actions are dismissed as foolish and laughable.
Despite this, one thing is certain: He is doing what he set out to do. He is making changes—big changes. Including this one, the last three incarnations of the Toronto Maple Leafs have differed dramatically as far as rosters go, and next season, familiarity will again lie in the fact that the roster underwent change—major change. When grading what he has done so far, it beckons of Leafs fans everywhere to recall if every other GM has had success 100 percent of the time when drafting or making deals.
One thing is certain: There's a plan now where there wasn't; there are marquee names where there weren't; and there has been change where there was a promise to deliver it (with more likely to come). Toronto isn't going to make a Cup run next season, and people have got to get over the draft picks. A sports team is never a sure thing, each one is an experiment, and general managers are the mad scientists who get to build them, breathe life into them, and deconstruct them.
Quickly, compared to last season, how many Cup winners and All-Stars does Toronto have now? That's called proven talent.
All in all, it won't be fair to judge Burke until a few more pieces are in place. If the defense is any indication, and what I will consider to be a very savvy move in net, Brian Burke is at least committed to delivering the names that a market like Toronto deserves.
Lastly, for the little "Cherries" out there who see it fit to infuse nationalism with sports, Brian Burke is not destined to fail simply because he's an American. You can take a person from any country, raise them in and around hockey, and they will have hockey sense. It is ridiculous to assume that someone possesses more or less skill or sense based on the lines drawn on a map.