The 1966/67 hockey season will forever be etched in the memory of Toronto Maple Leafs fans since it was the last time they won the Stanley Cup. In fact, it was the last time the NHL club even made it to a final series, and of course those were the days of the six-team league. Needless to say, it was a lot easier to make the playoffs and win the holy grail of hockey back then.
In the 45 years that have passed, the team has had several owners, coaches, and general managers, but of course the results have been the same. But today’s generation of fans would like the team to just make the playoffs for the first time in nine years before dreaming of any Stanley Cup parades down Yonge Street. That doesn’t appear to be in the crystal ball anytime in the near future though as the rest of the NHL teams are busy improving themselves while the Leafs stagnate under general manager Brian Burke.
While Burke can’t be blamed for all of the team’s woes, he’s certainly one of the main reasons they haven’t improved one iota since he took over the reins in 2008 from the equally incompetent John Ferguson Jr. Supporters of Burke will point to the GM’s successes in Anaheim and Vancouver, but strong teams were inherited by him in those cities. That’s not the case in Toronto. Ferguson didn’t leave him with a team full of all-stars, but still managed to cajole more points out of them than Burke has since taking over. Burke has failed miserably while attempting to build his own team in Toronto, especially when it comes to signing free agents.
The Leafs had some decent-sized forwards on the books when Burke took over with the likes of Nik Antropov and Alexei Ponikarovsky. Antropov is 6-feet-6 and scored 65 goals in his last three seasons in Toronto, while his 6-foot-4 winger Alexi Ponikarovsky scored 102 goals in his last five years there. In addition, defenseman Pavel Kubina, who stands 6-foot-4, could clear the front of the net and add to the offense with 80 points in his final two seasons as a Maple Leaf.
Burke proceeded to get rid of these players by sending Antropov to the New York Rangers for a second rounder and Ponikarovsky to Pittsburgh for Luca Caputi and Martin Skoula. Kubina was sent to the former Atlanta Thrashers (now Winnipeg Jets) with Tim Stapleton for Garnet Exelby and Colin Stuart. Now Burke is constantly harping on about the lack of size on his team after trading away three big and skilled players who are still contributing in the NHL.
The draft and free agency have also been weak spots for Burke. He traded two first round draft choices to the Boston Bruins for winger Phil Kessel in 2009 and to add insult to injury he also threw in a second rounder. This could have been easily avoided if he had simply signed Kessel to an offer sheet which the Bruins would have had to match. If head done so, Toronto would have had to give up just one first-round pick along with a second and third-round choice.
One of Burke’s major flaws, along with not being able to evaluate talent, is letting his personal beliefs interfere with the good of the team. His job is to make the Toronto Maple Leafs better as long as it’s done by the rules. This is where he’s been completely out of touch. Burke was always in the driver’s seat when it came to the Kessel deal. Kessel was a restricted free agent at the time and had told the Bruins he wasn’t interested in playing for them anymore.
But even if he had wanted to extend his career in Boston, it didn’t appear to be in the cards since the Bruins were just about at the peak of the salary cap and didn’t have room to accommodate his wages. Burke should have pounced right then and given Kessel an offer sheet as the Bruins couldn’t have matched it without going over the cap.
However, Burke’s personal feelings got in the way with the situation and Toronto paid for it dearly by trading away too much for a player whose team that didn’t have any bargaining power. If the Bruins didn’t match the offer sheet the Leafs would have had Kessel for a first, second, and third round draft pick. There’s no excuse for not trying to improve the team at a lower cost because you don’t agree with the rules.
Burke more or less had Boston at his mercy, but the disdain he has for offer sheets obviously clouded his judgment and the team paid more for Kessel than it needed to. It’s also likely that Boston GM Peter Chiarelli would have agreed to a trade for just one first-round draft pick knowing that’s all he would have received had the offer sheet been signed.
Burke decided he didn’t agree with the offer sheet rule back in 2007 when he was with Anaheim. During the off season Edmonton Oilers’ GM Kevin Lowe signed Anaheim restricted free agent Dustin Penner to a five-year offer sheet for $21.25 million. Burke couldn’t or wouldn’t match the offer and blew his lid even though he received the proper compensation of draft picks. He’s basically been crying about Lowe’s dealings ever since and childishly even challenged the Oilers GM to a fight over it.
However, while it’s well within the rules to tender offer sheets to restricted free agents, it’s rarely seen in the NHL. But that trend was broken this summer when the Philadelphia Flyers offered Nashville Predator defenseman Shea Weber approximately $110 million over 14 years. When it comes to free agency, Burke’s majority of signings have all been third and fourth liners such as Mike Brown, Colby Armstrong, Mike Komisarek, Brett Lebda, Tim Connolly, and this year’s addition of Jay McClement.
Free agency can’t be relied on as a way to build a hockey team these days since many of them re-sign with their clubs or sign with teams that are offering long-term deals, which is something Burke also refuses to do. In addition, a good general manager has to do his homework and plan ahead by knowing which players are going to be eligible for free agency in the next couple of years. You can’t simply assume you’ll be able to improve a club by adding free agents who don’t fulfill your needs.
The Leafs current needs are many, with the top two being a goaltender and a first-line center. Burke traded defenseman Luke Schenn to the Flyers this summer for winger James Van Riemdysk and in a band-aid solution plans on playing him at center, while the goaltending situation hasn’t been addressed. Again, Leaf fans don’t have much to look forward to this season either unless Burke gets off his hands and starts doing the job he’s paid to do.