Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Breaking Down The Burke Press Conference

The more General Managers talk, the more often they'll contradict themselves and Brian Burke talks a lot.  You'll get no argument from me; a lot of what Burke says isn't to be taken at face value, but having said that, it's important to understand precisely what Burke says, rather looking at his messages in broader strokes.  I believe that a lot of what the Leafs' GM has said has been taken out of context and in using his most recent interview as a template, I'd like to try and clear the air on some of these issues.

What I Agreed With

"I still believe in that group with MacArthur, Kulemin, and Grabovski."

Burke handed out a bit of praise to his second unit and these are the types of players who I believe help you win hockey games.  Their possession numbers are strong, they push the play in the right direction, and they can eat up tough minutes for a hockey team.  I was glad to hear Burke express some confidence in these guys as he's generally of the belief that advanced stats are Voodoo.

"At the trade deadline, we didn't panic, we kept our assets. We have all the players that teams came after, we have those assets and we can use those assets to make hockey deals."

My big concern this season was that Burke would feel such intense pressure to make the playoffs that he would trade futures for vets and expiring deals in an attempt to squeak into the big dance.  Despite all that Burke has said about not wanting to do that, you always understand that the risk is there when you're dealing with an individual with such an undeniably enormous ego.  This administration has spent significant time adding assets (just ask them) and I'm glad they didn't tear it down for a run at a playoff spot.

On Kadri: "I've never said he was going to be a star but I think he can play in the NHL and he's gonna play in the NHL and I think there's a number of players there who are going to play in the NHL and some of them next fall."

You hear a lot of scouts saying that Kadri looks to be NHL-ready now and despite the fact that his point totals haven't been earth-shattering, one would have to think that he'll be on an NHL roster somewhere next October -- I'm just not entirely convinced it will be with the Leafs.  Corey Pronman of Hockey Prospectus stated last week that he believes Kadri is likely to be a top-6 forward on a team that is considered a contender and this sounds like it's consistent with the value Burke is placing on him.

"You don't need 20 big guys; you need 4 or 5."

The Leafs could certainly use some more size, particularly up front.  From an observational point of view, the Leafs look to be below average at puck pursuit and they're downright abysmal when it comes to offensive zone cycling.  It was a little comforting to hear Burke acknowledge that it isn't critical that each player have an imposing stature, while at the same time recognizing that the team's size was part of the problem.

Stuff That I Mostly Agree With

"I think that James Reimer is the real deal.  I think we can still plan on him being the number one guy but we have to look at if we can bring in a guy that can give us more options and more performance right from the get-go next year." 

My interpretation of this quote is that Burke intends to pursue the best free agent goaltenders available but should he fail to land one of these guys, that he doesn't intend on paying the price that would be required to trade for a guy who is any more valuable as an asset than James Reimer.  When asked if he would trade his first for Bernier or Schneider, he said "no" which was, in my estimation, the right answer.  I don't want Burke to overpay in a trade for a goalie but I do hope that he goes after the best and brightest --using the term loosely as it's a thin crop-- in free agency.

On free agency: "We've avoided doing those wonky contract... that's not going to change... I intend to address the positional needs the old fashioned way which is through trades.  Looking at the pool of players, I don't see a lot of impact there."

Here's where I feel a lot of Leafs fans misunderstand Burke: I've never heard him say that he wont give out a longterm deal.  When Burke says "wonky contract" I believe that he means a contract with a significantly declining yearly salary.  Burke feels that these deals are cap circumvention and he's not willing to hand them out.  Now, I understand that many disagree with this position, but understand that it doesn't preclude signing a Zach Parise or a Ryan Suter -- what it does mean is that their cap hit year-over-year will be significantly higher if we sign them than if another less scrupulous team signs them.  Do I think it's within the realm of possibility that Burke offers Parise an 8-year, $64M contract?  Yeah, I do.  Some other team might add years to the end of that deal in an effort to make the AAV < $8M and Burke certainly wont do that but he's not necessarily against longterm deals; he just understands the risks that they carry.

When he says that he doesn't see a lot of impact in that pool of players is where I take a little umbrage with what I believe he's hinting at.  To me, this seems to suggest that Burke isn't going to be pursuing middling guys like, for example, a Matt Carle.  I think that's a little disappointing, personally, but having said that, these are precisely the types of free agents that Burke tends to whiff on so it might be better for him to stay his own hand this offseason.

"I think Tyler Bozak made great strides but I think it's, for us, goaltending and a number one center would be the biggest positional needs"

I predicted before the season started that Tyler Bozak would be one of the biggest surprises for the Leafs this season and I think that was probably the case.  Despite his improvement however, Bozak is better suited to being the guy who plays up in the lineup when a center goes down to injury than he is to being the de facto number one.  The team certainly needs a goaltender and a first line center but if we could add any one piece, my preference would be to add a 1D to play with Phaneuf and force each of our defensemen down the depth chart by a spot.

Depends On What Exactly You Meant, Burke

"You see a Carter Ashton emerge, and you see a Matt Frattin emerge..."

