Jan 102013
 

The news that shocked the hockey world yesterday had nothing to do with the CBA or Bettman or Fehr but rather that the Maple Leafs ownership group decided to make a strangely timed move to remove Brian Burke from his President and General Manager position of the Maple Leafs.  I think it is only fair to take a look back at the Burke years and evaluate where the Leafs are after his 4 years at the helm.  Let’s look at the Leafs position by position starting with the good and heading downhill from there.

Defense

Burke made some mistakes on defense (Komisarek, maybe Liles contract and to a lesser extent Beauchemin) but generally speaking defense is the Leafs strong point.  Phaneuf and Gunnarsson really developed into a quality top pairing last year capable of playing big minutes in any situation.  Jake Gardiner still has lots to learn but has shown flashes of brilliance, particularly as a puck moving offensive defenseman.  Cody Franson hasn’t been given much of an opportunity in Toronto but there is certainly a decent amount of potential there and at the very least trade value.  Morgan Rielly is the Leafs best prospect and has a chance to be a quality NHL defenseman in the not to distant future.  Beyond those guys there are some decent depth prospects close to ready like Korbinian Holzer and Jesse Blacker and second tier prospects a year or two away like Stuart Percey and Matt Finn.  Even more veteran players like Mike Kostka and reclamation project Paul Ranger provide some nice depth.  There is certainly a need for the organization to add another quality shut down defenseman but overall there are a number of quality defensemen on the active roster with good depth in the organization and a number of quality prospects on the way.

Wingers

At the NHL level Burke has left a nice stable of quality wingers with guys Kessel, Lupul, van Riemsdyk, MacArthur, Kulemin and an emerging player like Matt Frattin.  Generally speaking that is a pretty good set of wingers for your top 3 lines and there is also a decent group of role players to fill out the fourth line and depth winger positions.  Unlike the defense position, there are not an abundance of quality winger prospects that project to top 2 line duty.  There are some prospects like Tyler Biggs, Brad Ross, Greg McKegg, Jerry D’Amigo, Carter Ashton, etc. but they all have significant question marks and in the cases of D’Amigo, Ashton and McKegg poor seasons with the Marlies this year have dropped their status from maybe prospects to not players we can seriously count on.  Luckily Burke has done a decent job at putting together some quality wingers who are mostly young or in their NHL primes because there isn’t a lot of top talent in the pipe line.

Centers

Now we get to Burke’s failures.  Although not someone Burke brought in, Grabovski has really grown during Burke’s tenure and has proven himself to be at least a very good second line center if not a second tier first line guy.  But beyond Grabovski the center position is somewhat of a disaster.  There are some decent bottom of the line up guys like Steckel and McClement but Burke has failed miserably in finding a center to complement Grabovski on the top 2 lines.  Bozak has some skills but is not the guy for the job, maybe in part because he was never properly developed for the job but rather was just thrown to the wolves.  Tim Connolly was expected to be a short term fix but so far that has failed miserably.  Long term there was hope for Nazem Kadri and while there is still reason for some hope (he is having a decent year with the Marlies) management seemed to have more interest in publicly criticizing Kadri (from everything from his fitness level, to his attitude, to his defensive ability) than properly developing him.  The other great hope at center was Joe Colborne who was picked up from Boston in the Kaberle trade.  At the time I didn’t know much about Colborne but when I looked at his numbers I was underwhelmed but lots of people thought he had a ton of potential so I kept an optimistic view of him.  But two years later and he is struggling big time with the Marlies and his status as a prospect center for the top 2 lines is all but gone.  The only hope for Colborne now is he can learn to play defense and become a big, strong, defensive third line center not unlike what Manny Malhotra has done with his career but that is probably being too optimistic.  And beyond Kadri and Colborne there is very little in terms of center prospects.  This is an area that desperately needs attention at both the NHL and at the prospect level.

Goaltending

So the score card so far is the defense situation is good all round, the winger situation is good at the NHL level, a little weak at the prospect level and the center situation needs a fair bit of work at both the NHL level and especially at the prospect level.  That leaves the goaltending situation which is a complete and utter mess.  The current Leaf goaltending situation has the Leafs with James Reimer as their starter who is really only on anyone’s radar because he had a stellar second half of a season with the Leafs in 2010-11.  If it weren’t for that stretch nobody would have any hope for him because for the several years prior to that he wasn’t even a full time starting goalie at either the AHL or ECHL (hadn’t played more than 30 games in a year since 2006-07 in WHL).  After Reimer there are second (or third) tier prospects like Ben Scrivens, Jussi Rynnas, Mark Owuya and Garret Sparks.  Scrivens is having another solid year (not quite as good as last year though) with the Marlies and might be close to at least being a back up at the NHL level but predicting goalies development at the NHL level is extremely difficult.  In the end the Maple Leaf goalie situation can best be described as one big question mark with a grand total of 81 NHL games started experience in the entire organization.  The goaltending situation was a disaster before Burke got here, was a disaster when he was here, and is still a disaster.  Easily the absolute worst and uncertain goalie situation of any NHL franchise.

