Brian Burke, Unheralded Builder

For some time now I have been sitting back, watching as fans get bombarded on a daily basis by disgruntled tweets and mainstream media pieces of which most point fingers at Brian Burke for the lack of success the club has ultimately had since he took over as President and GM in 2008 and I am not sure about you but all the negativity really seems to be getting out of hand. Can someone honestly say that there isn’t anything positive to discuss when it comes to this team or is it because its just easier these days to sink to that low level and spew baseless nonesense to express ones frustration? Don’t get me wrong, who doesn’t want to see their team win? but entire pieces of reporting that are dedicated solely to the negative side of a story are just plain ruining it for me…and I for one beg to differ, especially if you take a good step back and really look at it from a macro level. That my friends will be the primary focus of this blog moving forward although it really is more for my own personal piece of mind (read: sanity) about a team I wholeheartedly support and if it happens to garners readership, the more the merrier.

Lets take quick stroll back down memory lane to the state of a Leafs team who finished 12th in the East back in the 2008-09 season for a refresher: Top three point producers that year were Blake (63), Pony (61) and Stajan (55) with Toskala and Gerber in net with GAA/SV% of 3.26/.891 and 3.23/.905 respectively. The average age of the team was 32.1. Significant cap hits were Toskala/Blake for $4m each,  Finger at $3.5m and Kubina at $5m; 30% of the salary cap ($56.7 million) that year was tied up in these 4 players. Read that again.

What about the 2008-09 Marlies farm team who finished 4th in the North Division? Stalberg, Kulemin, Stralman, Kronwall and Pogge were most likely at that time the more heralded rookies. The 2008 NHL Draft yielded (Round 1) Schenn, (2) Hayes, (4) Stefanovich etc.

No-one can really argue the state of the club at that time can they? Older players, thin rookie pipeline, horrific goaltending oh and that little lack of a Stanley Cup for the past couple of decades thingy too. Probably about the worst starting point ever for any GM when you are trying to change the fortunes of a team that has possibly the most blindly supportive and  impatient fan base in all of professional sports. We post rookie camp scrimages to Youtube for goodness sake and people like me watch them! Rookie.Camp.Scrimages.

So whats changed since Burke’s arrival?

I don’t think it overly necessary to review all of Burkes more well known trades here in any significant detail (Kessel, Phaneuf, Gardiner/Lupul); we all know how they went down but what about the less heralded moves that yielded prospect, picks and the oh so important cap room?. Back in 2009 he managed to move Kubina’s $5m cap hit to Atlanta. A 2nd rounder for Stralman followed.  Pogge to Aneheim for a conditional pick. Picks for players like Stempniak, Skoula, MacDonald, Versteeg, Mitchell along with two for one draft pick trades also occurred. He appeared for all intents and purposes to be trying to rebuild from the bottom out while ridding the team of players that lacked significant upside and or those that were overpaid by previous handlers.

So where did all that leave us?

Taking a look back at the 2011-12 team yields the following: Top three point producers were Kessel (82), Lupul (67) and Grabovski (57) (take into consideration missed playing time due to injury) with Monster and Reimer pulling off 2.92/.902 and 3.10/.900 respectively. The average age of the team was 26.5. Most significant cap hits were Kessel for $5.4m, Lupul at $4.25m, Phaneuf at $6.5m and Connolly for $5.5m encompassing 31% of the salargy cap ($70.2m). Oh and there were 11 Canadians on the team to 8 Americans just for the record.

The Marlies made the 2012 Calder Cup final (congratulations really are in order for a stellar campaign, well done boys!) with the following roster: Bonified prospects IMO include Kadri, Frattin, Holzer, Colbourne, Ashton, Scrivens and now Reilly. Burke has since drafted players of note IMO Kadri, Blacker, McKegg, Biggs, Percy, Sparks, Reilly, Finn and signed little risk college free agents that included Bozak, Scrivens and Abbott.

So what?

The Maple Leafs record from last year may not have necessarily expressed it but there actually has been a fair amount of success in a rather short period of time (if you measure it more in the like of the Edmonton Oilers who over the last couple of years have won everything in hockey (from draft lotteries to college free agent signings) except for actual hockey games). The cubboards have actually been restocked with tangible assets that can now be either developed or included in package deals to land better players. They have managed to infused a geriatric team with youth. They now have two bonafied players that can surpass the 80+ point mark while retaining a solid and defensively responsible second line. There is youth emerging in the defense corps with players like Gardiner, Reilly, Holzer and Blacker. Players are now starting to show a sense of pride when playing for this team (a la Lupul jersey tug at the All-Star game…Jays fans, you really owe him an apology) that has been sorely, sorely missed. Honestly other than Sundin and Yushkevick, when was the last time a player in recent memory appeared emotional when leaving this team? Most appear to be relieved that their tenure was over, moving on to a team ‘with a shot at the cup’ a la Schenn and Crabb’s most recent comments. [Begin Rant] This ladies and gentlemen is what a toxic environment does to very human players. Who wants to play for a team when the media and fans are continually ripping on you, boooing you at home games and cat calling for your coaches firing…during a game no less. I wouldn’t want to play here either especially when you can get the same money from a smaller market team (see the Wild with Parise and Suter) and that really is where the problem lay. Players really don’t want to come here anymore and you are kidding yourself if you still think they do; the environment flat out sucks so remember that the next time you are booing them at a game…you are indirectly assisting in keeping elite players from wanting to signing here (Brad Richards anyone?). Using that ‘can’t handle the spotlight’ argument is getting old, you really think Detriot, NYR and Vancouver players are not in the spotlight? [\End Rant].

Ok, vented…feeling better, back to the topic at hand, Burke has managed in the course of four years to change this teams makeup whether we agree with it or not. It should be remembered that absolutely nothing happens quickly in the new CBA era and they have still managed to accomplish a decent number of roster changes even while not having the last three first overall draft picks. Low impact trades can take ages (just look at Schenn for JVR) and draft picks will take significant time to properly develop. Sure Burke has struck out on signing free agents (Komi, Connolly etc.) but its not like he signed Wideman, Garrison or Wishnewski recently (remember those? how glad are you now with Grabo’s contract lol) and he is obviously learning from previous mistakes and the patch fix mentality he once had. There is still so much to do and we all know that it takes considerable time to yield those results but top flight goalies and top line centers do not grow on trees and are significant assets that any sane team will not give away for anything but a good collection immediate impact player(s), pick(s) and prospect(s).

So loosen up Leafs fans and media types. Taking out your frustrations on a group that has nothing to do with pre-2008 solves nothing. The more you express support for them during the up’s AND DOWNS the more successful they will ultimately be; a positive environment will not only make the games more fun to watch but will once again make players think twice when considering whether or not they want to play in the most rewarding market the game has to offer.


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