Brian Burke is a polarizing and possibly even controversial figure to many people. He doesn’t give the cookie-cutter, politically correct answers that we’re all used to hearing from anyone associated with the NHL. He’s gruff and outspoken. He doesn’t act or speak like many other people in hockey. For everyone who loves that attitude and the way Brian Burke operates, you’ll find someone else who can’t stand him.
Brian Burke became general manager of the Toronto Maple Leafs in November 2008.
Jumping from Anaheim, where he had been successful and won the Stanley Cup, to Toronto was a big deal. Hockey isn’t considered big news in Anaheim on most days but in Toronto hockey is a top story at all times. In “the centre of the universe” Brian Burke would face the pressure like never before. How has he done thus far?
You can call Brian Burke a lot of things, but “boring” isn’t one of them. Not only is Burke always good for an interesting quote, but he also seems to never be satisfied with his team. Burke loves to wheel and deal. He loves to make trades. He loves to sign free agents. If Brian Burke has brought anything to the Toronto Maple Leafs, it’s unpredictability.
Of course, the most well-known and most analyzed of all of Burke’s moves as the Leafs GM is the trade for Phil Kessel. Burke sent two first round draft picks and a second round draft pick to Boston for Kessel and immediately signed him to a five-year, $27 million contract. At the time Burke said that the trade was “a statement to our players that we intend to be competitive right away.”
Obviously that didn’t happen. The 2010 first round pick ended up being the second overall and it looks like the 2011 pick will be in the first half of the opening round as well. Unfortunately, the Leafs weren’t nearly as competitive as Burke assumed and they probably would have been better off with the picks.
Another huge move by Brian Burke came when he acquired current Maple Leafs captain Dion Phaneuf. In late January of 2010, Burke sent Matt Stajan, Niklas Hagman, Jamal Mayers and Ian White to Calgary for Dion Phaneuf, Fredrik Sjostrom and Keith Aulie.
Opinions on this deal range from the Leafs were clear winners to the Flames won the trade. Our own Kent Wilson concluded that the “deal looks like a loser for both organizations.” However, if one of Burke’s goals was to change the culture on the Maple Leafs, this deal certainly accomplished that goal.
Another big deal from Burke came when he traded Vesa Toskala and Jason Blake to Anaheim for J.S. Giguere. Sure, Giguere came along with a big contract, but the fact that Burke could convince anyone to take Toskala and Blake – let alone both of them – off of his hands was impressive.
Another area where Burke has been very active is the free agent front. Colton Orr, Mike Komisarek, Francois Beauchemin, Jonas Gustavsson, Clarke MacArthur, Brett Lebda, Colby Armstrong and several others were all signed by Burke as free agents. However, the common thread for most of the free agents signed by the Leafs is that they all signed relatively large contracts. Armstrong is currently signed to a three-year, $9 million deal. Orr is on a four-year, $4 million contract. Komisarek is signed to a five-year, $22.5 million contract and Gustavsson has a two-year, $2.7 million deal.
The majority of Burke’s free agent deals are not ridiculously overpaying players, but in many cases the players are making more in Toronto than they would anywhere else. On one hand, it makes sense that a struggling team in a high-pressure market would need to spend a little extra to attract talent, but on the other hand, Toronto is still a marquee destination for many players.
Burke’s most recent move was to trade Kris Versteeg to Philadelphia for a first- and third-round pick. That’s definitely a good return for Vertseeg, but it also sends a confusing message. In June of 2010, Burke traded Viktor Stalberg, Chris DiDomenico and Philippe Paradis to Chicago for Versteeg and the rights to to Bill Sweatt. The fact that Burke was eventually able to turn Stalberg, DiDomenico and Paradis into a first-round pick and a third-round pick is admirable, but what happened to Burke’s philosophy of trading for players that would help the team today? Everything Burke has done with the Leafs up until this point has revolved around adding roster players who would make the Leafs competitive. Acquiring picks and prospects didn’t seem to be a goal until this trade. Has Burke shifted his philosophy?
Probably not. Just today Burke traded a seventh-round pick to Anaheim for Aaron Voros. There are also signs that Burke already has plans to move the third-round pick he received from Philadelphia. Burke said yesterday that “the third round pick has already been offered to another team, and is in play… We are going to try and add a player. We have not conceded the last playoff spot, nor will we. If we can add, we’re going to.”
So it appears that Burke’s philosophy remain the same.
Another Burke trademark is his loyalty. Despite a struggling team and numerous calls for Ron Wilson’s head, Burke has refused to fire the Leafs’ coach. Is this a good move that shows the franchise’s dedication to its personnel or a stubborn refusal to cut ties with a friend? It’s tough to say.
It’s also tough to say whether or not Burke been a success. Let us take a look at the roster iced by the Leafs on November 29, 2008 – the day Brian Burke became general manager:
And here is the roster from the Leafs’ last game, February 12, 2011:
Both rosters were taken from Hockey-Reference.com. Kris Versteeg has been removed. There’s definitely a lot of change between the two rosters, but is there an improvement?
The Leafs are in a similar position as they were in 2008 before Burke came on. They remain outside the playoffs and a deep run towards the Cup doesn’t seem likely anytime soon. However, what Burke’s frequent wheeling and dealing may have done is set expectations higher for Leaf fans. Burke never stops trying to improve his team and, thus, the fans never stop hoping for that improvement. If Burke has given Leaf fans hope, some may consider that a success.