Hockey, Sports, The Campaign to Fire Brian Burke

The Campaign to Fire Brian Burke – Prologue

I am an odd kind of Leafs fan; at this point I expect them to fail more than I expect them to succeed. I can’t look at any move they make in a completely positive light, and don’t believe they will win the Cup in my lifetime. And yet I watch (or listen) to as many games as I can. I constantly try to think about how they can be better. But you will never hear me calling into to 640 or the Fan and screaming about them.

I must say I was very skeptical of the hiring of the Leafs’ latest GM. (I will explain why momentarily.) I am of the opinion, now held by many, that a corporation does not care about winning championships. It does care about winning, in the sense that, in most cities, winning is what sells tickets; but it does not care so much about championships. People at MLSE insist otherwise but they have not demonstrated to this to the fans with any of their franchises. Brian Burke was supposed to change that. He hasn’t.

I said I was going to give him a year. A year when I would be fairly forgiving. I did. Yesterday was the two year anniversary of his hiring and the Leafs are not in very good shape. In my inexpert opinion they are at least a #1 centre away from being a playoff team; not a Cup contender, merely a playoff team. That is certainly not the goal of a complete and utter gutting and rebuilding.

Over the next five or more years I plan to analyze every transaction Burke makes for the Leafs in this space, on the day of the transactions for new transactions, but on the first anniversary and fifth anniversary for those already past. (And since this is Burke’s second anniversary, I will have to make it the second anniversary for his first year moves.) I hope that by doing so I will show what a lousy job he is doing and how his actions have not really fit his original blustery predictions.

I hope to demonstrate that his current course – to make this team tough to play against – will result in only one thing: the mediocrity of the Dryden / Quinn / Ferguson years (or the Sundin years, to be unfair to Mats) all over again; where the Leafs make the playoffs every year, win a round or two, and then get embarrassed by a far more talented team. (And by being a perennial playoff team are forced to sacrifice their future every trade deadline day.)

I genuinely believe this will happen. So I will harangue you from this space until Burke is fired or the Leafs win a Cup. (Which do you think I think will happen first?) I know this won’t do anything, but I have to express my endless frustration somewhere.

So, on the anniversary of his hiring (I meant to post this yesterday) I will explain to you why I think this whole thing has sort of been doomed from the outset. And I will follow up on the transaction anniversaries with specifics about his moves that I disapprove of, those that I think are a mixed bag, and the odd one which I actually wholeheartedly agree with.

This has been turned into a book

Before Burke was ever hired to be GM of the Leafs, he had some kind of mystique that I couldn’t quite understand. There seemed to be consensus in the world of hockey that he was one of the best GMs in the league. I don’t know where this came from, but I think it existed even before he won his Cup in Anaheim. And honestly, it baffles me.

To me there is only one executive who merits outright acclaim in hockey: Ken Holland. He has three Cups as a GM and one as an assistant, all with the same organization. The Red Wings have won more games than any other team during his tenure, along with

  • four President’s Trophies,
  • 8 division titles and
  • 67 post-season wins.

They are the model franchise. The only smirch on Holland’s record at this date is the Franzen contract. Beyond that, what has he done wrong?

There are other GMs worthy of mention ahead of Burke. Lamoriello was, at least before the salary cap, probably the number two guy behind Holland (or even the number one guy). Since then he doesn’t quite have the same reputation. Pierre Lacroix would have also been in the same boat pre-Cap. Jim Rutherford has managed to transcend the Cap, putting up both good and terrible teams on both sides of it.

Now we have a different situation, where we’re not really sure what a good GM looks like – beyond Holland. A couple of years ago everyone thought Ray Shero was brilliant. Now I look at someone like Peter Chiarelli and think he is pretty deserving of the appellation of good GM, since he has managed to take a franchise that most thought doomed – after what many regarded as one of the worst trades of the decade – and turn it into a perennial favourite. [Editor’s note: That take has not aged well, has it?]

