Brian Burke and Long-Term Contracts

Brian Burke and Long-Term Contracts

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Brian Burke Fired

When it comes to the Toronto Maple Leafs, one of the first things often mentioned is money.

The team is, after all, the most valuable franchise in the league. With that in mind, it is always expected that they use that kind of financial power to the best of their abilities to put themselves ahead of other teams in the league.

And due to that, Brian Burke’s stance on cap circumventing contracts (the fact that he won’t do them) is pissing a lot of fans off.

Let’s look at it.

From the start, Brian Burke’s comments have always been that he won’t sign players to long contracts that circumvent the current salary cap and CBA by front loading long term deals and having the actual paid salary trickle down to the point where players are being paid around the $1million mark by the time they are barely or unable to play in the league.

As he said last summer after losing out on Brad Richards, “These deals that are front-loaded and have small amounts at the back end, in my opinion, are designed to circumvent the salary cap.”

“I won’t do them, I never have, I’m not going to,” he said. “That’s not a contract structure we’re interested in.”

Now Brian Burke has never signed a deal beyond five years, according to him, but term is not the issue.

As he says in this interview with the Globe back in 2010: “The term isn’t the issue. Mike Richards’ deal and Rick DiPietro’s deal — there’s no issue there. There’s no back diving, there’s no cap saving and they’re guys that can be reasonably expected to play until that point in time.”

So now we’re very clear on his specific issues. He has a direct problem with contracts that sink to low cap hits and add years to them when the player clearly won’t play just to bring down the average cap hit.

Call it morally right, call it stupid, call it whatever you want. But costing the Leafs? Let’s take a deeper look.

By my count, here are the players who have signed these contracts that Burke is against since he has been GM of the Toronto Maple Leafs:

2009 – Marian Hossa
2010 – Ilya Kovalchuk
2011 – Ilya Bryzgalov, Brad Richards, Christian Ehrhoff
2012 – Ryan Suter, Zach Parise

There were other big contracts signed over the years such as Marian Gaborik’s five-year, $37.5million deal. However, that is not the type of cap circumventing deal Burke is against.

Marian Hossa

Marian Hossa’s is. So he’s the first player we’ll look at that Burke “missed out on” due to his way of operating business.

The two years prior to signing his 12 year, $63.3million deal with Chicago, Hossa went to the Stanley Cup Final in back-to-back seasons with the Pittsburgh Penguins and then the Detroit Red Wings. For that one year he was with Detroit, he turned down what was believed to be a seven-year, $50million offer from the Penguins and some sort of deal from Edmonton that would have paid him a reported $9million a season. After losing in the Finals again with Detroit, he opted to sign with another team that was clearly a Cup contender in Chicago and then he finally won his championship the season after.

Based on all of that, I think there’s a better chance I could argue Hossa wouldn’t sign with Toronto for all the money in the world compared to, “All Burke has to do is start signing these stars to big cap circumventing deals.” Clearly, he was looking for a place to win a championship, not a team that was in transition – or rather, let’s just call it what it is, rebuilding – and hadn’t made the playoffs since before the lockout. He rejected $9million per year from Edmonton, how much more could Burke realistically offer him if he didn’t have his long-term contract morals?

Ilya Kovalchuk

The next summer Ilya Kovalchuk became a $100 million man after signing for that amount over 15 years.

After spending over seven years on a terrible Thrashers team amounting to four whole playoff games, why on earth would Kovalchuk sign with the Leafs and go right back to where he started? Especially after being traded to a team that actually went to the playoffs that year and was offering him $100million.

Further to the point, he already got a taste of the town, team and management since he was acquired by the Devils before hitting free agency and clearly liked it enough to resign. So, the Devils had a huge leg up and still had to sign him to a 15 year, $100million deal. What would the Leafs have to offer? $150million? $200million? Where do we stop?

The next summer, though, is the one that bothers Leafs fans the most. You know, the one where the Leafs lost Brad Richards to the New York Rangers and a goalie even signed a long-term deal in Ilya Bryzgalov. Don’t forget Christian Ehrhoff, too. Though let’s be real, he’s a good defenseman and all, but is he someone the Leafs – for all their problems – should be signing to long, cap circumventing, deals? No. So we’ll look at the other two.
Brad Richards

Even if you completely overlook the report from February that year, Brad Richards had no real interest in signing with the Leafs; common sense should tell you so anyways. Would you rather play for a team with an established, top five goaltender in the world? Or the Leafs who went into the year counting on a guy who had yet to play 40 NHL games in net? Would you rather play for a team that made the playoffs the year before and had really just one clear glaring hole at the 1C spot, or a team who hadn’t made the playoffs since before the lockout and had a bunch of holes? Would you rather play for the coach you won a Cup with, or Ron Wilson?

We could do this all day. And I mean, I’m not going to pretend to know Brad Richards personally but… I doubt he was ever going to seriously sign with the Leafs.

It’s not like the Rangers won the East this year and went to the Conference Finals either. Oh wait, they did.

Richards’ nine-year, $60million deal pays him $33million of that over the first three years, while his cap hit over the length of the deal is $6.6million. What would the Leafs have had to offer a then-31 year old Richards to get him to sign with the Leafs after all that? Nine years, $80million for a near $9million cap hit? He had 66 points this year. There’s no question the Leafs would be a much better team with Richards in the fold, but why would Richards want to come here with the lofty expectations that would be placed on him when he could go to New York, still be a core player, be asked to do noticeably less and be praised?

There’s a common theme so far among these long-term signing free agents… they’re going to contenders or teams on the verge of contending. The team success Hossa, Kovalchuk and Richards have experienced so far speaks for itself.

