Sorry critics and doubters, Brian Burke has done a fine job re-tooling the Maple Leafs into a playoff team. Considering what disaster called the Maple Leafs he came to, not many could have done better than what he had done up to this point.
The Maple Leafs, when he was hired as their new General Manager, were seemingly directionless. The organization was still pouting about Mats Sundin's exit from Toronto, and were relying on usual third liners to play top six minutes. And those weren't even the worst of it all. What was icing on the cake for the franchise is that they had nothing to look up to. They had no top prospects developing, nothing on their roster with enough value to bring any of importance back, and had most likely one of the worst General Manager's in the history of the sport.
Then Brian Burke entered the fold (after a small second go-around with Cliff Fletcher), and hope was reestablished in Leafs Nation. The organization was getting someone who considered one of the better GM's in the league, fresh off a couple successful seasons in Anaheim, proceeded by more success in Vancouver. And to be honest, despite what the sports media says, Burke had done an excellent job of giving this club a direction. You could look anywhere in the organization's list of employees - from the juniors all the way to the front offices - and notice a significant change and improvement over what was assembled back in September 2008.
To start the comparison off, let's look at the top three lines from 2008, and now:
Clarke MacArthur - Mikhail Grabovski - Nikolai Kulemin
Joffrey Lupul - Tyler Bozak - Phil Kessel
Kris Versteeg - Darryl Boyce - Colby Armstrong
Jason Blake - Dominic Moore - Lee Stempniak
Alexei Ponikarovsky - Mikhail Grabovski - Nikolai Antropov
Niklas Hagman - Matt Stajan - Nikolai Kulemin
The only thing missing from example one that will make the Leafs legitimate playoff contenders, and maybe cup contenders (maybe a stretch to say at this point) is a true number one center. The Leafs have players who have established roles with the team and are here to stay.
Tyler Bozak's defensive game has improved vastly this season, enough to say he's turning into what we envisioned John Mitchell to be - a big third line center who handles his defensive responsibilities very well. Mikhail Grabovski, during his tenure in Toronto this far has developed into a legitimate second line pivot, scoring 20 once already and being on pace for 30+ goals and 60+ points. The wingers are vastly underrated too, as Burke has assembled a team of six solid wingers for the top nine, all of which can contribute at both ends of the ice (with the exception of Kessel, who does it rarely).
The 2008 team's lineup is just disastrous. Besides Grabovski and Kulemin, the top nine there was made up of overpaid, underachieving forwards. And although certain players in the current top nine could be argued against as having overpaid salaries, they produce for the most part consistently. The 2008 version did that on rare occasion. Perhaps the only players that could be locked in long term (besides Grabovski and Kulemin) would maybe be Matt Stajan and Niklas Hagman, who are suited for third line, defensive roles and even that is a stretch to say.
The case on the defense isn't as extreme as it is on the forwards, but Burke has still upgraded there as well, here are the four new faces Burke added vs. the four they replaced:
Dion Phaneuf - Keith Aulie
Mike Komisarek - Carl Gunnarsson
Pavel Kubina - Ian White
Anton Stralman - Jeff Finger
The difference here isn't as big like I mentioned, but still noticeable. Pavel Kubina (like Dion Phaneuf) was overpaid and never lived up to standards, and the difference between him and Dion is that Kubina was over 30 years old, whereas Phaneuf has still not reached that age and isn't even close. White has done poorly since being traded, showing him as a one-hit wonder, and Finger and Stralman were on the team because we had no other options.
On even smaller scales, the goaltending has improved as James Reimer is looking to be our future stud in net. And the prospect cupboards are looking respectable again, as Burke has made a wealth of young additions to improve the long term for the team. Names like Bozak, Christian Hanson, Ben Scrivens, and Jonas Gustavsson were all signings where others like Aulie, Nazem Kadri, Luca Caputi, Jussi Rynnas, and most recently Jake Gardiner were all acquired too. And those are just a few acquisitions, as he also drafted many players who look to be solid prospects.
The improvements Burke's made stretches to off the ice as well. The Leafs virtually have three capable General Managers upstairs in David Nonis, Dave Poulin, and Burke himself. Back in 2008, John Ferguson Jr./Cliff Fletcher had virtually nobody with them, as only Joe Nieuwendyk was the only noticeable name on the list, after former players like Wendel Clark and Darryl Sittler, who were in minor roles with franchise.
Of course, you can look at the negatives as well. He's overpaid many players, like Francois Beauchemin, Mike Komisarek, and even Colby Armstrong to an extent. He's also made some questionable trades too, like the Kessel-debate and trading three young prospects for Kris Versteeg. He's even been very media-happy, speaking the sports media every chance. However, I personally believe the good he's done overshadows the bad by a long shot.
So, with all this in mind I don't really understand where all the criticism towards Burke is coming from considering what he was given when he came here. It's crystal clear that Burke has made this organization - from top to bottom - much better. He came here when there was nothing and turned it into something.
And for that, he deserves all the credit in the world.
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