2010, Hockey, Sports, The Campaign to Fire Brian Burke

The Campaign to Fire Brian Burke: January 31, 2010

January 31st of 2010 was a big day for the Leafs. In one day, the Leafs traded 6 players for 4 players, completely changing the team and yes, perhaps, even the “culture.” Surely, this day played as big a part as any other day in Burke’s attempt to get rid of the players he associated with the previous, unsuccessful regimes.

There were two separate trades: one with the Flames and one with the Ducks. Though I am inclined to dislike most trades of more assets for less assets, I think such a reaction lacks insight. Let’s consider both of them separately, and then together.

The Leafs – Flames Deal

First, Burke traded Hagman, Mayers, Stajan and White for Aulie, Phaneuf and Sjostrom.

I would say on the basis of reputations alone, this trade looks like a win for the Leafs. Phaneuf is a former Norris nominee and still young, Aulie is a good prospect and Sjostrom is a highly thought-of role player. On the basis of reputation we then have

  • Flames get: two top six forwards, a top four D and a 4th liner
  • Leafs get: a #1 D, a potential top 4 D and a 3rd / 4th liner.

On that basis it seems like a fairly reasonable trade for the Leafs. I think it is on this very basis that Burke made the deal.

In terms of the impacts on the teams this year, however, it also looks like the Flames won, albeit barely:

  • The Leafs are 19-25-5 (19-30 in sane terms)
  • whereas the Flames are a slightly better 24-21-6 (24-27).

Last year, post trade, it is also very even, though this time slightly in favour of the Leafs:

  • the Leafs were 13-11-2 (13-13) post trade
  • and the Flames were 13-12-2 (13-14) post trade.

Neither team made the playoffs.

It is pretty hard to evaluate the trade based on team records to date. Instead we might say that because Mayers and White are no longer with the Flames, the Leafs won because they have managed to have this record with the players they got from this trade. That is some dubious reasoning given the Leafs’ pretty brutal record.

What about the if we think about the players themselves?

The Leafs got:

  • In 12 games this year with the Leafs Aulie is -5. But he is a 22 year old defenseman. For the Marlies he has 9 points (3-6) in 39 games.
  • Phaneuf has 3G and 18A for 21P and is a -9 in 59 games since the trade. He is second on the team in minutes this year and he was first on team in minutes last year once he was here.
  • Sjostrom has 3G and 6A for 9P and is a -10 in 61 games since the trade. He has been playing third liner minutes.
  • So the new Leafs have scored 6G and 24A and are -6 collectively (no, silly sports media, they are not -24).

The Flames got:

  • Hagman has 14G and 20A for 34P and is a -5 in 77 games since the trade.
  • Mayers had 1G and 5A for 6P and was a +2 in 27 games for the Flames, playing third or fourth liner minutes. He since signed with the Sharks where he has 2G and 5A for 7P and is a +3 in 46 games this year, playing slightly less than he did on Calgary.
  • Stajan has 6G and 33A for 39P and is a +1 in 72 games since trade. Last year he was Calgary’s first line centre after the trade, this year he is playing more second line minutes, which is more appropriate to his skill-set.
  • White had 6G and 12A for 18P and was a -3 in 43 games for the Flames, playing top 4 minutes. He was traded to Carolina and has 7A and is a +4 in 32 games, again playing top 4 minutes.
  • So the new Flames scored 27G and 70A and were approximately -1.

The conclusion: Ouch. Though their records don’t reflect it, the new Flames clearly out performed the new Leafs offensively, and defensively, at least by the crudest of defensive evaluations (+ / -). On this basis, the Flames won the trade, though it is hard to argue that given the similarity of their record to the Leafs.

But wait, there’s more!

Trades do not happen in a void. They happen in a specific situation, like literally anything else. So the reputation basis for the trade I outlined earlier is preposterous unless those reputations match reality, and they don’t, as we have seen with how the individuals have performed.

The Leafs got:

  • Although Phaneuf was indeed nominated for a Norris and considered one of the top D in the league, this attitude was a little outdated by the date of the trade. Phaneuf was actually in the midst of the second worst season of his career when the trade was made, having recovered slightly from the previous season, which was a career low in points and + / – while playing a career high in minutes. (In basketball terms, where efficiency is everything, that is terrible.) And all this had happened since he signed a massive contract. His value was down considerably.
  • Aulie was a 116th overall fourth rounder who had perhaps improved his rep somewhat by being a plus player in his first pro league (the AHL). His value was up a little.
  • Though Sjostrom has had some okay years the idea that he was greatly superior to Mayers seems to be a bit of a myth numbers wise. Sjostrom career: 45G, 58A, 103P, -38 in 465 games (that’s .22 ppg).

