North of the 400

North of Toronto, South of a championship

Going Over the Brian Burke Era: Do We Have To Do This All Over Again?

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Over at Leafs Nation, Cam Charron recently asked an interesting question: how long does Brian Burke have?

Its interesting in the usual off-season, GTA-centric sense of questioning whoever’s in charge of the Leafs and asking when they’ll get better (or if you’re trying to sell books, if that’ll ever happen), but it’s interesting in the more immediate context, too. One might remember how MLSE has new owners, which means the people running the Leafs aren’t in it for the money, so to speak: Rogers and Bell have more important things to worry about than getting the highest possible return on their investment here.

And with new owners, one wonders if they’ll want to bring in their own people to run the various wings of MLSE: the hapless FC, the somehow second-best team in the GTA Raptors and the Leafs, who ESPN recently called the worst team in all sports, of all time, forever and ever, etc.

Brian Burke has been GM of the Maple Leafs since the end of November 2008. If my math is right, this would be his fourth season with Toronto. And as Bill Veeck once wrote, when you run a team, you’ve got four years to turn them around before you lose the fans.

In his four years with the Leafs, Burke hasn’t improved the team. He inherited a team that finished with 83 points and 36 wins in 2007-08. This wasn’t a strong team: Vesa Toskala was the starting goalie, Andrew Raycroft backing him up and the leading scorer was Mats Sundin: 32 goals and 78 points. Let’s break down what happened next, year by year.

2008-09 Maple Leafs: 34-35-13 (81 points, finished 12th in Eastern Conference)

The offseason before Burke was a memorably awful one in retrospect. Just look at this crop of free agent signings: Curtis Joseph (one year, $700,000), Niklas Hagman (four years, $12 million) and, my favorite of all, Jeff Finger (four years, $14 million). At the time, CBC spun the signing by saying Finger “impressed in his first full season in the NHL.” More about his impressing later.

Just days before Burke was hired by the Leafs, the team traded away Alex Steen and Carlo Colaiacovo to St. Louis for Lee Stempniak. In Steen, they gave up a 23-year old forward coming off his third-straight 15-goal (or more) season while I remember Colaiacovo being an okay defensemen, when he could get on the ice. As for Stempniak, he scored 11 goals in 08-09. Maybe a better way to measure his impact is by Point Shares: Toronto traded away Steen’s 3.5 and Coliaicovo’s 0.9 for Stempniak’s 2.1.

Part of this drop in offence can be attributed to Mats Sundin’s absence: on July 1, Sundin signed as a free agent with Vancouver; Toronto lost one of it’s best players ever and didn’t get anything in return for him. Great work, Cliff. As noted above, Sundin was the team’s leading scorer the year before. After him came Nik Antropov, who moved to the wing and scored 28 goals. He too would be traded: on March 4, Burke flipped him to New York for a second round pick. He also traded Dominic Moore to Buffalo for a second round pick. Hey, nice rebuilding moves!

Some of Burke’s moves were a little more curious: he traded for Brad May at a time when the league was starting to move away from brawling. Later, he flipped a career minor leaguer (Richard Petiot) for an injured (and soon to retire) Olaf Kolzig, someone named Andy Rogers (who isn’t even on Hockey-Reference) and an aging Jamie Howard. None of them ever played a second for Toronto.

As the for the Leafs? They finished with 34 wins, enough for fifth in their division, and allowed the most goals of any team in the league.

2009-10 Maple Leafs: 30-38-14 (74 points, finished 15th in the Eastern Conference)

During the offseason, Burke made his biggest splash yet: he traded two first round picks – 2010 and 11 – plus a second round pick to Boston for Phil Kessel. Just for a second, try to remember the context of this trade: Toronto had no real prospects in it’s system. They were far out of the playoffs the year before and allowed the most goals of any team in the NHL. So they traded for a young scorer: Kessel was 21, just coming off a 36-goal season with a 15.5 goal percentage. I don’t think it’s unfair to say in 2010, Kessel was a hot player.