 

Apr 102012
 

Just listened to the Brian Burke press conference and I have to say it was a whole lot of nothing.  I’ll give Burke this summer to make some changes but based on that press conference I don’t have a lot of confidence in his assessment of the team.

He talked a lot about how everything was fine with the club on February 6th before things unexpectedly fell apart.  Well, in reality it wasn’t that unexpected.  They had a good record from January 1st through February 6th but in that stretch only 6 of their 15 games were against teams that ended up in the playoffs.  Their next 17 games consisted of 12 against playoff teams and 5 against non playoff teams.  It isn’t a shock that they had a good January and a poor February/March.  It the start of March I wrote about the Leafs dreadful record against good teams.  It isn’t rocket science and it bothers me that Burke is willing to use the Leafs ability to beat bad teams in January as a reason for optimism.  On December 10th I wrote that the Leafs are a long way from being good so this isn’t just a pessimistic view after a late season tailspin.

The other things that disheartened me are some of the reasons for optimism.  One was that the second line showed signs in the second half that they may be able to return to their ‘career year’ levels of 2010-11.  Well, that is all fine and dandy, but last time I checked the Leafs missed the playoffs that year as well so hoping some players can match their level of play during that season is not a sign for optimism, but a sign of desperately looking for something to hope for.  As for Kulemin, in his 4 NHL seasons he has had 31, 36, 57 and 28 points.  Now tell me which one is not like the other?  Is it realistic that Kulemin can be a perennial 25 goal, 55 point guy?  Could be, but the evidence to support that thus far in his career is pretty thin.

Brian Burke also had the guts to point to Carter Ashton’s play at the end of the season as a sign of hope.  Sorry, but Carter Ashton had zero goals, zero assists, zero points and was a -10 in his 15 games as a Leaf.  If that is a sign of hope then the Leafs situation is far worse than even I believe.  Maybe Ashton will end up being a good top six forward in the NHL, but you wouldn’t conclude that based solely on those 15 games.

The same goes for Matt Frattin.  Now I actually like Frattin and I think he might be a useful player, but Frattin isn’t going to turn this team around.  He is probably no better than a 3rd line player.  The Leafs problems are not going to be fixed by the development of Matt Frattin into a quality 3rd liner.

There are really only two really good things to happen to the Leafs this year.  The first is how well Kessel and Lupul played together offensively and the second is what Jake Gardiner managed to do as a rookie in the NHL.  Overall I am really disturbed that Burke seems to have the attitude that this team is a good team that unexpectedly fell apart down the stretch because to me they still need significant improvements in all facets of the game.

Over the next week or two I will be discussing the Leaf situation in more detail grading the players and looking at what the Leafs need to do to get things moving in the right direction.

 

Jan 182012
 

Brian Burke joined the Leafs in November of 2008.  When he joined the Leafs he insisted he has no interest in a 5 year rebuild and expected he could make the team competitive much sooner.  Let’s evaluate how Burke has done in his tenure as GM of the Maple Leafs.

2007-08 2011-12
GAA 3.08 (27th) 3.03 (27th)
SV% 89.3 (29th) 90.1 (24th)
GFA 2.74 (11th) 2.98 (6th)
PP 17.8% (15th) 20.6% (4th)
PK 78.0% (30th) 74.4% (30th)
Points 83 (12th in east) 89 (projected, 9th)

Their overall offense is slightly better but their defense is the same sad defense we had prior to Burke.  They are in the playoff hunt this season, but they are a dismal 13-15-3 in their last 32 games and showing little signs that if they can somehow squeak into the playoffs they can threaten to win a round.  They have just 7 wins against teams currently in the playoffs and the only playoff team they have defeated since December 5th is the Detroit Red Wings.

