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.

Comments (29)

  1. I’m a habs fan, and was legitimately scared to see him come to our division. But the Leafs remained the Leafs and Brian Burke turned out to be one helluva person. He should have been given more time. All the same, I hope he stays in the limelight, he’s good for hockey!
    Good luck Brian!

  2. Agree with everything you said, except citing that Kessel’s deal is albatross. It will be a sought after commodity if they decide to trade him. His deal is still palatable and I would go so far that I wish they would extend him.

  3. I’m not a Leafs fan and I have thoroughly enjoyed the team’s shortcomings over the past few seasons under Burke. That said, I think that I’m able to offer an unvarnished take on the Kessel trade.

    The trade, outside of all context, wasn’t a bad one. The Leafs acquired a budding star with room to grow and signed him to a team friendly contract. The timing of the trade, however, was terrible. The Leafs were coming off a season in which they missed the playoffs and posted a goal differential of -43. While you’re correct to point out that it was probably unreasonable to believe that the team would finish last in the eastern conference in 2009-2010, it was equally unreasonable to believe that the acquisition of Kessel, Beauchemin and Komisarek would make them playoff contenders.

    Conversely, if the Leafs had kept their picks and waited until having dealt Ponikarovski, Kaberle and Beauchemin before rolling the dice in a deal for a young affordable star, I think Burke would still have his job.

    • The fact is that the trade itself wasn’t so bad if you make the assumptions that a) Kessel would continue to improve because he’s young and b) That the Leafs would likely finish just out of the playoffs, as opposed to damn near worst in the league.

      Unfortunately for Burke, both turned out not to be the case.

  4. The Toronto media is its own worst enemy. They push and push and demand success no matter what position the team is in. This leads to the team pushing prospects too early, making trades that they don’t need to make, and generally moving too quickly. Ultimately, the result is a ton of “fix it” deals and prospects that don’t pan out because they are put in positions to fail with too much pressure. I don’t see it changing anytime soon, and getting rid of Burke will do nothing to change this reality.

    • It’s a bizarre chicken or the egg argument in Toronto. Which came first: impatient, negative, win-now-at-all costs fans, or the media that stokes that fire? Are the journalists just writing what they know will sell papers/generate pageviews, or do the fans just parrot what they read from Damien Cox and other blowhard wastes of space?

      I’m a Toronto native and a Leaf fan, and I am embarrassed by this city, it’s sports fans, and it’s media on a regular basis.

      For example: I was at a Raptors game the other day and the Raps were losing. Some jackass and his loser buddies tried to start a “Let’s go Blue Jays” chant. My friends and I shouted the ass clowns down. Stupid, petty, disrespectful bullshit.

      Another example: why the fuck are we still booing Daniel Alfredsson? The guy is a class act, a hell of a hockey player and is best buds with Sundin, the guy who he supposedly “insulted” with the stick throwing incident. Get over yourselves, Toronto.

      With love,

      A guy from Toronto.

      • I’m with you. It’s both the fans and the media. Which started it? Probably the fans…but now both hurt the very team that they care about so much. Go figure. If I were a player, a coach, or a GM, I wouldn’t want to be anywhere near Toronto.

  5. Amen, brother! Another stupid move by Anselmi and MLSE management (TFC now on to EIGHTH head coach, Colangelo should have been fired years ago).

  6. People are quick to point to the Kessel trade and the Komisarek signing. Does nobody remember the theft of Lupul+Gardiner from Anaheim? What about us basically giving up Kaberle and our own 2nd rounder for Joe Colborne, Tyler Biggs and John Michael Lyles? Burke DID like to hear his own voice, but that’s irrelevant. We should blame BB less for the recent performances and the players more.

  7. “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.”

    This isn’t a Burke problem. Draft picks get sent up and down all the time. This is a Toronto problem, more directly a Toronto media and Toronto hockey fan problem.

  8. Enough is enough… Colangelo worst record and has not brought anything close in talent and Burke got fired..

    There is more to this than meets the eye – something is rotten in the state of leaf nation…

    He did a good job except the Kessell trade – which he should of apologized to the fans for and said he missed the boat.

