I know that I have a propensity to weigh in on the Maple Leafs more than is probably reasonable for a Senators fan, and hopefully you won’t assume that it’s the usual Ottawa denizen’s insecurity-complex speaking. What can I say: they’re the most popular team in the league, in the biggest hockey market in the world, in my favorite team’s division, and up until today they had the most contentious and divisive GM.
I’ve written about it before: what makes the Leafs’ situation more tragic than your everyday mediocre team is just how unique it is to see a team in those market conditions go through the incredibly painful process of selling major stakeholders on a rebuild, embark on said rebuild, and then jettison said rebuild all in the course of about three years. Think about what it takes to convince your sponsors, your fans, and the media, let alone as diverse an ownership group as the Leafs had at the time, that a few years of terrible hockey might help the team get to elite status. And they did it! They took all of the painful steps you need to take when you just can’t hack it anymore. They hired an interim GM in Cliff Fletcher who could be the bad guy and make the unpopular decision thanks to his ‘interim’ tag. They traded, bought out, or let walk a number of veterans like Sundin, Tucker, and Domi. They drafted in the top five for the first time in years. They even nabbed Grabovski for nothing. They were on their way.
Then cometh the Burke.
The initial coverage of this firing seems to list the fact that the Leafs never made the playoffs during Burke’s tenure as the reason for his firing, but that doesn’t seem reasonable to me. You have to judge a person against the expectations in place when they take the job. The man was handed a five-to-six year rebuild in year two. To me the expectations on Burke were that he restock the system, shelter his prospects from intense media scrutiny to allow them to develop, show incremental improvement from year to year, and be competing for a playoff spot by the end of his contract. The tragedy of the Leafs isn’t that they stink, it’s that they don’t even have their rebuild to show for it. It’s true that their prospect system went from one of the worst in the league to about the middle of the pack. But the mainstay complaints of the previous decade are still there: a lack of blue chip talent in the pipeline; terrible goaltending; overpraising the players who perform and systematically destroying those who don’t.
But it’s also not really Brian Burke’s fault—it’s whoever hired him. You just don’t hire a guy like Brian Burke to steward a rebuild. He’s not that type of GM. He’s the guy who will move mountains to draft the Sedins side-by-side, the guy who will make monumental trades happen when the rest of the league is frozen up with cap issues. He’s probably one of the best connected guys in hockey, and he can take a team with all of the fundamental building blocks in place right over the top (see: Anaheim). But as a patient, methodical builder, he stinks. Even with a front office that includes Dave Nonis, and did include Rick Dudley, and a scouting department that is larger than most franchises (if the Leafs’ webpage is a true barometer of these things), the elementary functions of player drafting and development, or even the importance of these things, seemed to escape this group.
I actually wouldn’t include the Kessel trade that will ultimately define the man’s legacy among Burke’s biggest mistakes. He obviously vastly miscalculated the ability of his team before giving up those two first rounders, but if the Leafs had indeed been the bubble team he thought they would be those picks would have been a Jaden Schwartz and a Joel Armia instead of a Tyler Seguin and a Dougie Hamilton. To me the biggest mistakes of Burke’s time were perpetually failing to shore up his goaltending and, despite saying something along the lines of “July 1st is our draft,” refusing to give out the types of contracts that would allow the Leafs to leverage their enormous wealth as an advantage to attract the best free agent talent. I guess you could bundle that up into one big failure to finish a rebuild that was already underway and for which he would take none of the blame for the team stinking.
Obviously Burke will be best remembered for his personality, which was occasionally buffoonish (the untied tie, the barn fight, the repeated statements of ridiculous hyperbole, the blatantly contradictory statements of absolute certainty). But it’s precisely that brashness that also put him on the right side of progressive causes like You Can Play and gay rights in the sport in general. His greatest asset as a person—his brash confidence—just happened to be his greatest fault as a manager. I don’t dislike the man at all. I just think he was put in a situation where he wasn’t likely to succeed, and he never seemed self-aware enough to change.
It will be interesting to see who the replacement is. Considering the proximity to the start of the season, one thinks that Nonis or someone else internal, with a familiarity with Leafs’ hockey operations, gets the nod.
Update: …and Nonis it is! This is why it pays to watch the press conference before you post. Hysterical that Burke is staying on as “a senior adviser.” The man’s effectiveness was borne out of not listening to anyone and now he has to plead to be listened to.