Sunday, November 29, 2009

One year under Brian Burke

It has been exactly 365 days since MLSE announced that Brian Burke would be the Toronto Maple Leafs' 13th General Manager (excluding those who held the job on an interim basis). It seems longer because Burke's name kept coming up for about 9 months, ever since John Ferguson was fired and Cliff Fletcher brought back as an interim GM. Burke supposedly was hired for 6 years with an annual salary of $3 million so despite the complaints of some fans, Brian isn't going any place real soon. Some other strong candidates were seriously considered (eg., David Poile) but Burke was selected because of his experience, his availability and interest and the fact he could handle the pressure-cooker environment. So what have Burke accomplished in the past year. A small group of inpatient fans have already written off Burke. Not sure that is fair considering the team he inherited.

Management Team

Shortly after his own hiring Burke offered Dave Nonis the position of Senior Vice-President and Director of Hockey Operations for the Maple Leafs. This is the third time Nonis has held this position under Burke. Ron Wilson was retained as coach. The two have been friends for decades but had never worked together until Toronto. When Joe Nieuwendyk left to become GM of the Stars, Burke replaced him with Dave Poulin. Cliff Fletcher also remained as a special advisor. There weren't many other changes. Anthony Belza was promoted from the Marlies to be the Leafs' conditioning coach. Francois Allaire left Anaheim to be a goaltending consustant with the Leafs. For those who thought there would be massive firings and hirings in the front office, that hasn't happened.

Stocking the Marlies

To compensate for the lack of young prospects in the Maple Leaf organization, Burke aggressively pursued college and European free agents. No question he came up big on this front. He signed the most pursued European free agent - Jonas Gustavsson. There is all types of speculation on what was the key to the signing - an agreement to bring over teammate Rikard Wallin, a call from Borje Salming, Toronto's reputation as a hockey mecca. The likely reason is that Toronto had no bona fide first stringer and no competition for even a back up goalie. He only needed to show up and remain healthy to make the team (that almost didn't happen). As for college grads, the Leafs grabbed Tyler Bozak and Christian Hanson - 2 of the 3 top college free agents (the other Matt Gilroy signed with the Rangers). Joey Macdonald was signed to back up James Reimer, the Marlies young goalie prospect. Other prospects sent to the farm team were Carl Gunnersson, Viktor Stalberg, Ryan Hamilton, and Jiri Tlusty. To match the direction of the Leafs, some additional muscle was brought on board including Richard Greenop and Troy Brodie.

Pugnacity, Testosterone, Truculence and Belligerence

This now famous quote set the tone for the Burke era in Toronto. Right off the bat the new GM traded Pavel Kubina to the Atlanta Thrashers for defenseman Garnet Exelby and signing free agents Mike Komisarek from the Montreal Canadiens, Fran├žois Beauchemin from the Ducks and Colton Orr from the Rangers. He also picked up centre Wayne Primeau for defense prospect Anton Stralman from Calgary. These deals had an immediate impact on the team though not all positive. The number of fights shot up but the Leafs were not necessarily tougher. They spent more time killing penalties are were no more successful at it this season than the previous one. The bottom line that the top lines were still made up of small, soft players who were still easily knocked off the puck.

Restocking the Top Six Forwards

As Cliff Fletcher pointed out last season, the Leafs had only one legitimate top 6 forward and he (Nik Antropov) was traded away at last season's trading deadline. Burke made a number of wel publicized attempts to remedy that weakness with little success so far. Burke's first off-season in Toronto was sparked by public comments in April 2009, stating he was scoping the possibility of acquiring the first overall pick from the New York Islanders to select John Tavares in the 2009 NHL Entry Draft. Islanders GM Garth Snow caught wind of the Burke's comments and publicy critizied him for unprofessionality. Unable to trade up from seventh overall, however, Burke selected Nazem Kadri of the London Knights. Burke had hoped to take a run at potential free agents Daniel and Henrik Sedin but the Canucks signed the twins on the evening before they were to hit the market. At the Entry Draft Burke thought he had a deal to send Tomas Kaberle to Boston for unsigned Phil Kessel but that deal fell through. Burke finally landed his "franchise player" on September 18, sending theLeafs' 2010 and 2011 first-round picks with a 2010 second-round pick to the Boston Bruins for Kessel. Upon trading for Kessel, Burke signed him to a five-year, $27 million deal. He paid a huge price for the young centre who has so far actually lived up to the billing and high expectations.

So in the first year as GM, Burke had shook up the organization by challenging players to be more physical and engaged in games and brought in some muckers to show the way. His team has picked up their intensity in games with the help of Coach Ron Wilson. However, an inconsistent and often injured Vesa Toskala has been a big hole in the lineup. The rookie goalie has looked good at times but has a lot of work to do. He over plays some shots and has to rely on his athleticism to compensate. Hagman and Kessel provide some scoring up front but the top 6 remains very weak. Young players in the system may help one day but not in the near future. This remains a long term project.