Then there’s Ilya Bryzgalov.

He signed a nine year, $51million deal with the Flyers and had one wacky season in Philly. I don’t even want to imagine what he in Toronto would erupt into. Having had Bryzgalov play for him in Anaheim, I’m sure Burke was well aware of Ilya’s… oddities… too.

Even with that though, Bryzgalov is a good goalie. At the very least he’s average to above average, and that would be a huge upgrade over what Toronto has experienced in net for quite some time.

To get him though, first and foremost, the Leafs would have had to leapfrog the Flyers and trade for his rights before Philly themselves did (Flyers gave up a third round pick).

In Philadelphia, he was viewed as the final piece to cement their goaltending so that they can win the Cup (while some may laugh at that now, remember, Chris Pronger was out for pretty well the whole year). In Toronto he’d be viewed as what? Another step in the right direction?

When he signed in Philly he said: “The highest goal is to win the Cup. That’s what this game is all about. That’s all that matters.” I think we all know who is closer to winning a Cup between Philly and the Leafs right now.

Don’t forget the fact that Bryzgalov wanted nothing to do with Allaire because he wanted to freelance more. For the record, Bryzgalov’s best playoff performances came when he was with Anaheim and Allaire.

That takes us to this summer. There were two big contracts handed out, both by Minnesota, to Suter and Parise. This one is pretty clear.

Ryan Suter established right from the start that he only wanted to play in the West. The Leafs play in the East, so they were automatically out. Then there is Zach Parise, who had his decision come down to the team who drafted him and whom he was captain of in the Devils, or his hometown Minnesota Wild. How could Burke have possibly been able to get in there and sign Parise with those two teams being the other options? Not to mention it was believed Parise would only have stayed in the East to play for the Devils.

It appeared Burke never wasted his time even bothering to call those two players, and part of it was probably because he knew he never had a chance.

Yet here we are, seeing tweets like this from the mainstream media.

Not to mention articles like this saying the Leafs should have offer sheeted Stamkos, if only to screw over Tampa’s ability to acquire Luongo this summer.

But fans read this stuff, then parrot it, and it just snowballs into more discussion about these kind of off-base topics. It’s like the Leafs/media version of the movie “Pay it Forward,” but with mistake-filled statements instead of favours.

Speaking of Stamkos: To all those who cried last year about the Leafs not signing him to an offer sheet, I hope this Philadelphia, Nashville situation showed you something. Yzerman would have moved heaven and earth to make financial room to fit in Stamkos if it came to that.

Yet here in Toronto you turn on the radio and hear rampant debate about how the Leafs, “Don’t use all their resources properly.” And how a, “Big market team is acting like a small market team.”

Why? Because the Leafs weren’t able to lockup a handful of players who became free agents and signed long term deals that Burke doesn’t believe in?

We all know the real reason players of that ilk aren’t signing here, and it’s not Burke’s way of running business contractually. It’s because the team isn’t very good. The Leafs have finished 26th, 22nd, 29th and 24th the last four years. They are the only team in the league not to make the playoffs since the lockout lifted, and they have arguably the biggest fan base in the league and they’re ready to lose their minds if this extends another year.

And people wonder why the best UFA’s won’t sign with the Leafs? That’s because of Burke’s long-term contract morals? Really?

We’re not talking about the Leafs losing any of their best players because Burke refused to give them the money that other teams will pay, either. It’s not like Phil Kessel is off the team because management said “we’re not giving him a big contract.” The only other player on the team somewhat deserving of that type of contract is Dion Phaneuf. After those two, neither of which the Leafs have yet lost, there’s nothing to talk about in that department.

And this leaves us with two remaining complaints.

One: “Obviously this is Burke’s fault that the team is bad and thus players wont sign here.”

Two: “How will this team get better if they don’t want to give out those type of contracts that other teams will?”

To answer those two questions quickly:

1) The team Burke inherited was absolutely wretched and expectations on the time line it should take him to turn the team around have been unrealistic. Yeah, he better start progressing this franchise and quickly now, but look how long it’s taken teams like Vancouver, LA, New York, even Boston, to become the powerhouses they are now. Toronto will become an attractive place to play again when the team starts making the playoffs again, not before. Richards and Rick Nash are two players who wanted no such part in coming to this organization to turn it around and having those expectations placed on them. A few years from now, should the Leafs begin making the playoffs? They’ll want to play here. See the pre-lockout Leafs for veteran examples.

2) Management is clearly stockpiling assets so that they can eventually trade multiple pieces to bring in a few stars. Burke has done this everywhere he’s gone. He moved too many things to count to bring in the Sedin’s and he moved numerous pieces in Anaheim to bring in Pronger. He’s already moved garbage for gold (more like silver?) here once when he traded for Phaneuf, too. Until that time it’s just going to be slow, natural, developing. Waiting for draft picks like Morgan Rielly to be ready and for Marlies like Kadri and Colborne to contribute. Then eventually, he’ll make some sort of big move.

But no, the real reason the Leafs have been struggling is Burke’s long-term contract stance, right? It’s the Toronto fishbowl at it’s finest. Single out something that is most definitely not the problem for the Leafs and hammer down on Burke.

It’s cheap, it’s lazy, and most importantly, it’s wrong. There are so many things that Burke can be ripped on for if need be, but his stance on long-term contracts? That’s absolutely not one of them.

Anthony Petrielli has been writing Leafs Notebooks, also known as short stories, on MLHS since the beginning of the 2011 season. He'd rather let his work do the talking but Alec and Declan have been bugging him about writing a bio, so here it is. You can contact him at [email protected] or find him on Twitter at @APetrielli