November 29, 2008. Some day this date will resonate with Toronto Maple Leaf fans everywhere as it marks the date when Brian Burke was named President and General Manager of the Blue and White and, in many respects, marks the date that the Maple Leafs organization stopped accepting mediocrity.
Burke brought with him an impressive resume which includes a Stanley Cup victory in 2007 as the GM of the Anaheim Ducks, a Lester Patrick Award for outstanding service to hockey in the United States, a Harvard Law degree (1981), NHL front office experience, and the reputation of being one of the most sound executives in all of hockey.
Combined, Burke brought more than 20 years of National Hockey League experience, which, in itself, is very impressive. Burke also brought a tough façade and an in-your-face attitude both on and off the ice, which has trickled into the current Maple Leafs culture.
For many fans of the Blue and White, Burke was the one and only man that could possibly turn around a Maple Leafs franchise that (let’s just be honest here), had been marred in mediocrity and failure for more than 40 years.
When Burke took over the GM position from Cliff Fletcher he inherited a roster that looked more like an American Hockey League team than anything else.
For those of you that do not remember, the Maple Leafs entered the 2008-09 season with the following roster:
Goaltenders: Vesa Toskala, Curtis Joseph
Defensemen: Tomas Kaberle, Pavel Kubina, Jeff Finger, Mike Van Ryn, Carlo Colaiacovo, Ian White, Luke Schenn
Forwards: Jiri Tlusty, Mikhail Grabovski, Nikolai Kulemin, Niklas Hagman, Jason Blake, Alex Steen, Alex Ponikarovsky, Nik Antropov, John Mitchell, Jamal Mayers, Matt Stajan, Domenic Moore, Ryan Hollweg.
Looking back, outside of Grabovski, Schenn, Kaberle and Kubina, none of those players were worthy of first line minutes. In fact, few of those players are earning an NHL paycheck these days, and the majority of the ones that still are, are playing insignificant roles on their new teams.
With few players to work with, Burke watched helplessly as the 2008-09 edition of the Maple Leafs ended the season with a 34-35-13 record, placing them 24th overall in the standings.
Determined to move his team forward, Burke started a plan to rebuild the Maple Leafs on the fly. Burke started the ball rolling by acquiring sniper Phil Kessel from the Boston Bruins in September of 2009 in what has quickly become one of the most controversial trades in Maple Leafs history, which, considering this organizations past, is really saying something!
Burke received a ton of criticism for his trading of two first round draft choices and a second rounder for the services of Phil Kessel (who just happened to be last week's NHL player of the week). The debate over whether or not Burke made a good deal will rage on from here to eternity.
That said, nobody can guarantee that any of the draft picks Burke gave up will ever hit the 40-goal mark, something that Kessel seems more than capable of doing.
As much as Burke respects the draft process, he has never been one to turn down an opportunity to trade for what he perceives to be a top-notch NHL player. To this day, Burke will tell you he would make the Kessel deal again, but only time will tell if Burke’s intuition was on point or not.
The Maple Leafs opened the 2009-10 season with a roster that looked eerily similar to that of the roster Burke had inherited in 2008-09.
Jason Blake, Mikhail Grabovski and Phil Kessel represented the Maple Leafs' first line, while Nikolai Kulemin, Matt Stajan, Lee Stempniak, Nik Hagman, Tyler Bozak, John Mitchell, Jiri Tlusty, Rickard Wallin (signed as a free agent), Wayne Primeau (acquired via trade) and Colton Orr (acquired via free agency) rounded out the forward corps.
Defensemen Mike Komisarek and Francois Beauchemin (both acquired via free agency) were brought in to solidify the Maple Leafs back end, as was Garnett Exelby (acquired via trade).
Between the pipes, Burke put his faith back in Vesa Toskala, while bringing in Swedish goaltending sensation Jonas “The Monster” Gustavsson via free agency.
Outside of the Kessel deal, the key to many of Burke’s signings and trades was his penchant for giving up little in return. Sure, many of the players Burke had brought in up to this point had not paid dividends in the win column, but the fact he was stocking the prospect cupboard and giving up very little in return in the process made things ok.
With his team floundering in the standings again, Burke knew he had to make a huge splash.
Having identified a real need for leadership, charisma and toughness, Burke went out and pulled off a blockbuster trade with the Calgary Flames, which saw Burke send Matt Stajan, Nik Hagman, Ian White and Jamal Mayers to the Calgary Flames in return for Dion Phaneuf, Fredrik Sjostrom and prospect (turned top six defenseman) Keith Aulie.
