Monday, September 26, 2011

The Tragic Flaw in Brian Burke's Plan

In November of 2008, Brian Burke became President and General Manager of the Toronto Maple Leafs and he came with a plan of how he wanted his team structured.  To be a Toronto Maple Leaf under Brian Burke meant that you would "be a contributing offensive player in our top-six forwards" or a "hard hat guy" in the bottom-six.

The problem with this model lay primarily in the team he inherited.  At the time, the top-six wasn't nearly skilled enough for the team to rely exclusively on role players in bottom-six and Burke knew it.  He set about acquiring high-end talent and the following season, he brought in Phil Kessel from the Boston Bruins. 

With Kessel on the team and Grabovski and Kulemin blossoming into top-six talent, the Leafs looked to be making major steps towards being a competitive team but there's no chance that Burke believed his work was finished after having acquired the Bruins' young sniper.

While many feel that the Kessel trade was a mis-step by Burke, I feel that his true error was one of economics.

At the time, there were several teams who had spent years languishing at the bottom of the NHL standings and as such, had accumulated a wealth of high-end young players.  Teams like Washington, Chicago, Pittsburgh, and even Burke's own Anaheim Ducks looked like they may find themselves pressed hard against an unyielding cap and thus forced to make some extremely difficult personnel decisions.

The "July 1st will be our draft" maxim was not an off-the-cuff statement Burke made to whisk away concerns over the picks he had dealt.  There was a strongly held belief that in a cap system, teams that struggled consistently would see some high calibre players in the primes of their career leave their teams when cap space ran out.

When Brian Burke took over the Maple Leafs, the Canadian Dollar was trading at about 0.81 USD.  A lot of ink has been spilled on the effect that the rise of the Canadian Dollar has had on the salary cap and while many might assume that the rising cap would serve to benefit wealthy teams like Toronto, in the case of Leafs it has had precisely the opposite effect.

Burke's refusal to sign players to ultra-longterm contracts, while presented as a matter of principle, I would argue was a pragmatic decision on his behalf.  He believed that by tying up so much of your team's resources for such a long period of time that a GM would find themselves having to shed talented players out of consideration of the salary cap.  Sooner or later (and likely sooner) someone would get burned by one of these deals.

Holding the cap figure constant, he would have been absolutely correct.  The problem, from a Leafs' perspective, is that the resurgence in league revenues has led to a rapidly escalating salary cap -- so much so that contracts which would have been albatrosses had the cap remained steady (Brian Campbell, for example) have been used as assets to help smaller market teams reach the cap-floor.

Economics isn't the only thing to blame, of course.  There's been a changing of attitudes among players and General Managers as well.  It used to be the case that GMs were reluctant to handout long contracts but this is clearly no longer true.  Players used to eagerly await unrestricted free agency and the potential payday it offered; they're now signing more modest deals with lots of term. 

From a player's perspective, it takes a lot of risk off the table.  If they're injured, they still get paid.  For management, it's all about asset retention.

With a rising salary cap and shifting attitudes among players and GMs, the NHL has seen Free Agency reduced to near irrelevancy.  While this statement might reek of hyperbole, we can all agree that if July 1st is used as a substitute for the Entry Draft, your team is almost assuredly doomed to struggle.

Fortunately for Leaf fans, Brian Burke is also a master of exaggeration.  He's done exceptional work through trades to acquire talented young players and draft picks.  He hasn't disregarded the draft entirely, but has identified the new landscape of the league and has made the necessary revisions to his initial plan. 

If last trade deadline was any indication, it's safe to say that Burke's plan has changed almost as much as the Leafs' roster has.  The Leafs still needs top-end forwards but don't expect to see them coming in the July 1st 'Draft'.  This team now has the assets to acquire them through other means, and that is likely 'the plan'.

Ed. Note - Tyler Dellow (mc79hockey) is also looking at the effect of the Canadian dollar on the NHL.  It seems like economics is the topic of the day.  You can (and should) read his post here

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