If by 'emerge' you mean 'play some games in the NHL with mixed results' then yes, Carter Ashton and Matt Frattin 'emerged'.  Ashton, in my mind, would have been much better suited to finishing out the year in the AHL and given his icetime to close out the year, I would go so far as to posit that Randy Carlyle agrees with me.  Frattin was a bit better and I don't mind him as an injury call-up but if he were chiselled-in as a roster player heading into next season, I think that's a big mistake.  Both are, in my mind, useful assets but the word 'emerge' suggests a greater level of talent than what I've seen from either thus far.

"We need to get bigger.  That's my top priority as far as overall priority."

Getting better needs to be your first overall priority and if you think that the best way for this team to get better is to get bigger, I think you're making a mistake.  While size is certainly an element that this team could use, getting a league average save percentage should be the team's first objective.   That is most likely to happen through a combination of improved goaltending and better defense sooner than any increase in size.

"I think we have a number of legitimate prospects there."

Well, yes and no.  While I feel that we've greatly improved our organizational depth in the past three years, our system doesn't contain many players with true game-breaking potential and unfortunately, that's inconsistent with our needs at the NHL level.  Burke himself said that our second line is something that he's comfortable with and I'm inclined to agree.  He likes our defense and, in general, I'm ok with that too.  The problem is that our needs as I see them are as follows: #1 Center, #1 Defenseman, #1 Goalie.  There's nobody in our system with the realistic potential to fill any of those holes (short of perhaps the #1 goalie spot).  There are some guys who I expect to be NHL players, and probably a couple impactful ones too, but none who have perennial all-star written all over them.

Things That Scare Me

Regarding 'untouchables': "I haven't thought about that, Elliotte."

Why on earth wouldn't a GM say, "you can start with Phil Kessel and then we'll have to evaluate it from there"?  The fact that he didn't immediately tab Kessel as a guy he wouldn't consider moving concerns me, particular in view of the volume of ink that's been spilt by the MSM recently about his possible inclusion in a deal for Rick Nash.  Now, this might be as simple as a GM not wanting to exclude guys who are 'fringe-untouchables' like Gardiner or Phaneuf, but the fact that he didn't immediately respond with Kessel is more than a little troubling to me.

On defensemen: "...can fault the goaltenders as much as you can fault the defense.  I still believe in the group."

Now, I don't mean to suggest that our defensive group is a cesspool that's devoid of talent but I think the real strength of our defense is in its potential rather than its actual on-ice output.  True, the defense looks a lot better when it's playing in front of competent goaltending but if this team is going to be comfortably in the playoffs next season, there will need to be improvement to the Leafs' defense.  It's possible that this improvement could come from within, but in all likelihood, the Leafs will need to add a second-pairing shutdown defenseman.

Expect Some Big Changes

"I think we have assets [where] we can make the deals we need to make, yes."

Burke suggested on several occasions that change was coming, acknowledged that the team needs to address its goaltending and needs to add some size, and suggested that they're still looking to add a number one center.  He likes his organizational depth and suggested that some of the players on the Marlies are likely to play in the NHL as early as next fall.  All of this points to what looks to be a busy offseason for the Leafs.  It's pretty clear that Burke isn't blind to most of his team's shortcomings (other than the team's often porous defense, but I digress) and that there will be another offseason shakeup for the Buds.

As we've said in the past, the next 4 months will almost certainly be what defines Burke's tenure as GM of the Maple Leafs.


Anonymous said...

I disagree that the Leafs need a #1 D, despite all the criticism directed at Phaneuf. I mean, the guy was top-5 in the league for points among all NHL defensemen this year--putting him ahead of guys like Jack Johnson and Nick Lidstrom. I think, if anything, they need somebody whos comparable to Phaneuf in skill and defensive ability, and really give them a 1-2 punch on the blueline. But, I totally expect it from Burke, because that's how hes built his defence in the past (i.e. Pronger, Neidermayer). Although I could see Gardiner potentially filling that spot, he wont next season--so I think they should attempt to bolster the defence. But more than anything, I think their poor defensive play was also attributed to a lack of size and grit on offense. Guys like Lombardi and Connolly were useless this season unless they were putting up points and in Carlyle's line-matching system, you need more of a bottom-6 of grinders. Also, be careful to jump the gun on free agency--although theres tons of speculation, I doubt Suter, Carle, Parise and Semin will all be headed to free agency. Theres still two months and everyone knows how late the bigger contracts get done (in years past, Marleau and the Sedins came down to the end of June)--so I moreso agree with Burke in that regard than you. But, overall, nice article and good analysis.

Curt S said...

Don't get me wrong, I really like Phaneuf, but as you point out, you probably need his defensive equivalent to be competitive and to me that qualifies as a 1D

You're also right that the UFA crop is likely to thin out between now and July 1 but I still think that there will be guys there who would be valuable to the team. If I were GM, I wouldn't be closing the door on that possibility just yet.