While one could argue that Phaneuf has not lived up to expectations thus far, nobody can say that Phaneuf hasn’t been part of the Leafs’ change in attitude.
Fresh off the heels of the trade, Phaneuf arrived in Toronto, making his way to the Air Canada Centre where he found the Maple Leafs’ dressing room. Never one to shy away from attention and controversy, Phaneuf went straight to the team stereo, cranked up the music, making an immediate impression and, in some people’s minds, serving notice that the “old school” way of doing things was out.
In an attempt to speed up the re-building process, Burke made a couple of key free agent signings last summer. Colby Armstrong has fit in nicely on Toronto’s third line, has added a dimension of toughness that this team so badly needed, and has stepped into a leadership role.
Spurned by the Atlanta Thrashers after being awarded a $2.4 million arbitration salary, Clarke MacArthur was signed by Burke in an attempt to round out his top six forwards. MacArthur has paid immediate dividends, leading the Maple Leafs in points for much of the season and solidifying the Maple Leafs second unit skating alongside Mikhail Grabovski and Nikolai Kulemin.
Amid Burke’s trade successes there has also been a few failures.
He traded for Kris Versteeg, but the former Chicago Blackhawk never really found his game with the Blue and White, causing critics to question Burke’s ability to evaluate talent and address the team's needs.
In an attempt to better the long term success of his team and tidy up a couple of regrettable signings, Burke was able to trade both Beauchemin and Versteeg prior to the trade. In doing so, Burke all but admitted he had made a mistake in signing both Beauchemin and trading for Versteeg, which in itself shows great confidence and accountability.
Beauchemin had run his course in Toronto and, given how well Keith Aulie had played earlier in the season, someone had to be moved in order to make room for the talented rookie.
Versteeg just never fit into Burke’s plan and, as Burke surmised after the trade, Kris Versteeg is a great player, but his best hockey will likely be played on another NHL club.
Many GMs would have held onto their prized free agent signing to the point that the player may have lost his trade value.
Burke identified Versteeg as a key player in his re-tooling process, found out Versteeg didn’t fit in and quickly jettisoned him off to the Philadelphia Flyers with a handsome return in the form of a first and a third round draft pick in this summer's draft.
That, my friends, is good management.
The addition of power forward Joffrey Lupul (who came over in the Beauchemin deal along with defensive prospect Jake Gardiner) to the lineup cannot be underestimated. Lupul has had an immediate impact playing alongside Phil Kessel and his two goals have been a huge boost to Toronto’s offense.
Add that to the Tomas Kaberle deal that saw the talented veteran moved to the Boston Bruins for a first round draft choice in this summer's NHL Entry Draft and prospect Joe Colborne and you gotta admit, Burke has made some very impressive moves.
From that 2008 roster only three players remain today: Mikhail Grabovski, Nikolai Kulemin (both of whom were re-signed by Burke) and Luke Schenn (who will be a restricted free agent this summer). All three look to be key contributors to the Maple Leafs’ future success; all three are here because Burke believes in them.
There is no question that the Maple Leafs' culture has changed considerably since the 2008-09 season. Teammates often stick up for each other and the chatter on the bench has increased dramatically. From all reports this group of players is a very hard working, close team, with few (if any) prima-donnas.
Captain Dion Phaneuf may not be sticking out as Burke once thought he could, but that can be taken both ways. Phaneuf’s statistics are well below where Burke and Co. would like them to be, but gone are all the negative reports and accusations.
Let’s not forget that numerous reports out of Calgary pointed to Phaneuf being a problem in the Flames locker room. Here in Toronto Phaneuf has been a model citizen and, given the praise from Burke himself, a tremendous asset to the Blue and White both on and off the ice.
To be fair, Phaneuf hasn’t really found his old game yet with the Leafs, but his recent play has people talking about the Phaneuf of old and gives both fans and management hope that he will eventually find the fire within his belly that made him so successful in his first four NHL seasons.
Today’s lineup looks considerably better than what Burke had inherited. Burke currently employs a total of seven former first round draft choices and a number of players that can be considered the face of the franchise including Schenn, Phil Kessel and Captain Dion Phaneuf.
A quick comparison from where Burke came from in 2008 and where we are at today gives you plenty of reasons to believe that Burke is on the right track.
