Photo by kristin shaw.
When Brian Burke arrived in Toronto last November, he promised a Maple Leaf team full of “pugnacity, testosterone, truculence and belligerence.” He wasn’t kidding: barely seven months into his tenure as the Leafs’ thirteenth general manager, Burke has begun creating exactly that.
His first foray into free agency typified Burke’s approach to team-building, which earned him a Stanley Cup ring with the 2006/07 Anaheim Ducks. His first signing, ex-Ranger Colton Orr, isn’t about to be confused with his more famous namesake: he comes to Toronto boasting eleven career points and 549 career penalty minutes. Next, Burke flipped Pavel Kubina to the Atlanta Thrashers for a package that included hard-hitting defenceman Garnet Exelby; no sooner was that deal complete than he signed Mike Komisarek away from Montreal, thus solidifying the Leafs’ blueline with two mean, aggressive players. Burke also re-signed Mikhail Grabovski to a three-year deal, but his immediate focus is unquestionably on making the Maple Leafs tougher.
Will it work? Only time will tell. But what’s clear is that Burke has a plan—his plan—and he’s going to stick to it. That isn’t a recipe for guaranteed success, but it’s at least an indication that the Toronto Maple Leafs are headed somewhere, a claim that often couldn’t be made during John Ferguson, Jr.’s comical reign as general manager. They still won’t be good next year; at best they’ll battle for a playoff spot, but even that might be optimistic. They’re far too thin up front. (The team pursued free agents Daniel and Henrik Sedin and Mike Cammalleri to help out in that regard; ultimately, the twins stayed in Vancouver while Cammalleri signed with the Canadiens.) And there are still big question marks in goal: Burke is currently in Sweden trying to woo prized free agent Jonas Gustavsson, a.k.a. the Monster, to Toronto, since Vesa Toskala raised serious doubts about his ability to be a number-one goaltender with a shaky (albeit injury-plagued) 2008/09. Yet from the start of free agency, not to mention last week’s NHL entry draft, it’s clear Burke has identified his team’s weaknesses and determined how best to fix them, instead of simply trying something and hoping it works.
As Damien Cox wrote in yesterday’s Toronto Star: “So we may not all agree with Burke’s approach. But he doesn’t care, and more important, at least the man has a plan.” Direction: who could’ve known it’d be so important to running an NHL team? Not for the first time, we’re grateful to have Brian Burke on board.