Hockey, Sports, The Campaign to Fire Brian Burke

The Campaign to Fire Brian Burke: Lockout to Lockout

Only one team in the entire 30 team NHL went from the last lockout (2004-05) to this one without a single playoff appearance: the Toronto Maple Leafs.

Only four teams missed the playoffs at least 5 times:

  • the Oilers (6 times),
  • the Islanders
  • and the Thrashers.

One of these teams has a pretty good excuse: the Thrashers relocated and few teams that relocate are notable for their playoff success. (The Coyotes, who have managed to make the playoffs twice in a row under the unending threat of relocation, appear to be the exception.)

Basically, if we measure hockey success by playoff appearances – as opposed to say, conference finals appearances, or cup final appearances, or cup wins, or regular season wins – the Leafs were the worst team in the Lockout-to-Lockout era.

And the only team that had a comparable lack of success

  • went to the final the year they did make the playoffs and
  • one could argue has something to show for all these years of not making the playoffs.


Here are the top 5 offensive seasons by a Leaf in the Lockout-to-Lockout era (minimum 50 games):

  1. Mats in ’06: 31G, 47A for 78P in 70 games, +7
  2. Mats in ’08: 32G, 46A for 78P in 74 games, +17
  3. Lupul! in ’12: 25G, 42A for 67P in 66 games, +1
  4. Mats in ’07: 27G, 39A for 76P in 75 games, -2
  5. Kessel in ’12: 37G, 45A for 82P in 82 games, -10

I think we can draw a number of conclusions from this.

1) Burke has not replaced the team’s last franchise player

Lupul’s year this year is likely an anomaly. It was a full .2 points per game higher than his previous best season in ’08, a season in which he only played 56 games. He is 29. Which is more likely: Point per game seasons become the norm or he regresses to 0.6 PPG career average?

Kessel’s season last year was undoubtedly his best, and he was only 24. But Kessel still has an absolutely alarming lack of ability and / or desire to play D on a consistent basis.

But there is a deeper problem with Kessel (and with Lupul if we were to erroneously view him as a first line player): Kessel (like Lupul) is a former centre. He is a player drafted as a centre who had to convert to the wing because he couldn’t regularly play centre at the NHL level. This is not a slight; it happens all the time. There are tons of former centres playing the wing in the NHL. But centres in hockey are almost always inherently more valuable than wingers. Mats, for all his faults, won faceoffs and participated in the team’s defensive schemes in a greater role than most wingers. So Kessel brings his scoring and his perennially ugly minus, but what else does he bring?

2) Despite Kessel’s faults, he is clearly improving as a player but he has no help

The problem is that he doesn’t have a clear linemate to play with. We can claim Lupul’s proven himself all we want, but until Lupul puts up point per game seasons in multiple years – and manages to play as much as Kessel – he is hardly the answer. Moreover, the team still sorely lacks a #1 centre. Their #2 centre – who I regard as the team’s best forward – is not exactly a great fit for Kessel since they both like to shoot.

The situation is worse if we look at the next 5 best seasons in Leafs’ Lockout-to-Lockout history.

  1.  McCabe in ’06: 19G, 49A for 68P in 73 games, -1
  2. Allison in ’06: 17G, 43A for 60P in 66 games, -18
  3. Kaberle ’06: 9G, 58A for 67P in 82 gmaes, -1
  4. Tucker in ’06: 28G, 33A for 61P in 74 games, -12
  5. Blake in ’09: 25G, 38A for 63P in 78 games, -2

Now obviously those results are skewed by the 2006 Leafs, who clearly scored a lot – relatively at least: 11th in the league – though they also gave up some goals, especially when Allison was on the ice. But the point remains that all those players are from a different era. If we omit the ’06 Leafs entirely, we get two more Kessel seasons but also another Kaberle season, another Tucker season and – cough – an Antroshit season. These are the offensive highlights of the Lockout-to-Lockout era Leafs. Who exactly on this team will replace this scoring next season and in the future? Where exactly are the top forward prospects?

