Sunday, March 11, 2012

Time for Brian Burke’s swan song

At the end of November, the Toronto Maple Leafs were flying high, sitting third in the Eastern Conference, with Phil Kessel and Joffrey Lupul forming a formidable offensive duo that could rival the league’s best. At Christmas, the Leafs had fallen from the Northeast summit but were still comfortably in the playoff picture in sixth place, good enough to give then head coach Ron Wilson a contract extension.

Fast forward to now, following a heartbreaking 2-0 loss to the Washington Capitals in a frustrating weekend that saw the Leafs not score a single goal. Since achieving such lofty heights early in the season, Toronto now sits a season high eight points out of the playoffs, being closer to the last place Montreal Canadiens (still hard to swallow) by being just four points up. The Leafs have won a league-worst five times since the All-Star break, with two of those victories coming against the hapless Edmonton Oilers, fired Wilson and have a team that looks nothing like the team everyone thought was supposed to take the ice at the start of the season.

What makes this season worse is that- should the Florida Panthers qualify for the playoffs (a likely scenario at this stage) the Leafs will remain the only club to have not qualified for the playoffs since The Lockout. Toronto’s streak of seven straight non-playoff years will be the longest active drought. Only five players currently play in the National Hockey League that have ever played a single playoff game for the Maple Leafs- Matt Stajan, Steve Sullivan, Tomas Kaberle, Nikolai Antropov and Alexei Ponikarovsky. Three others- Adam Mair, Karel Pilar and Danny Markov- are also still active but are not in the NHL, Mair being stuck in the American Hockey League, Pilar skates in Sweden and Markov skating in Russia.

There’s only one person to blame for this mess and that’s General Manager Brian Burke, whose quest to remake the team has turned one kind of mess into a different kind of mess. The team Burke inherited from John Ferguson Jr. was one of virtually unmovable veteran has-beens that had outlived their usefulness, and while Burke has done a great job moving those parts, instead of replacing them with something resembling a competitive hockey team, the result is another hodgepodge of parts who haven’t executed quite the way that it was planned.

Coming into the season, the Leafs’ primary strength- as is the case with all Burke teams- was supposed to be its blueline, and with players like Dion Phaneuf, Mike Komisarek, Calle Gunnarsson, Cody Franson, John-Michael Liles and promising youngsters Luke Schenn, Keith Aulie and Jake Gardiner, there was little to doubt that assessment. It has remained the team’s strongest component, but it still isn’t coming as advertised- Phaneuf has been dominant but is often stuck on an island with mismatched partners, Komisarek has been a defensive liability all season and has been in and out of the lineup, Aulie was inexplicably traded for a career minor leaguer, Gunnarsson has been effective enough to play but has regressed this season, Schenn has also regressed and Liles has been a relative disappointment. Only Franson has come as advertised and Gardnier has been a pleasant surprise, but that’s been it for the bright spots on the Leaf blueline.

The rest of the team has been much worse. Lupul was a pleasant surprise, and part of the blame for the Leafs’ recent struggles has been his absence, though the slump began while he was still with the team. Kessel has recorded another 30-goal season with 34 goals so far and could still hit 40 by season’s end, an impressive feat given that he doesn’t have much help up front. Tim Connolly was signed to be Kessel’s help, but all he’s done is prove why the Buffalo Sabres let him walk last year. Mikhail Grabovski has put together a solid season as a dependable second-line player but just got re-signed inexplicably at a first-line rate. Nikolai Kulemin has slumped badly this year after a career year last year. Clarke MacArthur has quietly put up 19 goals this season and Tyler Bozak has quietly put up 38 points but neither fill the role as solid top six threats. Joey Crabb and Matt Frattin have been pleasant, bottom six surprises but that’s been it for the bright spots on forward. In net, there doesn’t need much to be said- neither James Reimer or Jonas Gustavsson have been consistent, quality netminders all season long and, although Reimer looks more like a No. 1 goaltender than Gustavsson does, it’s debatable that Reimer is close to that status as the season winds down.

We could move from here and discuss what the Leafs need to do this summer- find a legitimate No. 1 centre, acquire a veteran goaltender that can fill in as a starter while Reimer develops, do something with Komisarek, etc.- but I’m here to suggest something else: it’s time for the Leafs to start seriously looking at other options at GM, and think outside the box.

I have a friend who is a Blue Jay fan. We were talking about the Leafs yesterday and he suggested that the Leafs follow the same path that the Jays did and hire a “nobody” as a GM, the reasoning being that in a big market, you “establish” your name. While it’s debatable whether or not it will work for the Jays (though the path looks nice), it did get me thinking- this did work in hockey; and one only needs to look at the league’s most successful franchise of the past twenty years to see how.

In 1997, the Detroit Red Wings decided that little known Ken Holland would replace their old GM tandem of former great Jim Devellano and Scotty Bowman. Coming off their first Stanley Cup since 1955 the move was risky, but the move paid off- Holland not only repeated the following year, but wound up winning again in 2002 and in 2008, proving his capabilities in a cap-less and a capped world. His teams have never missed the playoffs and have been a Cup contender in every season, including this one.

Now, Holland did have a long career with the Wings already and he did have some help in the front office with the great minds of Bowman and Devellano at first, but this is still unmistakably Holland’s team that he alone built. It speaks volumes that in a hockey fishbowl that is Detroit the team decided to pass the mantle to a relative unknown instead of hiring a “proven” commodity to lead the team, and not only has Holland managed in that environment, he’s thrived. An unknown has nothing to lose- if he fails, you chalk it up to a lack of experience and let him pursue other opportunities, while if he succeeds, it’ll be the greatest “little guy” story ever.

Obviously the first reaction for Leaf fans at this suggestion would be consternation- for a franchise that now has the longest Cup drought in NHL history, logic would dictate it’s better to have someone that “knows what they’re doing” than to give the reins to someone who, presumably, doesn’t. However, we’ve had four seasons of Burke, someone who should “know what they’re doing”, and all he’s shown is that he just seems to be making things up as he goes along, and isn’t giving the team much of a foundation for the future. What else explains the decision to trade two first round draft picks for Kessel? It might be true that was a miscalculation whereby the team did much worse than Burke expected, but the truth is this mistake is costing the Leafs big time, and the youngsters Burke has assembled on his team weren’t drafted by him- Gardiner was an Anaheim Duck pick, Kulemin came from Ferguson (as did Reimer), promising youngster Joe Colbourne was a Boston Bruin pick, and Schenn was a pick from the Cliff Fletcher interim days. Burke’s own picks, headlined by Nazem Kadri, have proven to be flops thus far in their careers- of the top 10 picks in the 2009 Draft (where Kadri came from) only Kadri and Dallas Stars pick Scott Glennie (who went eighth) are not NHL regulars. It may still be true that the Leaf picks can still pan out- Kadri is, after all, 21- but considering the Leafs could have selected Jared Cowan (a fixture on the Ottawa Senators’ blueline) or Marcus Johansson (a fixture on the Capitals’ forward corps), it’s hard not to think Burke could have done better with his pick.

Is it time to get rid of Burke if Toronto doesn’t make a surprising push to the playoffs this season? I’m thinking he may deserve one more year to see if he can right the ship, but I am thinking now’s the time to start the conversation about finding a replacement. Burke has now had four years for this team to start showing signs of life, and every year the team winds up performing the same- show some flashes of brilliance only to flounder to mediocrity by season’s end. Four years of this is unacceptable- five years is reprehensible. It’s time we start thinking of replacements, and instead of finding another Burke, let’s find another Holland- because a guy with nothing to lose is sure doing a lot better than someone who will find out he had everything to lose.



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