The problem was, and still is, a scorer like Kessel is not the player Toronto needed. And certainly not at that price: Toronto would bottom out in 2010, finishing last in their conference and would have drafted second overall. But wait, there’s more stellar movemaking by Burke!

He re-signed Grabovski to a three-year deal. Grabovski, you might recall, scored 10 goals that season and posted a dismal 7 per cent scoring percentage. He signed Francois Beauchemin to a three-year deal. Beauchemin finished the year -13 and was on the ice for 45 powerplay goals against, still a career high. He traded for JS Giguere, who in 15 games was actually the best Leafs goalie (.916 Save Percentage, 2.49 GAA), gaving up Toskala and Jason Blake. And, biggest of all, he traded Matt Stajan, Jamal Mayers, Ian White and Hagman to Calgary for Dion Phaneuf.

I suppose one can be divided about how successful this move was: White and Mayers aren’t especially notable players and Hagman was past his peak but Stajan was a capable center and a good paring for Kessel, too. Is Phaneuf worth it? On one hand, his scoring is down (he’ll probably never score as many as he did as a rookie) and his +/- is steadily falling. On the other, his point shares have rebounded – 7.0 last year, his highest as a Leaf – and he eats minutes, averaging well over 20 minutes of icetime per game. According to Hockey-Reference’s Similarity Scores, which compares Point Shares to other players, he best resembles Doug Wilson and Steve Dushesne. Neither were amazing players, but Dushesne played 16 seasons and starred on a very fun 92-93 Nordiques team while Wilson was a key part of a decent Blackhawks team (three conference finals in four years and five in the 1980s), picked up a Norris and was named to the All-NHL Team a few times. Wilson is perhaps a best-case senario for Phaneuf, but he’s a lot closer to that than, say, Kessel is to a second-overall pick, plus another first-rounder.

The problem with this Leafs team, as with most of the recent Leaf teams, comes from the net out: they either lead the league in goals allowed or are close to it. When put as a number one starter, Toskala flailed and only once finished with a .900+ save percentage. Jonas Gustavsson has never proven to be much more than a solid backup in three seasons. And trading for an aging Giguere was stopgap at best. This was a major hole Burke never managed to fill. And he could have with some of the assets he swapped away.

As for the season itself, it even started awful: Toronto lost its first eight games. It never really got much better.

2010-11 Maple Leafs: 37-34-11 (85 Points, 10th in Eastern Conference)

Could it be? The Leafs in a playoff chase? Indeed, they were as the 2011 season wound down: they weren’t officially eliminated until April. What happened between this season and the last? Short answer: they got lucky.

James Reimer entered his first game as a Leaf in late December, replacing Gustavsson in a 4-0 loss to Atlanta. He started his first game January 1, a 5-1 win over Ottawa. In all, he’d appear in 37 games and post some of the best goaltending numbers of the Burke era: .921 Save Percentage, a 2.60 GAA, 7.8 Goalie Point Shares (highest since Toskala’s 2007-08 season). He was taken late in the 2006 draft, 99th overall and was way down the depth chart for the Leafs: even Jussi Rynnas was higher on the list (Rynnas has appeared in exactly two games as a Leaf and mostly backs up the Marlies). Him catching on was not part of any plan.

Aside from him, there wasn’t really much to be excited over. Only two Leafs scored more than 30 goals (Kessel and Kulemin, natch) on a team that struggled to put points on the board: their 218 goals was 23rd in the league. At the same time, they still allowed a ton of goals (251, 25th in the NHL) as neither Gustavsson or Giguere impressed. If Reimer doesn’t come from nowhere with 11th-in-the-NHL save percentage, they might have been even worse than the year before.

