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culture

Why Brian Burke Was Good for the Toronto Maple Leafs

The team never made the playoffs on his watch, but the recently fired general manager's influence was a net positive.

Photo by {a href="http://www.flickr.com/photos/gardinergirl/4309903707/"}gardinergirl{/a}, from the {a href="http://www.flickr.com/groups/torontoist/pool/"}Torontoist Flickr Pool{/a}.

In the wake of last week’s firing of Toronto Maple Leafs’ general manager Brian Burke, it’s worth taking a moment to reflect on his four-year tenure in the post.

There are more than enough writers talking about why Burke was fired, and why the announcement came at such a critical moment (just ten days before the start of the season). The official press conference on Burke’s removal from office pretty clearly established that his firing had nothing to do with the performance of the Leafs.

Which makes sense, because whatever else may be true about Burke, and despite what some fans and sports reporters think, he did an excellent job.

Here’s why.

Worse Than Nothing

The 2008 Toronto Maple Leafs was easily the worst hockey team in recent memory.

There really wasn’t anything good about it. The team had no significant scoring talent to rally around, nothing remotely promising in the Toronto Marlies system, and next to no hopeful draft picks. The Leafs’ roster was bloated with players whose contracts included no-trade clauses, and two of the marginally valuable tradeworthy players—Carlo Colaiacovo and Alex Steen—were dealt to the St. Louis Blues less than a week before Brian Burke took the team’s reins. When Burke signed on as the Maple Leafs’ general manager halfway through the 2008-2009 season, the team he was inheriting wasn’t just bad, it was absolutely abysmal.

You can typically take any NHL team and sell off top performing assets for reasonable prospects, draft picks, or depth players. Take, for example, the worst performing team of the past decade: the 2006-07 Philadelphia Flyers. Of 164 possible points in a season, they managed only 56. Forget fifty-fifty: this team only won a quarter of its games that season. Even though the 06-07 Flyers was such a poor team, it still had plenty of assets to rebuild with. For example: trading Peter Forsberg landed it two promising prospects, a first-round pick, and a third-round pick from Nashville.

The 2008 Maple Leafs, however, could only manage a single second-round pick by trading away what was arguably their most valuable asset at that time: Nik Antropov. But it’s worth noting that the same day Burke traded Antropov for a second-rounder, he also managed to get another second-round pick for Dominic Moore, which is excellent value when you consider that Moore has never achieved stats to the level that he did for the Leafs in 08-09.

The rebuild had begun. Burke was selling off what assets the Leafs had as best as he could. The team was still terrible, and there was a long, long way to go. But at least it was getting better. In 2008, the Leafs had worse than nothing. By the end of 2009, they’d managed to bring themselves back to plain-old “nothing.”

Bigger Moves

In Burke’s first full season with the Leafs, his roster moves got bigger and bolder. Over the summer he wisely got rid of failed goaltending prospect Justin Pogge. He also acquired yet another second-round pick in exchange for two non-impact players.

In 2008, the Leafs were trying to survive on an inconsistent Vesa Toskala in the net, with a backup trio that included a well-past-his-prime Curtis Joseph, as well waiver-wire scraps from Ottawa in Martin Gerber, and also Pogge. Burke drastically improved the Leafs’ goaltending situation in 2009 by signing Jonas Gustavsson from Sweden, as well as upgrading from Vesa Toskala to Jean-Sébastien Giguère in a trade with Anaheim. The 09-10 season also saw Burke land a jackpot trade that brought premier defenceman Dion Phaneuf to Toronto in exchange for a grab-bag of spare parts.

And then, there was the Kessel trade. For some reason, Leafs fans and sports media love to rip Burke for this move. The Leafs gave up two years worth of first-round picks and a second-round pick for Phil Kessel. Yes, those two first-round picks ended up becoming Tyler Seguin (already an NHL All-Star) and Dougie Hamilton, who would have helped immensely. It’s easy to look back at this trade and say that Burke overpaid. At the time of the trade, however, the Leafs were getting a player that Burke believed to have All-Star potential for draft picks that could either have been boom or bust. And Kessel has performed as advertised. He’s been leading the Leafs in scoring while earning All-Star recognition in each of the last two seasons. Though in hindsight Burke did overpay, the trade was nowhere near as terrible as some make it out to have been.

Burke went after plenty of pugnacity through free-agent signings in 2009: Colton Orr and Jay Rosehill are shining examples. Arguably Burke’s worst move of the entire year was signing free agent Mike Komisarek. Komisarek’s contract was both too long and too expensive. While he provides some leadership as the Leafs alternate captain, he hasn’t made any kind of significant impact on the ice.

Into the Present

The team continued to improve in 2010. Burke acquired Joffrey Lupul, Jake Gardiner, and a fourth-round pick, all from Anaheim, in exchange for Francois Beauchemin. He also unloaded defensive deadweight Tomas Kaberle for a first-round pick from Boston. (Haters of Burke’s decision to take Kessel from Boston should love this one, as Kaberle has been pretty much dreadful for the Bruins.) In terms of free agents, the Leafs finally acquired some goaltending depth by signing Ben Scrivens and Jussi Rynnas, while James Reimer was emerging as another possible goalie talent. Clarke MacArthur, Colby Armstrong, and Michael Zigomanis were all excellent cost-for-value free agent signings in 2010 for the Leafs.

These moves have worked well for the Leafs. Kessel and Lupul are now the leading scorers on the team, while Phaneuf leads the team on scoring from the blue line. If recently acquired James van Riemsdyk adjusts well to a centre position between Kessel and Lupul, the Leafs will be looking even stronger this year than last. Without question, the current version of the Toronto Maple Leafs has promise. The team could be a fringe playoff contender for the first time in years. Granted, it still lacks a premier centreman, and while its goaltending prospects are very promising, they’re still largely unproven.

Toronto is still some distance from Stanley Cup contention, but the Leafs are a hell of a lot better than they were when Brian Burke first inherited the team. Had Burke not been so unceremoniously canned, it seems rather likely that Leafs fans would have started to see consecutive trips to the post-season for Toronto.

What can the Maple Leafs expect in the coming season? It’s still somewhat of a crap shoot. Burke’s replacement, Dave Nonis, is a Burke loyalist. It would be very surprising to see any kind of a roster shakeup. The Leafs’ best course of action would be to keep with the Burke plan—which notably includes staying away from trading for Roberto Luongo.

We’ll miss Burke’s truculence in press conferences almost as much as we’ll miss his excellent advocacy and charity work in Toronto over the past several years. (I mean, hell, we even selected Burke as a 2012 Hero for his efforts in promoting LGBTQ rights.) As for the Toronto Maple Leafs, we’re hoping that Burke’s vision for the team will come to fruition, even though Burke himself will have moved on.

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