The Flames got:

  • Hagman was a consistent 20-goal scorer who had been perhaps  overpaid by the Leafs (what else is new). At the time of the trade, he was leading the Leafs in goals, with 20, which was still good for second on the team at the end of the season, even though he was traded half way through. His value should have been up slightly at most, but the Flames were already in cap issues so his value for them shouldn’t have been that high.
  • Mayers was a fourth liner. At times in his career he had played second / third line minutes, but 4th-line has been his role most of his career. Despite the stress put on it at the time, I don’t see how Mayers is all that different from Sjostrom. Mayers career: 83G, 112A, 195P, -85 in 783 games (that’s 0.25 ppg). Mayers has played longer so his minus is worse than Sjostrom’s. Otherwise they are very similar. But Mayers’ value was down because he was demanding a trade at the time.
  • Stajan had been the default #1 centre on the Leafs since Mats’ departure, even though he had never been drafted with that intention nor had he ever shown that he was a #1 (his career high coming the year before with 15G and 40A). At the time, he had the second most assists on the Leafs, and first among Leafs forwards, with 25. Still good enough for being tied for second in assists among forwards on the Leafs at the end of the season. Given how many minutes he played once he got on the Flames (over 19 per game) it seems the Flames truly believed he was a #1 centre, so his value was way up.
  • White was playing the best hockey of his career to date. His minutes and + / – were up slightly and his points were way up. Though ostensibly a top 4 D, he was playing the second most minutes on the team (or thereabouts, it’s hard to tell now). He was the only + D on the second worst team in the league. He was clearly their best defenseman to anyone who was watching (I was watching) and me and some other biased observers thought he was the Leafs best player up until the trade (despite his later falters with the Flames). His value was also way up.

So, reconsidering the above, we now have

  • a supposed #1 D who was not playing like he used to but was still getting paid like he was, a defensive prospect who was looking a little better and a third / fourth liner for
  • an overpaid top 6 forward, a third / fourth liner, a default #1 centre who, if anyone was paying attention, should have been regarded as a #2 centre at best, and a guy playing like a #2 D, at least temporarily.

Cancel out Sjostrom and Mayers and you get what looks like a pretty horrible trade from the Leafs perspective: that is

  • a #1 D and a potential top 4 D for a 2 top 6 forwards and a possible #2 D.

The only rationale that I can see is that Phaneuf and Aulie are “Brian Burke type” players and Stajan and White are definitely not. But this isn’t the worst of it. I’ll get to that in a moment.

The Leafs – Ducks Trade

Burke traded Blake and Toskala for Giguere.

The Leafs had been needing to move Blake for ages and, at this point, needed to move Toskala too. Blake represented one of Feguson’s worst signings, a huge contract based on his career year. (The only thing keeping it from worst Ferguson signing ever was the lack of a no-trade clause.) And Toskala had gone from being a decent starter to being a constantly injured liability. The fact that Burke moved these guys at the same time appears to be a miracle in itself. To get a former Conn Smythe winner in the bargain seems unbelievable, as if the Ducks ownership still owed him something for time served.

Blake should have been moved the season before, when his value was highest, but it wasn’t in the cards, apparently. But Toskala was fairly unmovable even the season before.

Of course the Ducks had to move Giguere because of a goalie battle. Burke had been faced with a similar problem while still the Ducks’ GM and had solved it by waiving the goalie, who then ended up on a Division rival. The ducks obviously didn’t want to repeat that move so in that sense I guess the trade makes sense.

  • Giguere has been a decent to good goalie on a bad team. He is covering well enough for Burke’s goalie of the future. The Leafs’ shittiness is not his fault.
  • Blake is playing on the third line of the Ducks and he is putting up his usual number of points (maybe slightly down) but they are paying him loads of money.
  • Toskala is apparently playing in the Swedish Elite League right now after somehow finding his way to the Flames for a brief stint last year.

I would say this trade was a great win for the Leafs, but… (there’s always a but)

Why the two trades together ended up being worse than if only one had been made

Consider the situation:

The Leafs had to make the playoffs, they were second last in the league and they were in danger of handing the Bruins the #1 or #2 overall pick that summer. They had to win games immediately. That isn’t the best time to shore up defense for the future (if, indeed, that’s what the Phaneuf trade accomplished).

If the Kessel trade hadn’t been made, maybe the Phaneuf trade looks (a little) less bad. But what Burke needed to do was improve the offense. Even without doing that, the Leafs were hardly atrocious offensively after the Phaneuf deal. What would have happened had he improved the offense? (Note, I am not arguing that Burke should have tried to add veteran scoring in general, just saying that since he had already given the Leafs’ future for the next two years to the Bruins, he had to do something to improve the offense to avoid giving the Bruins a Top 2 pick.)

Added to the Phaneuf trade then, the Blake trade doesn’t look so hot. In one day, Burke traded three of the Leafs then top 6 forwards, including their leading goal scorer and second leading scorer. He also traded their second highest scoring defenseman. In one single day he destroyed the Leafs’ offense for the season. Yes, Kessel and Grabovski and Kulemin and later Bozak got more time and that was good for their development  but Burke decimated the fourth worst offense in the league and somehow still expected them to make the playoffs.

The deals compounded the Kessel deal. Without the Kessel deal, maybe the Phaneuf deal actually makes some sense. Without the Phaneuf and Blake deals, the Kessel deal might not have been as disastrous as it turned out, but there’s no way of knowing and it was still pretty terrible in isolation.

So, in conclusion, January 31, 2010 was indeed a dark day for the Maple Leafs (and a pretty good one for the Bruins).

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