There is a similar story on D

Defensive point shares is a flawed estimate of how much a player’s defense contributes to team points. Here is the top 5 for the Lockout-to-Lockout Leafs (again minimum 50 games):

  1. Kaberle in ’06: 9G, 58A for 67P in 82 games, -1, approx 28 min ATOI, 5 DPS
  2. McCabe in ’06: 19G, 489A for 68P in 73 games, -1, approx 28 1/3 min ATOI, 4.4 DPS
  3. McCabe in ’07: 15G, 42A for 57P in 82 games, +3, approx 27 min ATOI, 3.7 DPS
  4. Kubina in ’08: 11G, 29A for 40P in 72 games, +5, approx 24 ATOI, 3.5 DPS
  5. Phaneuf in ’11: 8G, 22A for 30P in 66 games, -2, approx 25 1/3 ATOI, 3.4 DPS
  6. Schenn in ’11: 5G, 17A for 22P in 82 games, -7, approx 22 1/3 min ATOI, 3/4 DPS

Now, DPS is connected to points – which are acquired through wins and shoot-out losses – and is a team-value assessment as opposed to a “skill” assessment. This isn’t a list of the “best” D of the era on the Leafs, merely the most valuable – as far as semi-advanced metrics can tell. DPS is also unfortunately inseparable from the team’s offense, which explains why the ’06 top D pairing tops the list.

But Burke brought in exactly one of these players, and filling out the top 10 brings another Phaneuf season (last year) but also seasons by Gill (’07) and White (’09) and another season from Kaberle (’07). Beauchemin (’10) is tied for 10th. So two players in the top 10 are Burke’s, just like the list of offensive seasons above. And only one of them is still around. (For one note of optimism: Gardiner’s first season is tied for 12th on the list with the Kaberle of ’08.)

The team appears to be missing elite defensive talent as well. I would say this lack is less glaring than the lack of offense – at least rated by DPS relative to other Leafs’ seasons – but the Leafs’ finishes in goals against for the Burke era look like this:

  • ’09: last
  • ’10: 2nd last
  • ’11: 6th last
  • ’12: 2nd last

But obviously some of that has something to do with goaltending.

Here are the top 5 seasons by a Leafs’ goalie (playing 30 games or more) by Goalie Point Shares, another flawed-but-useful metric, i.e. how many points the goaltender contributed to the team.

  1. Toskala in ’08: 33-25-6 in 66 games, .904 SV%age, 2.74 GAA, 10.2 GPS
  2. Raycroft in ’07: 37-25-9 in 72 games, .894 SV%age, 2.99 GAA, 9.4 GPS
  3. Reimer in ’11: 20-10-5 in 37 games, .921 SV%age, 2.6 GAA, 7.8 GPS
  4. Belfour in ’06: 22-22-4 in 49 games, .892 SV%age, 3.29 GAA, 7.5 GPS
  5. Toskala in ’09: 22-17-11 in 53 games, .891 SV%age, 3.26 GAA, 6 GPS

What is abundantly clear from this list is how poor the Leafs’ goaltending has been. Reimer has far and away the best numbers but he didn’t play enough. Toskala’s best season is miles ahead of even his own second best season. We are only missing the 1 / 1A goaltenders from ’10 and last season, so here he is:

6. Gustavsson in ’10: 16-15-9 in 42 games, .902 SV%age, 2.87 GAA, 5.7 GPS
7. Gustavsson in ’12: 17-17-4 in 42 games, .902 SV%age, 2.92 GAA, 5.4 GPS

What’s clearly evident about Gustavsson’s two 1A years is that his team got worse, not him. But anyway…

So Burke is again responsible for two of the players on the list. (If we round out the top 10, it’s actually 3, including Giguere’s whopping 3.4 GPS in ’11.)

There is always a bit of a chicken-or-egg argument around goaltending: are the Leafs so bad in goals against all the time because of this subpar goaltending, or is it because of the subpar defense? But the fact of the matter is that Burke’s first solution in goal wasn’t quite a number one goaltender – given the number of games your Ryan Millers and Henrik Lundqvists play – and his second solution cannot stay healthy.

So again we have a question about who is going to replace the 10+ points Toskala contributed to the Leafs’ 2nd least bad Lockout-to-Lockout season. Or rather, who is going to replace the 9+ points Raycroft contributed to the Leafs’ best Lockout-to-Lockout season?

Whither the solution?