Up until recently I have been a supporter of Brian Burke but to be perfectly honest he is growing weary on me.  Yes, the team is younger, but no, it is not very much better.  Yes, there is greater prospect depth, but I am doubtful any of them have the potential to become game changers in the NHL (i.e. dominant core players).  He seems to think he has one of the best coaches in the NHL and gave him a contract extension but he also has talked recently about how he thinks his team is a playoff team and is only a player or two away from seriously challenging to be a top team that can make a lengthy playoff run.  He loves to talk about how the Phaneuf trade changed the franchise around, but since the Phaneuf trade the Leafs are just 72-62-19 or the equivalent of an 87 point team.  In the 6 seasons post lockout 87 points would get you 11th, 12th, 11th, 11th, 10th, and 10th.  I don’t know about you, but I am not satisfied with a 10th-12th place team, or even a 9th place team.

Other Leaf fans like to talk about how young this team and the rebuilding process isn’t complete (despite Burke insisting he had no interest in a 5 year rebuild) but lets look at their ages and experience.  I have included the top 18 skaters in total ice time this season and top 2 goalies.

Player Age GP
Dion Phaneuf 26 515
Carl Gunnarsson 25 155
Phil Kessel 24 419
Joffrey Lupul 28 494
Jake Gardiner 21 38
John-Michael Liles 31 557
Luke Schenn 22 275
Nikolai Kulemin 25 278
Mikhail Grabovski 27 284
Tyler Bozak 25 155
Tim Connolly 30 660
Clarke MacArthur 26 328
David Steckel 29 351
Cody Franson 24 171
Matt Frattin 24 38
Joey Crabb 28 111
Mike Komisarek 29 492
Matthew Lombardi 29 473
James Reimer 23 55
Jonas Gustavsson 27 88

Only Gardiner, Schenn and Reimer are under age 24.  The majority of the team is aged 24-26 with a few players in their late 20’s and Liles topping out at 31.  There are 12 players with 250+ games experience and 7 with 400+ games experience and only 4 players (both goalies, Frattin and Gardiner) have fewer than 100 games experience.  This isn’t a team filled with rookies with little or no experience, it is a young team but with a fair bit of NHL experience with the majority of players in their prime years or just entering their prime years.  Am I really expected to buy into the fact that this mediocre team of 24-29 year olds will suddenly become a great team of 26-31 year olds 2 years from now?  I am not so certain.

Furthering that challenge is that Grabovski, Liles and Gustavsson are UFA’s after this season and after next season Connolly, Lupul, Lombardi, MacArthur, Armstrong, Bozak, and Steckel are UFA’s.  That is 7 of your top 13 skaters in terms of ice time becoming UFA’s over the next 2 summers plus a handful of others.  This doesn’t appear to be a core of players that can win now and a good chunk of the core could walk away as free agents should they choose to.

All this begs the question, where do the Leafs go from here?  Do they stick with this core, re-signing the UFA’s and hope for the best, or do they admit that this completely revamped (from 3 years ago) team is only marginally better, still can’t keep the puck out of their own net, and may in fact need another significant overhaul?  And if it is the latter, should we leave that up to Burke?  To be fair, it is probably too early to pull the plug on this current Leaf team but from my perspective if Burke insists the problem is not the coach and the mediocrity continues, I am not sure how much longer we Leaf fans should wait.

 

Dec 272011
 

So we found out over Christmas that Ron Wilson got his wish and got a new contract.  With that the onus of blame for any failures this Leaf team has now clearly falls on Brian Burke’s shoulders.  Specifically, I am talking about the Leafs horrid penalty kill.

Ron Wilson was one of, if not the, top paid coach in the NHL.  He is paid like one of the best coaches in the NHL and he was given a contract extension so clearly Brian Burke doesn’t believe Ron Wilson is the reason for the Leafs PK failures.

So, if Ron Wilson is not the problem it must be the players.  Clearly Burke believes the players are getting a good message from Ron Wilson so either the players have tuned Wilson out or they just don’t have the skill level to implement Ron Wilson’s PK plan.  If the players have tuned out Wilson you have two options, fire Ron Wilson or get new players who will listen.  Ron Wilson wasn’t fired and there is no indication that the players have tuned out Wilson or that Burke thinks a mass overhaul of the team is deemed necessary.  So, if it isn’t the coach and the players haven’t tuned out the coach then it must only be the talent level of the players.  These are Burke’s players so if they are a failure it is a problem created by Burke and Burke’s problem to fix.

This is Burke’s team now.  These are his players and his coach and everything to do with this team now has his stamp of approval.  Everything good, and bad, with this team is now Burke’s doing.  Burke talks confidence about this team and how it only needs tinkering but I don’t share that same optimism,  The team is clearly better and is a definite contender for a playoff spot but I wish I had more optimism that there is a viable path towards cup contender without major upgrades at several positions.

