I have been very hard on Burke lately – pre-Kaberle deal, which I think was a pretty good move – and I guess I should offer something positive instead of endless criticism. With the Beachemin and Kaberle deals (and the Versteeg deal, as much as I don’t like it) Burke appears to be implicitly acknowledging he made a mistake or two. But since he is currently saying they are going to trade for a defenseman, I can’t believe that he has completely realized the course he should be on. So, I will now offer up what I would do in his position, so that maybe my criticism (which is sure to continue) makes more sense. It isn’t just criticism because I don’t personally like Burke (and I don’t), because I believe there is a sound, albeit hardly guaranteed, strategy to pursue.
First, like Burke, I would trade any veterans I could for picks and prospects (as he traded Beauchemin and Kaberle).
At the same time, I would do my best to use the Leafs’ cap space to trade role players, fighters, minor leaguers and possibly veterans for expiring contracts with picks (as Burke did two years ago for Kolzig). I would do this because the Leafs do not have their first round pick, as we know, and they need to make the playoffs this year. Obtaining expiring contracts allows the Leafs to try to make the playoffs this year, while they trade veterans for picks and prospects, while not committing the team to players that other teams have given up on. This may or may not work but it’s worth a try.
After the season, regardless of whether the Leafs made the playoffs or not, I would hold a team meeting, and especially a meeting with those in long-term deals (Kessel, Phaneuf, etc.) and apologize. “I have made mistakes but I recognize them and I aim to make the Leafs a contender by the time your contracts are expiring. Is that okay?” Whoever is unwilling to commit to the new plan would then become a tradable asset for the next season.
Between the end of the playoffs and free agency, I would attempt to move any rights to expiring contracts of players I had no wish to resign (most) to teams who think they might sign, like was done with Mats and I believe Hamhuis in the past.
During free agency I would sign only apparent deals (reclamation projects), usually to one years, much as Burke did with MacArthur. I would only sign a long-term deal to a player under a certain age – say 28 – at a low salary. If none are available I wouldn’t worry about not signing anyone.
And then I would let the Leafs suck balls all next season. I would let Kadri play a full year in the top 6, Aulie and Gardiner too, and any of the new acquisitions that seem ready. If a player under long term contract had expressed discontent, I would try to move him whenever a deal appeared. If the Leafs sucked like I expect they would, I would then hopefully draft a franchise player the next summer. If they did better than expected then I would have to do more trades for picks and prospects, in order to tank. I would repeat the next season if things hadn’t yet worked out.
I would probably get fired by MLSE, but that’s because MLSE doesn’t understand rebuilding, except when it applies to the Raptors this season.
I believe this strategy would give the Leafs a much better chance of legitimately contending in, say, five years. I think Burke’s strategy to date – which can change at any moment, and appears to be changing currently – is guaranteed to bring about more of the Dryden / Quinn / Ferguson type of mediocrity none of us miss.