Saturday, November 20, 2010

Hockey loses Pat Burns, but it shouldn’t vote him to the Hall

For those of you who don’t know, Burns, the former head coach of the Montreal Canadiens, Toronto Maple Leafs, Boston Bruins and New Jersey Devils, passed away yesterday after a long battle with lung cancer. He was 58.

To the family of Pat Burns, his friends and his fans, I give you my deepest sympathies for your loss. He was a beloved man in the hockey community, an intense competitor on the ice but a fatherly figure off the ice. He touched the lives of so many players, coaches and fans that few playing the game today didn’t feel his presence. He almost didn’t have a coaching career, having been convinced into it by Wayne Gretzky who hired him in 1984 to coach his Hull Olympiques team when Burns was working as a police officer, only coaching minor league hockey on the side. He wouldn’t leave coaching until cancer struck in 2005, reaching the Stanley Cup Finals in 1989 with Montreal, the conference finals twice with the Maple Leafs in 1993 and 1994 and finally winning a Cup in 2003 with the Devils. He contemplated a return to coaching a few seasons ago when the cancer was in remission, but had to give it up in 2009 when doctors discovered cancer in his lungs, which ultimately claimed his life.

An outpouring of support would follow, and part of that would be a Facebook group- which gained 39,000 members in its first week- dedicated to bringing Burns to the Hall before he passed away. The Hall did not oblige, electing instead Daryl Seaman (the one responsible for bringing the Flames to Calgary from Atlanta) and Jim Devellano (who won seven Stanley Cups in a variety of administrative roles with the New York Islanders and Detroit Red Wings) this past June. I know I’m in the minority here, but I agree with the Hall- Burns is not a Hall of Fame coach.

That’s right- Pat Burns is *not* a Hall of Fame coach. I hate to be a buzzkill, but once you actually step away and examine his case, you’d realize his case is based more on emotion that pure logic, and that’s not how the Hall should operate.

Don’t get me wrong- Burns was a good coach. There’s a reason why he lasted so long in a league that eats coaches for breakfast and it’s because he did have skill. However, it’s a stretch to call him a legend or an innovator, which are the parameters for election into the Hall as a builder- especially the latter. Coaches either had to bring something new to the game or have extraordinary success at it in order to be inducted. Since the Hall can only induct two builders a year and that those builders can come from anywhere in the hockey administrative world (coaches, General Managers, presidents, owners, league presidents, presumably commissioners...) it’s not automatic that a coach gets inducted into the Hall. There probably should be a separate category for coaches because that’s an entirely different aspect of the game than being a GM or a president, but that’s a debate for another day. The fact of the matter is, Burns is just not a Hall of Fame coach.

First, we need to understand the argument for Burns. He coached four NHL teams and had initial success with every one of them. A year after taking the Montreal job he was two games away from the Stanley Cup and won the Jack Adams Trophy as coach of the year. The year he resigned as Montreal coach- in 1992, after an early playoff exit- he signed on as the Leafs’ head coach. The following two springs he’d lead Toronto to the Conference Finals, its best showing since 1967, leading to another Adams in 1993. For 1997-98, he signed on as Bruins coach and led the team back to the playoffs a year after its 29-year playoff streak ended ingloriously and won another Adams Trophy. Five seasons later, he’d lift the Stanley Cup for the only time in his career as coach of the Devils. In all those stints, Burns found a way to amass 501 wins in 1,019 games, with 165 ties or overtime losses for a “points percentage” of .573, which is good enough for 28th all time among coaches with at least three seasons and 100 games coached. That, and the three Adams trophies- the only time a coach has won it three different times with different teams- forms the basis for Burns’ Hall of Fame case.

Question is, does that do enough? The next part is to understand who is in the Hall ahead of Burns. Of all NHL coaches with three or years of experience and 100 games coached, 14 are enshrined in the Hall simply as builders- Scotty Bowman, Glen Sather, Al Arbour, Punch Imlach, Tommy Ivan, Tommy Gorman, Harry Sinden, Bob Johnson, Rudy Pilous, Emile Francis, Roger Neilson, Herb Brooks, Conn Smythe and Craig Patrick. Several of those names should be familiar, and most shouldn’t have any debate to their enshrinement. Nine of those men have won at least one Stanley Cup, with six having at least two Cups to their credit. Of the three with just one Cup (where Burns stands), two of them- Sinden and Pilous- achieved other honours, Sinden being GM for much of Boston’s record 29-year consecutive playoff streak and Pilous being the Winnipeg Jets coach when they dominated the World Hockey Association. The third was Johnson and was likely elected out via an appeal to emotion, being elected a year after he died of brain cancer, though Johnson did have a long, illustrious career as head coach of the Wisconsin Badgers.

