Monday, April 2, 2012

This Is It: Why Burke's Tenure Will Be Defined By The Next Four Months

Brian Burke's arrival in Toronto was met with a great deal of fanfare.  The blustery GM had an impressive resume, having built the foundations of a successful team in Vancouver and as well as putting the finishing touches on a Stanley Cup champion in Anaheim.  Not only was he a good hockey guy, but he also had a mix of bravado and coarseness that Toronto fans seemed to fall in love with almost immediately.

After 3+ seasons as Toronto's GM with the team still taking up residence in the league's basement, the love affair is officially over.

Now, this piece isn't a condemnation of Burke's tenure; it's more of an admonishment.

Generally speaking, my opinion is that Burke has done a good job as GM of the Leafs.  The team he inherited in November of 2008 has only one player set to make over $5M next season and that player, Mikhail Grabovski, is still with the team.  Burke has greatly improved the team's assets and if he were to leave today, I would feel confident in asserting that the team would be in a better position to succeed in 3-years time than the group Burke adopted in 2008.

Having said all of this, Burke is not without his failings.  He's been atrocious at identifying talent in free agency.  Aside from Clarke MacArthur and Tyler Bozak, Burke's record with free agents as GM of the Leafs is rife with blunders.  Komisarek, Armstrong, and Connolly are Burke's most expensive forays into the free agent market and are also among the weightiest anchors against the team's cap structure.  These are the kinds of contracts that can really sink a team in a salary cap league.

Cap Space As An Asset

In today's NHL, cap space, like players and draft picks, is an asset.  Unlike other assets though, cap space has a one year shelf-life; the space you don't use this season is gone the next.  Most floundering teams choose not to use the space, choosing instead to bide their time in anticipation of better days.  Burke has chosen to use the space available to him on shorter term deals.

In using the team's cap space, Burke has added further assets.  We can debate whether Connolly or Armstrong would yield a positive return in a trade and certainly the incoming assets wouldn't be significant, but the opportunity, at least, was there.  Whether this was by design or not, I do feel that this is the way a rich team should be behaving.  These deals are short enough that they were never going to impact the Leafs' competitive window and had the potential to yield a return.  The 'player asset cost' to the team was zero and there was a potential payoff. 

The Lombardi-Franson deal is a less speculative example of this same phenomena.  For the cost of $7M, the Leafs added a young NHL-calibre defenseman.  Again, Lombardi's deal expires at the end of next season.  

Komisarek is the one free agent Burke signed where I feel he truly mis-evaluated the talent that was there.  Komisarek got a longterm deal that far exceeds his value to the team and he's here into the final season of Phaneuf and Kessel's contracts.  Burke doubtless believed that Komisarek would be a part of the team's core when they were ready to be competitive and that simply hasn't borne out.

Patience Wearing Thin

I expect that Burke probably thought that his leash would extend as long as Kessel and Phaneuf's contracts but that is looking less likely with each loss.  Public opinion of the GM entering this season seemed high despite the team's failings but the dissenters have reached critical mass. 

Burke's inability to address the team's goaltending or produce a playoff-bound team has raised a lot of ire among Leafs Nation.  With Ron Wilson now gone, the next bloodletting will doubtlessly take place in the Leafs front office and another season on the outside-looking-in of the NHL Playoffs will almost certainly spell the end of the Burke era.

The Opportunity Is There

Ever the optimist, I believe that Burke has a chance to make meaningful changes to his team this offseason.  Prior to this season, I wrote that the 2012 offseason would define Burke's tenure as GM of the Leafs and now, 8 months later, I stand by that statement.

Burke now has the assets where he can make the tough decisions that GMs ultimately live and die by.  There are talented young players in the system, a high first round draft pick forthcoming, and some talented players who are about to become unrestricted free agents.

Free Agents 

Zach Parise and Ryan Suter are without a doubt the prizes of this free agent pool and either would make a meaningful impact on the Leafs.  It's unlikely that a team who has consistently finished outside the playoffs would be able to lure either of these players without offering the richest contract.  For Burke, this will likely mean putting an end on his self-imposed 'longterm contract rule'.

Justin Schultz appears poised to become an unrestricted free agent as well.  Should Anaheim fail to sign the talented Wisconsin product, I don't doubt that Burke would make a strong push.  When Gardiner was traded to the Leafs, Schultz was either 'pissed' or disappointed' depending on which quote you choose to read more into, and this can only be a positive as it pertains to the Leafs' courtship of the 21-year old blue chip prospect.

