So Brian Burke is set to officially, and finally, take over the Leafs general manager position this afternoon. So, what does that mean in the short, medium and long term? Let’s take a look at what Brian Burke might do.
When Brian Burke took over the GM position of the Anaheim Ducks in 2005 he inherited a relatively bad team, not unlike the Leafs. But, unlike the Leafs, there was a lot of high end talent in the system like Corey Perry, Ryan Getzlaf, Dustin Penner, etc. and he also had an elite level goalie which went a long way to allowing him to quickly build the Ducks into a Stanley Cup winner.
In 1998 he took over the GM position of a Vancouver team which ended the 1997-98 team near the bottom of the standings which was not completely unlike the situation the Leafs currently find themselves in. Back then the Canucks had some talented players up front including Pavel Bure, Alexander Mogilny, Mark Messier, and Markus Naslund and had a 20 year old rookie defenseman in Mattias Ohlund. Also on that team were recently acquired but not yet developed into top level players Bryan McCabe and Todd Bertuzzi. While that Canucks team had more pure talent up front than the current Leafs squad, the current Leafs squad probably has more talent on the back end than the 1997-98 Canucks squad. What the Canucks had and the Leafs have is questionable goaltending.
Burke began rebuilding the Canucks by trading Bure to the Panthers for Jovanovski, Dave Gagner, Kevin Weekes and Mke Brown. He then made several trades (including sending McCabe to the Blackhawks) which ended up with the Canucks landing the second overall pick to go along with their own third overall pick and Burke drafted the Sedin twins. Then in 1999-2000 he traded Mogilny to the Devils for Brendan Morrison and the Canucks started to see success in their rebuilding process.
What was left after those moves became the core of the Canucks team which saw significant regular season success in the early 2000’s but not as much post season success. The one problem that Burke never successfully addresses was in goal and that really held them back from being a dominant team able to win a Stanley Cup.
In the case of the Anaheim Ducks they had the goaltender and the core of young forwards. What Burke did was brought in three big time defensemen (Niedermayer, Pronger, and Beauchemin), a top flight veteran scoring forward in Selanne and changed the team into a big, physical team.
So what might all this mean for the Leafs? First off, I think it is safe to assume that Burke will at some point between now and next summer make one or more significant bold moves. He has shown that he is not afraid to make the big trade or free agent signing and for the most part he has been successful. But with that said, I do not believe, like some seem to, that he will hold a massive fire sale stockpiling draft picks, largely in the second, third or fourth rounds. That doesn’t seem to be his style. In reality, most of Burke’s moves have him targeting NHL ready players, not picks. When he traded away Bure and Mogilny from Vancouver, he traded for players (Jovanovski and Morrison in particular). When he traded for the second overall pick in 1999, he wasn’t trading for the pick as much as he was trading for one of the Sedin’s. He sets his sight on a target and goes after it.
In terms of trades between now and the trade deadline, there are not many players that Burke needs to make an immediate decision on as only Nik Antropov and Dominic Moore are set to be UFA’s. Nik Antropov is an interesting case to see how Burke deals with him. Antropov has the size and strength that Burke likes and is willing to muck it up in the corners, but doesn’t utilize his size quite as much as he could. My guess is that there will be enough teams interested in Antropov that Burke will get more than enough in return for him to decide to trade Antropov rather than attempt re-sign him.
Other than Antropov, I really don’t think anyone is a sure bet to be traded. I don’t think Burke will come in and say ‘I have to trade players X, Y and Z for whatever draft picks I can get for them’ as many believe he should. His style is to be more pro-active in acquiring assets he wants, rather than get rid of assets he doesn’t want. If he wants an asset and it is going to require trading Van Ryn to acquire that asset, Van Ryn will be traded. If he wants an asset and it is going to require trading Lee Stempniak to acquire that asset, he’ll look at trading Stempniak. But I just don’t think he is going to put himself in a position of actively selling a player for whatever he can get for him. That is probably smart because when you don’t value your assets and get set in your mind that you want to get rid of them, you’ll more often than not trade them to one of the first bidders rather than wait for the fairest and best bid.
So, who might Burke go after? I don’t think Burke has any interest in going after second tier guys, and to be honest, the Leafs don’t need second tier guys. The Leafs need core players to build a franchise around. Burke also seems to give a high importance to having a strong defense and have big, physical forwards. Burke is also highly loyal and likes to bring in people he is familiar with (in Anaheim he brought in Brad May, Todd Bertuzzi and Brendan Morrison). He also brought good friend Dave Nonis to Anaheim and rumours are he will be brining him to the Toronto organization as well. He also values loyalty his players show for their team and believes veterans should be treated fairly and respectfully. In Vancouver he refused to ask Mark Messier to waive his no trade clause even though it would have been better for the franchise. He just thought someone of Messier’s stature didn’t deserve to be put in that position. So don’t automatically expect that Burke will be asking Kaberle and Kubina to waive their no trade clauses.
One of the first big names that Burke will likely bring in to the franchise will be in next summers draft. Who that will be we don’t know but the Leafs are likely to be a lottery pick, and quite possibly a top 5 pick. If not, don’t be surprised if Burke tries to trade up to get someone he really wants.
The Leafs do have a fairly good and deep defense. Kaberle is one of the leagues better puck moving defensemen and Luke Schenn appears to be poised to develop into a solid physical defensive defensemen. In some ways those two could be considered a poor man’s Niedermayer-Pronger duo (if Schenn develops as expected). After that you have a couple of good all round defensemen in Kubina and Van Ryn and a solid group complementary defensemen in Finger, White, Stralman and Frogren. But don’t let that make you think Burke won’t do anything on defense. I would not be surprised if Burke targets someone like Jay Bouwmeester who will be a UFA next summer. He may also decide to target Viktor Hedman in the draft.
In terms of forwards he may target, I would not be surprised if he targets the Sedin twins again. The Sedin’s have yet to sign a contract extension in Vancouver and as we have seen with Bertuzzi, Morrison and May, he likes bringing in players he knows. The Leafs are also one of the teams that should have the cap space and budget space to sign both of the Sedin’s and it is likely that they would prefer to stay together.
The most difficult position for Burke to fix will be goaltending. Goaltenders are just too difficult to find as those with top tier goalies generally lock them up and refuse to trade them. At this point Toskala hasn’t shown me he is a legit top 15 starting goalie and Pogge has been just OK in the AHL and probably isn’t ready, if he ever will be, to be a starter in the NHL. With Steve Mason playing well in Columbus Burke could possibly pry Pascal Leclaire away from the Blue Jackets but while he had a very good year last year is far from a proven first string goalie. Kari Lehtonen of the Atlanta Thrashers is another potential trade option or he could look at someone like Khabibulin as a UFA next summer. Beyond those two he’ll have to look at prospects in other teams organizations such as Vancouver’s Cory Schneider or he could take a chance that Ray Emery, who is playing well in Russia, has his head on straight and can regain his form from the 2006-07 season.
There are many people who believe that rebuilding the Leafs into a serious playoff team is a 3-5 year proposition. I disagree and I do not think that Brian Burke believes that either. The Leafs have some pretty good players on this roster, they just don’t have the top tier game breakers. If they can add a top tier player in next years draft, a top tier goalie and a couple of quality free agent signings such as the Sedin’s or Bouwmeester, this team can be turned around in relatively short order and Burke has the salary cap space to do just that.