This leaves five builders who do not have a Cup. Two of the five men without a Cup as a coach- Smythe and Patrick- won Cups in other capacities, Smythe as the longtime owner of the Toronto Maple Leafs and Patrick as General Manager of the Pittsburgh Penguins; while a third, Brooks, got in largely on the basis of his achievements in orchestrating the “Miracle On Ice” in 1980. Francis’ case is pretty flimsy, though he does have a long hockey career to his credit, even if it was unremarkable. Neilson, too, is a flimsy case, as he was voted in via the emotional route too, being enshrined while he was battling cancer, though, like Francis, he did have a long career in hockey, although it too was unremarkable.

However, it’d be erroneous to conclude those 14 coaches are the standard-bearers for election. Overall, there have been 44 coaches who have won at least one Cup- including Burns- who have been coaches for at least three seasons and 100 games, and another 14- Toe Blake (8 Cups), Hap Day (5), Dick Irvin (4), Jack Adams (3), Lester Patrick (2), Tom Johnson (1), Joe Primeau (1), Jacques Lemaire (1), Art Ross (1), Leo Dandurand (1), Larry Robinson (1), Eddie Gerard (1), Frank Boucher (1)- are already in as players. Of those 14, half of those have Hall of Fame credentials to be a coach- Blake, Day, Irvin, Adams, Patrick, Lemaire and Robinson. The first five have multiple Cups and thus have better credentials than Burns does, while Lemaire and Robinson have other honours to call their own. Lemaire may just have one Cup but that one Cup- in 1995- started the age of the neutral zone trap, which the Devils worked to perfection in 2000 and 2003, coincidentally the years Robinson and Burns won their Cups. As for Robinson, he went right back to the Cup Final in 2001 before losing to Ray Bourque’s Team of Destiny (the Colorado Avalanche) and served as an assistant to Burns in 2003, going in that role because Lou Lamoriello fired him near the end of the season prior. In essence, Robinson “continued” Lemaire’s job and may have had more Cups if Lamoriello didn’t have an itchy trigger finger.

How does Burns compare? Of the 28 coaches selected, 10 have one Cup or less, with Smythe, Patrick and Sinden being tossed from the equation since they achieved their credentials largely outside of their coaching careers. This leaves us with 25 coaches to evaluate and just seven (Johnson, Pilous, Lemaire, Robinson, Francis, Neilson and Brooks) with one Cup or less, a group where Burns more realistically belongs as Cup rings are always the standard-bearer in hockey.

Of those seven, Burns actually has a better regular season points percentage than all but one coach (Francis) and all but two coaches in the playoffs (Robinson and Johnson). However, as mentioned earlier, almost all the coaches have credentials Burns doesn’t have. Pilous dominated the WHA with the Jets, Lemaire popularized the neutral zone trap and set the current Devils in motion, Brooks helmed “The Miracle On Ice” and Johnson can at least lean on his days building the Wisconsin Badgers. Francis and Neilson, we’ve already established, are flimsy cases and probably shouldn’t be in the Hall, though both have enjoyed far longer careers than Burns did. This then leads to Robinson, the closest comparison to Burns in the Hall; and even here Robinson leads. As mentioned earlier, Robinson took the Devils to two straight Cup Finals (winning once) and was an assistant in 2003, Burns’ first year as head coach. Robinson was far from a peripheral figure that year and while Burns certainly updated his tactics, he didn’t change much from Robinson’s game plan, meaning the 2003 victory was as much Burns’ Cup as it is Robinson’s Cup.