    The leafs made no big moves the year for the Kessell trade and he somehow expected the a 7th last place to team to improve – the deal stunk right away – and it wasn’t even for a franchise player..
    Right now had Burke done nothing – the team would probably have either Seguqin or Hall, and then who knows another last place finish and Ryan Nugget Hopkins in their line up today. That potential alone would gave fans hope of finnaly having a Franchise players since the days of Gilmour or Sundin.

    Unfortunately, that one bad trade ruined his career here and he should of been given this year to see what he does. Another dumb move by the Maple Leafs but this time it was the ownership not the GM !

    • Now with those players you mentioned Toronto would probably sign 1 and my point is the fucking games are always sold out even if Toronto “quote” is the shittiest team in hockey they don’t give a shit as long as season tickets are always sold out and revenues sky rocket with nobodies they owners, are happy why pay out millions when they don’t need to more money in their pocket. The day they start losing money which is never lol then you’ll see superstars again. This firing of Brian Burke was to shut the fucking media up.

      • enzo the problem is that season ticket holders pay their seats months ahead if they don’t want the seats anymore because the leafs suck there are long waiting list for them so somebody else will pick up the their seats so it is a catch twenty two another thing I do have season tickets for leafs I have been lot of games I tell you this that not all them are leafs fans go to the leafs game their hockey fans so the problem is owner and now new owners come in they want to pick their own people that’s one of the reasons why brain got fired

  9. I take exception to the “nobody knew the Leafs would be that bad” assertion re the Kessel trade. At the time, I thought hot damn, this is going to be a lottery pick.

    Best of luck Burkie. We in New England will miss you.

  10. I love the tie undone look he always has, the modern-day version of the sleeves rolled up saying “I mean business”.

    The Leafs are one of the biggest mysteries in sports, but I don’t but this Toronto thing. How come Detroit, New York and (well not last season) Montreal have featured in the Play-Offs sicne the lockout before the last one.

    I increasingly think a team in Markham or Hamilton would be the best thing for the Leafs. Maybe that’s why BB has left…… *I love a rumour*


  12. Thanks a lot Pat Quinn.

  13. Burkies best move as Leaf GM- trading Jason Blake

  14. Great points Wiper Blades; and really, 2 firsts, 2 seconds by a really bad team for one promising yet unproven player– as a Sens fan I loved it.Did Burke not check the draft picks by Pittsburgh that netted them Crosby, Fleury, and Malkin?

  15. I like Brian Burke,up front and passionate.Tough to be successful in T.O.. He’ll land on his feet. I don’t think Ken Holland could be successful in Toronto. Too many distractions. Tough job made tougher after losing his son. Good luck Burkie. JT.

  16. he never should of been hired they ran him out of everywhere hes been his one cup was an already built team his trades in toronto were horrible phaneauf kessel the leafsneed players with heart and passion and this has lacked since trading clark for sundin and now noonis is replacing burke who is an even bigger failure so hopefully the board gets their shit together and at the end of the season fire noonis and bring in someone with heart im grateful baseball starts soon

  17. Well put the end.

  18. apparently he impregnated hazel mae, for serious.


  20. being a 1st overall pick, from the GTA, coming to a Leafs team that hadn’t been in the playoffs for 4 seasons might have been a disaster for an 18year old kid, Seguin should be sending Christmas cards to Burkie for the rest of his career.

  21. Well written article… a few points:

    As much as I don’t like Kadri I obviously want him to be a success, but anyone who implies that Kadri thus far being unable to stick with the Leafs is even indirectly Burke’s fault is completely wrong. Nazem has only himself to blame at this point.

    The Kessel trade stings because Seguin and the Bruins bend us over every time we play them, but not because Kessel isn’t a star. He’s an automatic 30 goal scorer with less than superstar-caliber players centering his line. As Jake wrote, he also brings an element of excitement we’ve missed since Mogilny.

    Tyler Biggs is not going to be an all star but he shows potential to be a very valuable big scoring forward. He forechecks and plays hard and has goal scoring ability.

    As a delusional fan suffering from Maple-Leaf-itis, I’m going to take Dougie Hamilton’s shitty play at the WJHC to mean he sucks and will never amount to anything.


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