Apr 142009
 

Although Brian Burke didn’t make many significant moves at the trade deadline as many suspected he may it seems apparent that he is wanting to make significant moves in the off season to bring in some young talent. So far he has already signed college free agents Christain Hanson and Tyler Bozak and is in the running to sign defenseman Matt Gilroy. He has also signed QMJHL forward Robert Slaney. Rumours are that Burke is also very interested in Swedish goalie Jonas Gustavsson who has a very good year as a 24 year old in the Swedish Elite league. We can have no idea how any of these guys will pan out at the NHL level (though Hanson has looked promising in his 5 games getting a goal and an assist) but Hanson, Bozak and Slaney and possibly Gilroy and Gustavsson give the Leafs some much needed organizational depth and give Burke some additional assets to make deals if he finds some of interest. One deal that Burke is interested in making is moving up in the draft in order to draft John Tavares.

I am not shocked by this news. Brian Burke wants to make a splash everywhere he goes. In Vancouver he traded for the draft picked needed to acquire the Sedin twins. In Anaheim he signed free agent defenseman Scott Niedermayer and then traded for Chris Pronger. His opportunity to make a statement move (or moves) for the Leafs is this summer starting with the draft and then into free agency season.

So, what will it take to acquire the first overall pick? Well, that will depend somewhat on who gets the pick but I would assume the asking price would start with the Leafs first round pick, likely 7th. The only teams that have a shot at the #1 overall pick are the Islanders (48.1%), Lightning (18.8%), Avalanche (14.2%), Thrashers (10.7%) and the Los Angeles Kings (8.1%). Each team would provide a different type of trading partner for the Leafs. If Brian Burke had a choice he might be hoping that Tampa wins the draft lottery because it is known that they would like to upgrade their defense and the Leafs have several defenseman who they could deal including Kaberle, former Lightning Kubina, Van Ryn and Ian White all of whom might interest the Lightning. Would Tampa go for something along the lines of the Leafs 7th overall pick and Kaberle for the top overall pick? Possibly. A similar analysis could be said for Colorado who have a top young center already in Paul Stastny and might put a priority on acquiring a defenseman.

But the most likely winner of the draft lottery is the New York Islanders and they pretty much need everything so what they would be looking for in return is a really good hockey trade, not any particular position. With Mark Streit already locked up long term as their offensive defenseman they may not be interested in acquiring the Leafs most valuable asset, Tomas Kaberle. They would probably love Luke Schenn, but would Burke be willing to trade the 7th overall pick and Schenn for the opportunity to draft Tavares? Probably not. In an ideal world I am sure Burke would love to build the Leafs around Tavares and Schenn, not just one of those two. Outside of Kaberle and Schenn, do the Leafs have the assets to acquire the top overall pick from the Islanders? It is not obvious that they do (Tlusty and DiDominico only hold so much value as prospects and it isn’t enough) so it may take some creative trading to accomplish that goal. They may need to seek a third team who will trade them some assets for Kaberle or Kubina that they could then flip to the Islanders for the top overall pick.

In any event, this should prove to be a very interesting summer for the Leafs, starting with the draft in June.

Mar 092009
 

A recent blog post from Howard Berger suggests that because of that lack of moves by Brian Burke at the trade deadline we should take it is as an indication that Brian Burke is in no rush to make over the Toronto lineup, despite what everyone thought when Burke took over the team just over 3 months ago now. Well, everyone except me. Back when Burke was hired I wrote the following:

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.

Except for Dominic Moore being traded, I was right. But enough about that, where does Howard see this team going heading into next season:

That’s because the Leafs are contractually bound to 16 players from the current team – or 69.6% of the 23-man roster. These players include forwards Jason Blake, Niklas Hagman, Alexei Ponikarovsky, Lee Stempniak, Matt Stajan, Nikolai Kulemin, Jamal Mayers and John Mitchell; defensemen Pavel Kubina, Tomas Kaberle, Jeff Finger, Mike Van Ryn, Luke Schenn, Jonas Frogren and Ian White; and goalie Vesa Toskala. Does that club look familiar?

Not all of the aforementioned are in the upper echelon in salary, so Burke will have a sizeable amount of cap room to work with. But, teams can still only dress 20 players each night. As such, Burke has a key philosophical decision to make: Does he want the Leafs to stay the same, or to tail off for at least a year? Right now, there is no answer to the question. And it’s the most common thread among several-hundred e-mail submissions I received over the weekend for a Q & A blog I’ll get to in a couple of days… almost all of you wondering – as do I – what course Burke will follow in the off-season, and how that course will impact 2009-10.