The Leafs have clear holes at forward, at D and in goal compared to previous Leafs teams that didn’t even make the playoffs. And they have these holes in part because of a “plan” by the current general manager to “rebuild on the fly.” Here is current Leafs’ roster. If the lockout ended today and Burke made no moves, this is what the team would look like (based on ATOI last year, regardless of games played):

  1. Lupul Bozack Kessel
  2. MacArthur Grabovski Kulemin
  3. Kadri Connolly Van Riemsdyk
  4. Lombardi Steckel Frattin
  5. Brown & McClement as reserves
  1. Phaneuf Gunnarsson
  2. Gardiner Liles
  3. Komisarek Holzer
  1. Reimer
  2. Scrivens

This list omits some potential Marlie call-ups, including Colborne.

Who votes for that team as a playoff team whenever the league resumes? And which of these players will lead the team of the future to playoff glory?

Let’s compare this Leafs team with another team that was almost as pathetic (save their brief, lucky brush with greatness in ’06). Here is this year’s possible Oilers organized the same way:

  1. Smyth Horcoff Eberle
  2. Hall Nugent-Hopkins Hemsky
  3. Jones Gagner Hartikainen
  4. Eager Belanger Hordichuk
  1. Petry Whitney
  2. Smid N. Schultz
  3. Potter Peckham
  4. J. Schultz & Sutton as reserves
  1. Khabibulin
  2. Dubnyk

This list omits some potential call-ups including Paajarvi and last year’s #1, Yakupov.

Though there are some very old players on the Oilers who skew their average age a little higher than it should be but the team is basically as young as the Leafs and has something the Leafs don’t have: heaps and heaps of potential. Eberle is currently leading the AHL in points and Hall is sixth. Justin Schultz is second. (Comparatively, Kadri has half as many points as Eberle, though he has missed some time.) Nug-Hop just scored a ton at the WJCs even if his team choked hard. Yes, they haven’t lived up to their potential as yet, but they at least have some.

Where are the top prospects in the Leafs’ organization?

Hockey’s Future rates the Leafs’ top prospect, Morgan Reilly, a 8.5C. That means he has high-end talent (the 8.5 is out of 10) but an only so-so chance at living up to it (“C” as in A, B, C, D, F). And he’s the only one rated an 8 or above. Moreover, the Leafs only have two players the site ranks as “B” or likely to live up to their talent level. (That would be Holzer – who I personally am a big fan of – and Scrivens.)

And the reason for this is, as I have stated time and again, that the Leafs decided to trade away their picks when they were as bad as the Oilers and have, at the same time, propped up their otherwise brutal teams with trades and free agent signings ensuring that they weren’t quite terrible when they didn’t trade away their picks.

Yes, the Oilers have their flaws – taking Hall over Seguin when you should take a centre over a winger 9 times out of 10, to name just one major thing they did wrong – but what Leafs fan wouldn’t trade teams with the Oilers right now? And I’m talking about the second least successful team – measured by playoff appearances – of the era!

And the man responsible for all of this since late 2008 is Brian Burke.

What I don’t understand is why so many Leafs fans continue to defend this man. It wasn’t acceptable when JFJ did a bad job. I don’t really remember too many people defending his moves. Is Burke less culpable because people like his personality? How can this GM stand on this record of futility? At least the Oilers fairly incompetent management have potential to save their asses.

At this point, the Leafs best hopes seem to endlessly revolve around free agency and trades.

The problem with the former is that almost everyone always overpays (see Mike Komisarek…).

The problem with the latter is that you usually have to give up something to get something – unless of course we are talking about Burke’s Kaberle deal, definitely one of the greatest things he has ever done as a GM anywhere – and because the Leafs don’t have a lot to give up in terms of high-end prospects it means that they will likely have to either trade someone who is supposed to be untouchable or give up a way more than they get back. And, as I have argued before, trading more to get less is always risky and rarely successful. (The Kings recently got away with this thanks in no small part to their goalie.)

So, to say what I have been saying for years again, the only real and reasonable solution to this problem the Leafs have is to actually rebuild. It may not work quickly – hell it may not work as it doesn’t always – but it has a better chance of success than whatever is Burke has been doing, where the Leafs lack top tier forwards, defense and goaltending, both on the current team and in the prospect system. Without a rebuild, where is our hope for the future? At least the Raptors have Valanciunas. Even if the season is somehow saved, it’s very hard for me not to turn my complete attention to basketball.

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