Who were the year’s planned additions? They signed free agent forwards Clarke MacArthur and Colby Armstrong and picked up Chicago’s Kris Versteeg for Viktor Stalberg, Chris DiDomenico and Philippe Paradis. Of the three, Armstrong was the biggest bust: his scoring dropped to eight goals in 2010-11 and only appeared in 50 games. He’d go on to miss most of the next season with ankle injuries and as a healthy scratch. However, MacArthur was a surprise for the Leafs: 21 goals, 63 points (second on the team!), 6.6 Point Shares and for just $1.1 million (Armstrong? $3 million over three years!).

And Versteeg? Kind of in the middle: he scored 14 goals and 35 points and was flipped to Philadelphia for their first and third round picks. If you weren’t keeping track, those picks were 25th overall (Stuart Percy) and 86th (Josh Leivo). Neither have played for the Leafs yet, but both are still pretty young (19, I think). Okay, so maybe Burke’s doing a little building for the future, but his bacon was definitely saved by Reimer.

Oh, and don’t forget about Jeff Lupul: picked up in a trade for Beauchemin, Lupul didn’t do much off the bat, scoring just nine goals and 18 points in the last 24 games, but his shooting percentage and point shares were slightly up. Oh, and some defenceman named Jake Gardiner came in on the trade, too.

2011-12 Toronto Maple Leafs: 35-37-10 (80 points, 13th in the Eastern Conference)

This season started pretty good the Leafs: three wins to open the season, 18 by Christmas and at the beginning of February, they were 28-19-6. Could everything be coming together?

Right from training camp, Gardiner looked like the first really good young player Toronto’s had in years. While he doesn’t score much – nine goals, 30 points – he put up some good stats for a rookie d-man: -2 on a team that allowed the second-most goals in the league, 5.6 point shares (seventh on the league) and was named to the All-Rookie Team, the first Leaf to get there since Luke Schenn.

Meanwhile, Lupul, the other addition in that trade, had a great start, too: paired with Kessel at the start of the season, they scored 70 points in their first 30 games. And Gustavsson, pushed into a starters role after Reimer suffered a concussion in October, looked decent.

But in February, the wheels fell off for the Leafs: first it was four losses in a row, then 10 in 11 games. They’d win just four games that month and only one after the sixth of the month. March was no better: seven losses in nine games and they dropped out of the playoff picture amid a shoulder injury to Lupul and a shakeup on the bench, when Ron Wilson was replaced with Randy Caryle amid boos and catcalls in the usually-reserved-even-in-times-of-crisis ACC. They finished the season in the cellar, but for once had a high pick to show for it: defenceman Morgan Rielly, taken fifth overall.

So, where does that leave the Leafs? Both MacArthur and Reimer surprised in their first seasons with the club and hopefully they’ll keep it up. They’ve got young talent in Gardiner and in Kessel someone who could probably be a 40-goal scorer if he has the talent around him. But there’s still holes: they’ve continually allowed a ton of goals, barely have anything to show for years in the cellar (only three players from the 2008 draft on have any NHL experience: Nazem Kadri, looking more and more like a bust every season;  Schenn, coming off a rough 2011-12; Jimmy Hayes, now playing for Chicago). And tons of money tied up in two players: Kessel and Phaneuf, who, if I understand right, have a combined cap hit of $11.9 million this season.

It’s not a pretty sight. When Burke came to Toronto, he called it the opportunity of a lifetime. He pledged to rebuild his way. But in five years he hasn’t built much: a couple moments where everything was working, against all odds, and many moments where things weren’t, in line with all the odds. Five years on, the Leafs don’t seem to be much better. With new owners, wouldn’t this season be the time of times to move on from Burke? Because, as a wise band once sang, how many times are they going to make this climb?


Written by M.

September 17, 2012 at 10:41 pm

2 Responses

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  1. Very entertaining and well written.


    September 23, 2012 at 10:35 am

  2. […] though, I’m having a hard time working myself up to caring. I’ve written about Burke here before (and at The Good Point) and I don’t really have anything new to offer about his tenure: he […]

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