The point is that it is very difficult, especially in the new landscape, to figure out who is a good GM and who merely looks to be a good GM. We may all agree on the worst – Mike Milbury (why do you have a job as an analyst?!?!?! AAAAAAAAAAAAAARGHHHHHHHHH) – but few can agree on the good GMs.

If you do agree with me that Holland is the best GM of the past couple decades, that’s good. I know some people don’t but I really don’t know who else compares. If we accept this, what can we learn from him about hiring are own GM?

It turns out, not much because Holland inherited a winner. He was promoted during a very dominant time for the Red Wings. And even before they won that first Cup, they were already very good in the regular season. When the Leafs were trying to replace Ferguson they were in a totally different situation so it wouldn’t make a whole lot of sense to throw all their money at Holland until he quit.

Instead, they needed to look for an available GM (I use the word ‘available loosely) who could start from scratch. Honestly, I don’t really know how a team does that, except that it should be a really methodical and rigorous process. I don’t think the hiring of Burke was such a process.

What do we want in a GM? Well, it depends where we are. Obviously, some GMs are good at both building from scratch and maintaining quality, whereas most are probably good at one or the other. The Leafs needed a GM who could suffer bad years for long term benefit, who could draft well and retain talent, etc.

One thing most people think a GM should have is a reputation for winning. This strikes me as slightly odd. Obviously you want your GM to build a winning team, but wins should play far more of a role when looking for a coach, one would think. But few GMs have won Stanley Cups with two different organizations so it seems a strange criterion. What I mean is that success at the level of wins should be a deciding factor between two otherwise equally qualified candidates, rather than a criterion from the get-go. The ability to develop and retain young talent really should be first and foremost. I think MLSE preferred a Cup win on the resume.

Because of Burke’s outsized reputation (I will get to the details of that soon), he was sort of seen as Option Number One from the very beginning. They knew he’d like the job and they knew that people thought highly of him. (In that sense, hiring Wilson to entice Burke to come here is a little like MLSE telling us all the NHL players want to play here and then throwing massive contracts at them to get them to come here.)

Obviously, I contend that there were other candidates who might have been interviewed but I doubt they would have convinced MLSE otherwise because of Burke’s rep. But does he really deserve it? Is he really the third best GM of the last two decades as one blogger alleges? [Incidentally, the blogger offers little defence beyond the Cup for this allegation…and no, Riley didn’t provide you with a link. He forgot.]


Burke backers never mention Hartford beyond the drafting of Chris Pronger. There’s a reason. He really didn’t do anything else beyond trade Holik for Sean Burke. Then he was fired.


Before Burke won his Cup, his reputation was based on the Canucks. He turned the Nucks from a sorry team to a contender, so the story goes. He actually inherited his two best players, but he did turn the Canucks into a perennial playoff contender. However, they never won the Cup even though, for a period of time, the Naslund-Morrison-Bertuzzi line was probably the best offensive line in the league. Moreover, even if Naslund wasn’t the best LW in the league, there was a calendar year – just prior to the Steve Moore incident – when Bertuzzi may have been the best hockey player in the world.

So why didn’t this team win a Cup (aside from those Canuck-hating NHL referees…)? Well, as has been often noted, Burke failed to ever get the team a real goalie. Cloutier’s best season as a Canuck – obviously the best of his career, since he never really had a career outside of Vancouver – was 03-04: 33-21-6, with a GAA of 2.27 and a .914 Save %age. That’s his very best season.

But less often noted is the fact that Burke never found a bona fide #1 centre for his two dynamic wingers. Morrison was only ever a “#1” centre on the Canucks. His career high of 71 points is an off year for most #1 centres. The Mogilny trade, which netted the Canucks Morrison, has to be looked at as a failure, even if it was necessar.y (I’m trying to be somewhat brief here so I won’t go into other Burke Canucks trades I regard as iffy.) If the Canucks had a number one centre during that era, it is quite possible they would’ve won that elusive Cup even with Cloutier.

He did draft the Sedins, which many criticized him for until recently, but it was a very weak draft so he did well two get two such players.