Goaltenders: James Reimer, Jonas Gustavsson, J.S. Giguere (pending UFA)
Forwards: Phil Kessel, Joffrey Lupul, Tyler Bozak (whom Burke signed as a free agent), Colby Armstrong, Mikhail Grabovski, Nikolai Kulemin, Clarke MacArthur (pending RFA), Mike Brown (acquired in a trade by Burke), Tim Brent (signed by Burke), Fredrik Sjostrom, Colton Orr, Joey Crabb and Darryl Boyce (who have developed at the AHL level with the Marlies)
Defense: Luke Schenn, Dion Phaneuf, Keith Aulie, Carl Gunnarsson, Mike Komisarek and Brett Lebda (another UFA signing of Burke’s)
Just as importantly, Burke has a relatively decent stable of young talent from which to draw including: Luca Caputi, Nazem Kadri, Jerry D’Amigo, Christian Hanson, Greeg McKeeg, Marcel Mueller, Brad Ross, Jesse Blacker, Simon Gysbers, Jake Gardiner, Korbinian Holzer, Juraj Mikus, Danny Richmond, Kenny Ryan, Jussi Rynnas and Ben Scrivens—many of whom Burke has his fingerprints on.
At the NHL level, Grabovski has matured into a legitimate second line centre, Kulemin is showing signs of being a legitimate 30-goal scorer for the foreseeable future, and Schenn is showing signs of being a top-tier shut-down defenseman and future leader of the Maple Leafs franchise.
Overall, the organization is much deeper than it has been in a decade, especially on defense and at forward.
Burke has always preached building from the goaltender out and, while nobody is prepared to give him a passing grade where his goaltenders are concerned, it appears as if the supporting casts in front of his puck stoppers are capable of carrying the team through some struggles.
Through 63 games, rookie goaltender James Reimer has the Maple Leafs within four points of a playoff birth. Reimer’s solid play, confidence and playful attitude have been a breath of fresh air for a team that has struggled to play in front of both J.S. Giguere and Gustavsson.
Behind the bench Burke continues to show great confidence in Ron Wilson. Known for his abrasive nature, Wilson has a penchant for calling his players out in the media. As a result, Wilson has received plenty of criticism, much of it warranted.
That said, nobody can argue with the development of Luke Schenn, Keith Aulie, Mikahil Grabovski and Nikolai Kulemin. Let’s face it, Wilson has to be given some credit for the development of those players, and if that means he had to hurt a few feelings along the way, so be it.
As much as Wilson has achieved in the development department his teams still continue to struggle on special teams. The Maple Leafs currently sit 20th overall on the power play (16.9%) and 27th on the penalty kill (77.6%).
Both the power play and penalty kill have improved from last season. The Maple Leafs’ power play ranked 30th overall in 2009-10 with a 14.2% success rate, while the penalty kill was equally inept at 74.6% (30th overall).
Let’s face it, the Maple Leafs' special teams struggles can be blamed on the coaching staff, but in the end it is the players that must execute, and until recently, the players had failed miserably in that respect.
Wilson may or may not be the right man to lead this group into the Promised Land (a.k.a. the playoffs), but as long as Brian Burke is in charge, his job looks safe.
When you consider how little Burke had to work with when he got here in November of 2008, the re-building of the Maple Leafs has been truly astounding.
Burke knows he’ll need to add to his roster in order to be not only be a playoff team, but a Stanley Cup contender. He has upwards of $24 million available to him in cap space next summer. Some of that $24 million will be spent on re-signing Clarke MacArthur (RFA), James Reimer (RFA), Luke Schenn (RFA), Carl Gunnarsson (RFA) and possibly Tim Brent (UFA).
What remains will be spent on acquiring a top six forward—preferably a No. 1 centre and a top four defenseman.
The Maple Leafs are not that far off from being a contender. Consider the cap room. Consider that in many people’s eyes Burke is just a player or two away from making a huge leap from laughing-stock to playoff team.
Burke is not a fan of losing and will do everything in his power to prove everyone wrong who said building Toronto into a winner couldn’t be done.
Put it all together and you’ve got yourself plenty of reasons to believe the hype!
This is a team that, with the addition of a couple of key players, a little hard work and a little luck should be a playoff team in 2011-12. At this point the 2011-12 season feels a lifetime away, but again, when you consider where Burke has taken this team in his short tenure with the Blue and White and the potential this organization has, well, it was worth the wait, wasn’t it?
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Until next time,
***This article was featured on NHL.com
Despite the detractors, The Slap Shot thinks Brian Burke is building a winning team in Toronto.