In defense of Brian Burke

Credit: Photoshop wizard Sean Keay

There are so many thoughts and emotions running through my brain right now that I’m not sure how to process them all so forgive me if this post is a little bit of a ramble.

Brian Burke is gone, the Leafs have been thrown into even more uncertainty than usual and they only have 10 days to get it figured out. By all accounts Dave Nonis will take over as interim GM and, justifiably so, questions will be asked about the timing, the reasons, and the circumstances that led to Burke’s dismissal. Now, there are rumours that Randy Carlyle is going to see himself fired as well adding even more uncertainty and a lack of stability to a team that was on anything but steady footing. All that is known for sure is that training camp opens on Saturday and there are only seven days after that to acclimate a new(ish) general manager and possibly a new coach to the harshest market in hockey. This will not go well. Any faint hope that Leafs fans held of making the playoffs in a shortened season, in putting together 48 games like last year’s first 48, have taken a serious hit. Stability in a team may be an overrated commodity but on a team like the Leafs that haven’t had anything resembling it for years, it can’t help.

Speculation about the coming season aside, it’s hard for me to defend this move as a Leafs fan. Look, I get it, the Leafs haven’t made the playoffs since before the last lockout and have been barely better than horrendous in the years since but outside of lofty expectations of the psychosis that is the Toronto Maple Leafs fan, Burke hasn’t been nearly as bad as his record, the fans, or the media suggest. Looking through Burke’s transactions over this four years in Toronto, the only truly indefensible move was the singing of Mike Komisarek to a 5-year/$22.5M deal. However, even that deal made sense at the time (at least in terms of singing, if not in dollar figures). Komisarek was coming off three years of above average hockey in Montreal and, at the time, was a sought after player. I’m not going to defend the terms of the contract as, by any measure, this was, for lack of a better word, dumb. However, when the worst move you made in your tenure as a general manager is even the slightest bit defensible, perhaps things weren’t as bad as they seemed.

Of course, the biggest mark on Burke’s career as general manager of the Leafs, and the move that we will always associate him with, was the trade for Phil Kessel. Burke was interested in acquiring Kessel as soon as he took over as general manager, allegedly offering a package that included Tomas Kaberle at the 2009 draft which was, rightly, shot down. One year later, Burke traded a first and second round pick in 2010 and a first round pick in 2011 for Kessel and immediately inked him to a 5-year/$27M deal. Typing that out now, yes, that is a lot of draft picks to give up for one player. However, at the time of the deal Kessel was only 21 years old. We’ve all been praising the Blue Jays this year for trading unproven talent for guys who could make an immediate impact on the team yet Burke has been shit on since day one for this deal. I’m not saying that the Leafs were nearly as good a team at the time of this trade as the Blue Jays were at the time of theirs, nor am I saying that Kessel was the “missing piece” to lead the Leafs to a Stanley Cup (obviously, he wasn’t) but the notion of looking at what those draft picks became (Dougie Hamilton, Jared Knight and, yes, Tyler Seguin) and saying that the trade, in retrospect, is one that Burke should constantly be, not only tied to, but disparaged for, makes no sense. The Leafs were a bad team when this trade was made but nobody expected them to be so horrendous that they would finish with a record that would lead to the drafting of Tyler Seguin. Kessel was 21 years old and, for the last four seasons, has not scored less than 30 goals. Yes, he’s soft, yes, he only has that one fucking crossover move that he does every time, no, he’s not great with the media, but he was the goal scorer that the Leafs were looking for and was the most exciting player the Leafs had since the departure of Alex Mogilny. Hindsight is a bitch and Burke got burned by it.

Those two albatrosses of deals aside, though, the rest of Burke’s resume as the general manager of the Leafs reads pretty solid. Yes, I am choosing to ignore Colby Armstrong. The trade of Matt Stajan, Nick Hagman, Jamal Mayers, and Ian White for Dion Phaneuf, Freddy Sjostrom, and Keith Aulie continues to be a solid, if unspectacular move, and trading Francois Beauchemin for Lupul & Jake Gardiner remains Anthopoulos-like in its fleecing. Time will tell if the trade of Kaberle for Colbourne will pay dividends but it’s not like losing Kaberle was a back-breaking moment for the franchise.

What Burke will should questioned on is his draft record. The picks of Tyler Biggs and Nazim Kadri have, will, and should be questioned. It is still too early to make any claims one way or another about Morgan Rielly (or even Biggs, to an extent) but the handling of Kadri has played out so publicly and poorly that it’s hard to defend.  We’ve seen so many prospects in all sports mishandled and seen their careers suffer because of it and, while it is still early, Kadri has been called up and sent down and had so much media pressure pushed upon him that this could easily turn into another one of those cautionary tales.

Brian Burke came to be general manager of the Leafs at a time when the Leafs were, somehow, even worse off than they were now. He took at team that was hyping up Matt Stajan and Nik Antropov as the faces of the franchise and was able to replace them with players that were actually able to generate excitement. There has been a lot of quoting Burke’s record as GM of the Leafs today (128-135-42, if you’re wondering) but looking to that completely ignores what came before. Burke had to come in and try to fix a team that was more than broken and had a roster that was fielding Vesa Toskala as their starting goaltender and was only given four seasons to try and get things back on track. That is one year less than John Ferguson Jr. had. To expect Burke to take this Leafs team and turn them into perennial playoff contenders in just four years is absolutely ludicrous. Burke moved into a house that had just been trashed by a really wild house party and was expected to make everything perfectly clean and was then fired for using the wrong cleaning supplies. We could look to his “style” or whatever rumour is being bandied about today but, the fact of the matter is, Burke was fired because he was unable to live up to the lofty expectations set by the Toronto media, the Toronto fans and, yes, Burke himself. He did himself no favors with his pressers of determination to make the playoffs or saying that Morgan Rielly was “number 1 on his board,” nor did his consistency in sticking to his principals when it came to transactions (no moves at the trade deadline, no moves around Christmas, no exploiting the CBA, no offer sheets, etc.) but to expect Burke to have completely turned this team around in just four years is insanity. In Toronto, when a name like Brian Burke is brought in to be general manger, there is expectation of immediate success. That didn’t happen and Burke paid for it.

I, for one, will miss Burke both as a general manager and as the face of the Toronto Maple Leafs. Burke, with all his fantastic community work, his leadership in the movement to eliminate homophobia from sports (name me another Toronto general manager that has marched in the Toronto Pride Parade), and his being an all-around example of how to conduct yourself outside of your business. I know that my opinion may not be the popular one but I will always maintain that Burke was unfairly treated by the city of Toronto (on hockey merits only) and that his dismissal was not only a mistake but also a case of giving into outside pressure that didn’t even need to exist in the first place. Brian Burke was good for the city and he was good for the Leafs. Despite what mass opinion may have led you to believe.