It has been oft-noted that Burke inherited a lot in Anaheim and he did; specifically Getzlaf and Perry. And he has publicly declared that he had little to do with the Niedermeyer signing.

The main thing he did to build this team was fleece the Oilers for Pronger. But we should remember that due to some not-well-understood circumstances. (Pronger’s wife was unhappy, Pronger’s wife was having an affair, Pronger’s wife didn’t like Albertans, Pronger’s wife was having an affair with Alberta, whatever…) Edmonton had to trade Pronger. Why else would they have traded the MVP (among skaters anyway) of their Cup final run the previous season? The trade looks slightly less brilliant when you factor that in. Still, it was a very good move.

The other thing people bring up is drafting Bobby Ryan. Yes, he did that. And so would most other GMs. And he did more: he kept him in the minors to let him develop (unlike what he just did with Kadri). But then he could afford to at the time, given how well Anaheim did that year.

Of course, the Cup was even less Burke’s than the above suggests. Ottawa’s offense utterly collapsed in the final and the Refs totally forgot the new post-lockout rules whenever the Ducks played. Of the post-lockout champions, the only ones to win to date by penalty minutes are the Ducks.

Worse yet was his cap management. Bryzgalov – yes, that Bryzgalov, the Bryzgalov who is playing an awfully big role in the emergence of the Ducks’ division rivals, the Coyotes – is only the most glaring example of how he was unable – like so many GMs – to figure out the cap. (Fortunately this doesn’t seem to have followed him to Toronto.) If I had told you that a GM waived one of his goalies because of cap problems and his division rival claimed him and he subsequently became their star starting goalie, you would say that move was terrible, regardless of the reasons for the deal. But put Brian Burke’s name to it and people try to defend it.

All of this is not to say that Burke is a bad GM, only that he is just another GM with a mixed record. The idea that someone with the above track history should get a job basically through acclamation is ridiculous.

Don’t get me wrong. There are things about Burke that are positives for Toronto. The Toronto media are insane – they are, as fans of Coxbloc (RIP) know, the the Centre of the Bad Sports Writing Universe – and they need to be shouted at for being insane by the odd coach and exec. Burke can do that. So can Wilson. That’s good. But that shouldn’t be a main reason to hire a guy.

But he’s here. So, before we get to specifics, what has he done to piss me off so?

Well, glad you asked.

He claimed he needed to blow things up. At first it looked like he wouldn’t do it. He did eventually blow things up, but it’s the way he did it that boggles the mind:

What team has ever rebuilt without draft picks? What Stanley Cup winner – or even finalist – has failed to have at least a substantial part of its team developed in-house? (If you want to contest this, we can go through all of them, just comment and I will do so.)

But before the actual blowup began, he made ridiculous claims about how he would draft Tavares. How Tavares has done so far is beside the point. (Besides, he is still very young.) He was thought to be what Stamkos has turned out to be (essentially). Everyone wanted him. Burke heavily implied to Toronto fans that they would get him. He then later guaranteed that they couldn’t get a player like that for at least two years.

So there you have it. I didn’t think it was a good process, I wasn’t okay with the result and I thought the winner talked too much. I don’t think anything has changed since then in terms of my opinion of Burke. He is competent (as much as the Leafs are bad right now, I think they will be a playoff team next year or the one after, and it looks as though they will have no cap trouble). He is creative in finding players (he has well-exploited JFJ’s one positive legacy: the expanded and improved scouting system). But he is obsessed with character over talent and he is full of himself.

He will not bring a Cup to Toronto. If he does, I will eat my (Burke-related) posts. I get to choose the seasoning.

Stay tuned for the specifics!

1 Comment

  1. Anonymous says:

    I agree with you.
    But I say that Burke's reputation is because he is good with the media – not because he's a good GM. Whether he's making false claims by saying he's getting Tavares or trying to present himself as one of the boys by taking off his suit jacket, unfastening his tie and draping it over his shoulders and only then being interviewed, he's 100% BS. his trades (Kessel, Caputi) have been awful. Signings too (e.g. Komisarek. But we're stuck with him. The front office loves him and, as stated, so does the media.

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