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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=""}gardinergirl{/a}, from the {a href=""}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.


  • Grumpy Penguin

    “Why Brian Burke Was Bad for the Toronto Maple Leafs” – no playoffs for four straight years in the era of the most parity in the NHL in decades. In point of fact, they actually got *worse* last year than the year before.

    This article says that the 2008 Leafs were “the worst hockey team in recent memory…[with] next to no hopeful draft picks”. Then it mentions that getting a secound-round pick for Dominic Moore was “excellent value”. But not long after that, Burke is given a completely free pass for trading three “hopeful draft picks” for one player with decent potential (but not likely to ever become an all-around superstar). You can’t have it both ways! That is not the kind of trade a team makes when its cupboards are bare. And in four years, Burke never managed to get a centre who could actually play with Kessel. In fact, he hired more talent for his management team than for his hockey team.

    Have a look at the Leafs’ past four seasons and then compare them with the Jays’ past *three* seasons. See where each team sits now in their respective leagues. One of these teams is run by a first-time GM and it’s not the one a casual observer would expect. Burke’s “hockey mind” has always been tragically overrated.

  • James D Paterson

    I was tempted to stop reading after getting past the sensationalist headline, but I soldiered on, and it was exactly as I expected.

    Sure, Burke did the odd good thing for the team, just like most GM’s of sports team will do at least one thing good for their team. And I cannot commend Mr. Burke enough for his charity work in the wake of his sons death.

    However, as the GM, he was a completely useless man. Not one playoff spot in his entire tenure. I don’t expect the Leafs to win the Cup every year (hah, that’s a good one), nor do I expect them to get a playoff spot every year, but 2008 to 2012 was one of the worst reigns for the team.

    Since Nonis is, as you put it, a “Burke loyalist”, I don’t really see any changes coming to the team, and Nonis is simply a human puppet who Burke will be pulling, but any fresh blood is better than useless blood.

  • Craig G

    I just read the first two comments. wow, people have a lot to say about things they know nothing about. The article is bang on. Period. It’s a complex issue, one that is too easily brushed off as being only about wins and losses. the Leafs are infinitely better now than they were. Kessel was 6th in scoring last year, and without the injury Lupol was closing in on third.

    Say what you will, the Burke firing wasn’t about performance. it was about ego in the front office at Bell.

    • Guest

      Why do you assume it’s Bell, when both them and Rogers co-own the team?

      • craig g

        its common knowledge. reported already, george cope has been trying to fire him for months.

  • Bob McKenzie

    Burke = #BigHatNoCattle

  • Slim

    Craig, the Leafs have no future, and Burke had no vision, despite his claims. Actually, he did have a vision – and another, and another. There was no plan, no logic guiding his moves. He was actually worse than JFJ! Brian Burke is the most overrated man in hockey, and a perfect example of how speaking with authority can trick people into thinking that you actually know what you’re talking about.

  • J-Jack.

    past decade of playoff futility says more about the way the team was
    run in the decade prior (trading draft picks and youth away for aging,
    over-the-hill stars) than it does about the way Burke ran his team.

    He did far more good for the organization than bad, and when it comes to the draft, every one is a crap-shoot. What spot was Pavel Datsyuk drafted in again…? Exactly.

  • OgtheDIm

    Yes the team 4 years ago was really bad. But getting better then that didn’t take much.

    What I’d really like to see is some analysis of how the media has treated this firing. The obsequiousness has been nauseating

  • hockeytoronto

    Lets hope Burke does get hired on by another team. If he does well I guess all the naysayers will be changing their tunes.
    He is the best GM we have had in years. Just trying to build a winning franchise from the ground up to last a long time. Does Detroit come to mind

  • BF

    In Burke’s four years as GM of the Leafs he didn’t add one free agent that was worth anything. You’d think with the Leafs financial status he’d at least be able to add one. No Kovalchuk or Richards or Gaborik or … Also he could have had Phil Kessel for Kaberle and a first ( Nazim Kadri ). But he choose to keep the aging Kaberle ( who quickly declined ) and give up two firsts and a second, terrible. He did do some good things ( Gardiner and Lupul ) but the bad outweighs the good by far. He sucked and I’m glad he was canned.

  • Paul Smith

    Brian Burke did do good things, but two things seriously damaged the leafs. 1. He woefully underestimated how bad the leafs were when making the Kessel deal. He had no idea he was giving away a number 2 pick. 2. His commitment to not signing cap beating contracts was admirable but put us at a disadvantage. What concerns me more though is that the man who left Burke with nothing (Fletcher) is still advising our GM!

    • Corbin Smith

      The whole “underestimated how bad the leafs were when making the Kessel deal” argument goes away really quickly when you see you close the Leafs were to not having a top 5 pick. Toronto was only SIX points (or three wins) away from being excluded from the draft lottery. Due to simultaneous injuries to both Toskala and Gustavsson early in the season, Leafs had to play 3rd string goaltender Joey MacDonald in six games—of which they won one. Three more wins, and that first round pick is no longer top 5.