Tomas Vokoun, Josh Harding, Bryan Allen, and Matt Carle will also be unrestricted on July 1st and may provide an answer to the question, "how do we keep the puck out of our $#%^ing net?" 

The Draft

Brian Burke is the most blissfully inconsistent person I've ever heard speak.  To quote a former colleague he, "gleefully occupies a state of unreflective dis-equilibrium" (Rawls nerds will love that one).  If there's one area where Burke has been consistent, however, it's trying to move up in the draft.  From Pronger in Hartford, to the Sedins in Vancouver, to his attempts at Tavares in Toronto, and Biggs last season, Burke is always pushing for a better pick.

Should the Leafs fail to win the draft lottery (hint: they will), I expect Burke will make a hard push to try and move into the top-2.  Edmonton has reportedly shown some interest in moving down in the draft and Columbus is a little reticent to draft a Russian.  With Burke's job hanging in the balance, it wouldn't surprise me if he tried hard to land a player who can make an immediate impact on next season's roster.


Rumours abound that some big name players will be available in the trade market this offseason and Brian Burke finally has some pieces to offer.  Rick Nash will almost certainly not be a Blue Jacket by September, Bobby Ryan may be available in Anaheim, and Colorado is starting to look a little crowded at center.  Chris Stewart has seen his icetime plummet under Hitchcock and one wonders if he may be made available this offseason.

As always, some of the more intriguing names who move will likely come out of nowhere and I suspect Burke will have a lot of conversations with rival GMs this offseason.  I'm comfortable in asserting that the Leafs will be active on the trade front during the offseason.

The Shake-Up

There are a lot of reasons why we should expect some major changes in Leafland; the team's swan dive in the standings, a new coach with a new philosophy, the assets we have, our obvious needs, and the players available in free agency.

Burke's asset acquisition phase is over and the locals are getting restless.  Fans expect results and it's now time for Burke to put his penchant for aggressiveness to good use.  The clock is ticking for Burke and only a strong offseason will stay ownership's proverbial hand.  Expect a busy offseason, Leafs fans!


Anonymous said...

I hope you're right about Burke making a push for a top 2 spot at the draft. If we lose the last three games, it also helps us move at least into the lottery, and may help us make a deal with a team above us. Lord knows we could use a Yakupov or Grigorenko, the kind of player that ideally could jump right into the NHL.

Burke's also going to have a find a way to get rid of some bad contracts if he wants to go after Suter or Parise, including Komisarek (buy-out if there's an amnesty, if not you still need to find a taker if you want Schultz), Armstrong, Connolly (finding a taker won't be hard for him), and perhaps Lombardi.

In my opinion, that's his biggest challenge because other teams know he is in a weak position.

Curt S said...


I agree that it's important for Burke to shed some of those bad deals but I don't think it will be all that hard to get them off the books one way or another. I doubt Burke would let Lombardi's contract stand between him and a big free agent when he can send M.L. to the Marlies.

I'm more concerned with Burke's aversion to longterm deals than anything...

N Albert Roche said...

These are certainly some good suggestions. I'd love to see Chris Stewart on the Leafs, although he is an RFA, but if he is available Burke has to make a move. I think trade may be the best way to add a defenceman too; if we could somehow get Scuderi or Mitchell from the Kings, in particular in a package with Dustin Brown, I think a lot of the team's work is done this off season; the question is what to give up, and if we can. Given the choice, I'd rather have Stewart than Brown.

I'd also love to see the Leafs make a strong push for Vokoun. That being said, I get the sense that at this stage in his career he wants to win a championship. As such, we'd likely over pay him, but I think it's okay; Owuya, Scrivens, and Reimer all look very good to me, and I think one of them could be 'the real deal'; in the mean time, Vokoun and Reimer could split duties.

Anonymous said...

I'm with you Curt, Burke needs to fork out a serious contract offer for Parise. I really feel that this is the summer we don't hear Burke berate long contracts as a bad one. He has to land Parise.

Curt S said...


For the record, Burke has never said he's against longterm deals -- I may have been a little ambiguous there.

What he doesn't like are deals with declining values as he feels that they're a circumvention of the cap. That means that if we sign Parise, he'll come with a hefty cap hit (in addition to a fat paycheque).