However, the main reason why Burns shouldn’t be in the Hall is that he never sustained his success anywhere. Yes, you hear a lot about his three Adams victories and his Cup, but each victory came at the start of his coaching stints. After leading Montreal to the Cup Final in 1989, Burns never got out of the second round and there reports of tension between him and star centre Denis Savard, who felt Burns stifled his game. After the magical year of 1993, Burns may have led the Leafs to the Conference Final in 1994 but they were lucky, drawing the expansionist San Jose Sharks after they upset the mighty Detroit Red Wings in Round 1 and were promptly booted in the Conference Final by a gamer Vancouver Canucks team. He would be fired two seasons later with the Leafs sputtering, Burns unable to build on his initial success. The story in Boston would be much the same, with Burns actually improving on his first season by leading Boston to Round 2 (before meeting the Domonik Hasek Wall and the Buffalo Sabres), but a year later the Bruins would crash and miss the playoffs. The following season, Burns’ Bruins put up only three wins in its first eight games which were enough for Sinden, who fired Burns after he failed- again- to improve on his initial season. Then there were the Devils. After his Cup win, he failed to get deep in the playoffs a year later, crashing meekly in the first round to the Philadelphia Flyers in five games. It may be true that a cancer diagnosis more correctly ended Burns’ era in New Jersey than a firing, but suffice to say the trend of a great start and a meek finish looked like it was forming in New Jersey as well. It is true that in Burns’ time there wasn’t a lot patience with coaches to begin with, but all of the coaches that compare with Burns had sustained success somewhere.

The other side of the coin is, if we elect Burns, who is next? Does this mean we start thinking about “Iron” Mike Keenan in the Hall? Keenan has what is likely the 1990s’ most celebrated Cup with the 1994 New York Rangers, he’s won an Adams Trophy and made three Cup Finals, with a points percentage close to Burns’ at .555. I don’t see any push to get Keenan enshrined, yet he has just as good a career as Burns. What about Terry Crisp, who has a .515 points percentage and one Cup (the 1989 Cup that Burns lost) over ten seasons despite the fact he never really got anywhere with anyone. What about Bob Hartley, who has a superior points percentage than Burns (.579) and a Cup? Never mind that the Cup he won was because the team rallied around Bourque and that he took over the job Marc Crawford started. What about Jacques Demers, the head coach who won the 1993 Stanley Cup that Burns was a game away from playing? Demers has a higher winning percentage in the playoffs than Burns does (.561 to .523), he has one Cup and he didn’t let a handicap like illiteracy hamper his coaching abilities. Then there’s John Muckler, who coached from 1969 to 2000, won the Buffalo Sabres’ first playoff round in ten years in 1993, won a Cup in 1990 with the remnants of the Edmonton Oilers’ dynasty (and served as an assistant under Sather during the actual dynasty) and has a better playoff winning percentage than Burns. There’s several other coaches I could name but I’ll stop there because my point is that if you elect Burns you’d also have to think about electing those coaches who don’t exactly have truly remarkable pedigrees.

(Besides, while we’re talking about coaches who are *not* in the Hall...whatever happened to Fred Shero? Shouldn’t he be in? Surely Burns can’t go in before an innovator like Shero)

Sure, you can argue- like The NHL on TSN did- that had cancer not gotten in the way that Burns could have had legendary statistics. It may be true (though the decline in New Jersey leads me to believe otherwise), but it’s like saying we should elect Luc Bourdon to the Hall of Fame because he “could have” had a great career if he hadn’t gotten in a motorcycle crash or that Michel Briere- a promising rookie in 1970- should be in the Hall because he “could have” had a great career if he hadn’t been in a car accident in the summer of 1970. You have to rate Burns’ work on what he provided, and while it is good, it’s not remarkable- and that alone should take him out of the Hall equation.

It was unfortunate that hockey lost a great coach and person yesterday but it shouldn’t cloud the facts. Based on the coaches already in the Hall of Fame, Burns ranks poorly against the Hall standard, having fewer credentials than those with similar stats to him. Furthermore, his career- while statistically good- is marked with initial successes and ultimate stagnation, with Burns being unable to sustain his success anywhere. Finally, if we were to let Burns in, we’d have to let in other, quite frankly, unremarkable coaches whom no one else thinks belongs in the Hall. Yes, it’s unfortunate what happened, but this shouldn’t obscure our logic. The Burns campaign is one based purely on emotion and that’s no way to win an argument. The truth is, if Burns wasn’t dying no one would think of him as a Hall of Fame coach, and that’s one strong point to think about. The hockey world should mourn the loss- but it shouldn’t let sentiment get in the way of reality.


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