  • mf37

    So much wrong here.

    Kaberle is now with the Habs, not the Bruins. He was a decent contributor the Bruins Cup run playing 16 minutes a night and picking up 11 assists in 25 games. That’s pretty decent by any measure

    The so-called goaltending “depth” Burke acquired remains at the AHL level. Rynas and Scrivens aren’t NHL goalies. It’s yet to be seen if Reimer is. Goaltending was a black hole under Burke and largely remains so.

    Colby Armstrong was a terrible UFA and was bought out by Burke. He is now in Montreal on a deal that’s 1/3 of what Burke signed him to. Zigomanis is an AHLer, he played all of 8 games for the Leafs (8 games! What a fantastic UFA signing).

    JVR is not a centre and Carlyle has said he won’t play C for the Leafs. The club has needed a C for Kessel since Burke arrived and the team (and fans) still wait for one.

    When Burke took over, the team had Tlusty, Pogge, Stralman, Reimer, Boyce, Kronwall, Mitchell, Williams and Stalberg in the system. Four years later, the Leafs prospect pool isn’t any deeper. Morgan Rielly is the only blue chip in the system despite Burke’s Leafs finishing, on average, in 26th place. That’s inexcusable.

    Burke had 300 games with the Leafs and achieved a .494 record. In that four year run, the Leafs were 30th in goals against and 30th on the penalty kill.

    Four years into Burke’s reign and the upside is maybe the team could be a “fringe playoff” team. Frankly, that’s not good enough and the “building blocks” so many speak of are more aggregate and sand than a solid foundation of any sort.

    There’s more than enough hockey reasons for Burke to be fired. Going 129-135-42 will often result in a GM losing his job. In this case, it was deservedly so.

  • Sean K

    How is a team that finishes with 6 teams BELOW them in the standings with 83 points in 82 games the worst team in recent memory. I stopped reading after that line. Ridiculous. 4 years after the “worst team in recent memory” Brian Burke built a team that finished with 3 points less. I guess they were the WORST TEAM IN THE HISTORY OF THE UNIVERSE (yay useless hyperbole!). Also Headline: Brian Burke was good for the Leafs.

    • Corbin Smith

      ANY team that finished lower than the leafs in 08-09 would have been a better team for a GM to build with. Take the Tampa Bay Lightning for example: assets of St. Louis, Lecavalier and Stamkos, have more trade value than the entire 08-09 Maple Leafs combined.

  • wikito
  • Val Dodge

    Who knew that people have so much to say about the firing of a middle manager in a mid-sized subsidiary of a pair of media conglomerates?

  • Corbin Smith

    People who say that Burke added no “star” talent fail to observe the facts. Take a look at first-round pedigree players Burke added during his tenure:

    2002 Draft
    Lupul – 7th overall

    2003 Draft
    Phaneuf – 9th overall

    2006 Draft
    Kessel – 5th overall

    2008 Draft
    Schenn – 5th overall
    Colborne – 16th overall
    Gardiner – 17th overall

    2009 Draft
    Kadri – 7th overall
    Ashton – 29th overall

    2011 Draft
    Biggs – 22nd overall
    Percy – 25th overall

    • mf37

      Well done. This is the best trolling I’ve seen in years.

      Assessing a player based on where they were drafted is like measuring pitching or goaltending quality by counting wins.

      You might want to update your list, Schenn was drafted by Fletcher and traded away by Burke.

      • Corbin Smith

        You’re right on one account. I should have added JVR to this list. I was merely describing first-round calibre players Burke had added. (Since then, yes, Schenn was traded for 2nd overall pick JVR.)
        I actually agree with you on the assessing player quality based on draft position isn’t necessarily helpful.
        But then again, fans often point to lack of “first round pedigree” added to the team as a large complaint. It’s as if they want to complain: when it’s Burke trading away picks for Kessel, first-round picks and players are incredibly important; and when Burke acquires first-round calibre players, being drafted in the first round doesn’t matter for anything.

        • mf37

          Not only is draft pedigree not helpful, it’s meaningless.

          Lots of guys get drafted in the top 10 and turn out to be stiffs: Brian Finley, Cam Barker, Aki Berg, Petr Taticek, Boris Valabik, Pascal Leclaire, Lars Johnsson, Brent Krahn. There’s usually one each and every draft. Extend that to the top 30 and the list gets big in a hurry.

          In short: fans who complain about or give credence to pedigree are morons.

  • hockeytoronto

    The last time and only time the leafs were anything was under the smythe regime. It’s to bad it has only come to money and not a will to win with the ownership since that time.
    The only time Toronto will become a winning team( Nonnis may be luckey with the Burke trades) is when we have an ownership that is willing to gamble such as Conn Smythe did in the past. He had respect for his G.M. and confidence in his ability to choose players.