The early evidence suggests that Burke isn’t overly anxious to detonate the roster. This is partly because of the monumental effort required to do so [look, again, at the above list of signed players], but it also involves the intrinsic quality of a GM that has worked his way into one of the NHL’s hottest markets. Burke simply doesn’t like to lose hockey games. Missing the playoffs this season will be a radical departure for the GM that raised the Stanley Cup only two short years ago. Though he must understand the Leafs will endure more pain before they harvest any meaningful gain, such actions are easier spoken of than followed.

There are couple of interesting things Howard wrote in the above portion of his blog post. The first is, why does Burke only have the options “to stay the same” or “to tail off for at least a year?” Why isn’t there a third option of, “improve the club for 2009-10?” The second interesting point Howard made was “The early evidence suggests that Burke isn’t overly anxious to detonate the roster.” My response to that is, why must Burke detonate the roster?

I think I know why Howard wrote these two things. I think he wrote them because he, like so many of his fellow Toronto sports media friends, believe the only way to improve a team is to tear it down to next to nothing, be really bad for several seasons to get high draft picks, and then rebuild again. But why must this be the case? Is this how Boston turned their team around? Is this how Philadelphia turned their team around? Is this how Burke’s Anaheim Ducks were built? The answer to all three questions are No. Philadelphia and Boston were 13th and 15th in the eastern conference just two seasons ago. The only teams that do a complete tear down and rebuild are the small market franchises that partly do it to save money like the Penguins of the past and in recent years the Coyotes, Blues, Islanders and Kings. When was the last time San Jose, Detroit, Boston, Philadelphia, New Jersey, Vancouver or Montreal did something like this?

The fact is, the Leafs have already made significant changes to their roster . Since Cliff Fletcher took over for John Ferguson Jr. Mats Sundin, Darcy Tucker, Bryan McCabe, Andrew Raycroft, Nik Antropov, Dominic Moore, Alexander Steen, Carlo Colaiacovo, Kyle Wellwood, Hal Gill, Chad Kilger, Wade Belak, Johnny Pohl, Andy Wozniewski, and Staffan Kronwall have left the club while Hagman, Grabovski, Kulemin, Stempniak, Mitchell, Finger, Van Ryn, Mayers, Frogren, Schenn, May and others have been brought in. That is quite a turn over already. A lot of young players have been given the opportunity to show their stuff this season and this will continue as physical defenseman Phil Oreskovic will get an opportunity to play tonight against the Senators.
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Sep 172008
 

Brian Burke has become the Toronto hockey media’s favourite pick for the next GM of the Leafs and for the most part he has been heralded by the Toronto media as one of the best GMs in hockey and the kind of GM the Leafs desperately need. But what if Burke was GM of the Leafs. Would Burke get the same recognition?

If hypothetical Leafs GM Burke signed Todd Bertuzzi to a two year $8 million deal, only to buy him out the following off season, would the Toronto media herald Burke as one of the greatest GMs in hockey?

If hypothetical Leafs GM Burke signed Mathieu Schneider to a two year $11.25 million deal and just to put him on waivers the following summer hoping someone would claim him, would the Toronto media herald Burke as one of the greatest GMs in hockey?

Of course not. The deals to Bertuzzi and Schneider are actually far worse than the monetary cost to the team. These deals essentially cost the Ducks team a talented player in Andy McDonald because Burke was forced to trade McDonald to clear salary space. If Burke made such moves while GM of the Toronto Maple Leafs he would be criticized beyond belief. But he isn’t GM of the Leafs so the Toronto hockey media are still in love with him.

If you then factor in that Burke chose to sign Bertuzzi instead of signing a young power forward capable of scoring 25 goals while playing a solid two-way physical game named Dustin Penner and you have to ask yourself, why does everyone think Burke is such a great GM.

If you go back to his Vancouver days he never was able to acquire the goaltender the team desperately needed to seriously challenge for the Stanley Cup and his draft record was mixed at best.

He did win the Stanley Cup in 2007 in large part by his bold move to sign Niedermayer and trade for Pronger but the core of the forward crew was there before Burke arrived.

If Burke were the GM of the Leafs having put Schneider on waivers desperately hoping someone will claim him, my guess is that there would be more than a few in the Toronto media calling for Burke’s firing.

It is always greener on the other side of the fence.