Burke is All In


    Being a General Manager of an NHL Hockey team is quite similar to sitting down at a high rollers table at the Bellagio in Las Vegas and having a marathon session of no-limit hold’em poker versus some of the biggest and meanest sharks in the ocean.

    With a Leafs team stuck in the bottom 5 of the league from the first day of the season, and after public proclamations of being aggressive at the draft and public and vocal assurances that he has built one of the better defensive units in the East.  Additional proclamations that it would be reasonable to expect the Leafs to compete for the playoffs this year, spending right up to the salary cap, trading away the clubs next 2 1st round picks and trading away some of the organizations mostly highly thought of prospects for practically zero return, it is safe to say at this point, that if being an NHL General Manager were a game of poker, Mr Burke is “All In” and has absolutely zero chance of winning this round.  He has been effectively cleaned out.

    There is a silver lining however, as Mr Burke is flush, sitting on a recently signed multi-year, multi-million dollar deal and has an opportunity to buy back into the game and try again.

    Table image is a critical component to any game of poker.  The stakes are high and every opponent is trying to clean you out.  There are several strategies to tackling table presence, and each has their own distinct advantages and disadvantages.  Sometimes, a player has absolutely no ability to mandate their table presence, as their inherent personality is just so strong, and so critical to the definition of that player and person, that it simply takes over.  Mr Burke is such a player.  He is aggressive, vocal, makes very high risk/high reward moves and has absolutely no qualms admitting it.  He will try and bully other players into moves they may not want to make and he absolutely hates to lose.  He will ultimately live and die on his gambles and his personality.  This table presence can be the most difficult to play against and the skilled opponents possessing this table presence, are usually right there until the end.  However, this strategy is usually only effective when sitting on a large pile of chips.  Having been cleaned out, and needing to buy back in, the strategy will present some unique challenges.

    Burke has given away his strategy and his plan.  He has clearly and emphatically let the other players in the game know that he is not going to be building through the draft. No matter how much he tries to represent himself as a patient, opportunistic builder of his chip stack.  The cat is out of the bag.  He intends on winning soon and he intends on doing it with a series of aggressive trades and free agent acquisitions.

    Mr Burke does have one bluff to play, Thomas Kaberle.  He only gets one shot at this and it is absolutely imperative he gets this right.  He has already misplayed this bluff several times including at last seasons draft table in a very publicly deal gone bad to land the above mentioned Kessel.  Then in the following weeks, while a small “out” clause was available in the contracts NTC to move Kaberle, and run with their own youth.  Mr Burke determined the payout would not have been high enough, and elected to keep Kaberle.  Followed closely by an absolutely brutal, and quite public, bluff attempt, indicating he has no intention of moving Kaberle and he is simply too valuable of a card for the organization.  Unfortunately, all the players in the game have seen right through that bluff as Kaberle is not a top hand.  Kaberle is a good secondary hand.  Offense alone is not enough.  Mike Green did not make the Canadian Olympic squad.  If Kaberle was Canadian, neither would he.  This clearly and squarely lays his value well below what Mr Burke was selling and unless Mr Burke changes his asking price, this bluff will once again fail.

    With what appears to be a fairly shallow free agent pool coming up on July 1st 2010, and a lack of any real strong cards to play that could garner significant returns, there are only so many options left.  Burke being who he is, with the backing of MLSE, has some very large and deep pockets.  Unfortunately though, he is bound by the table limits for the buy in as mandated by the salary cap.  He has a decent pile of young players and prospects, but, outside of Kessel, none of them stand out as legitimate, top line players that can lead a team.  Even Kessel, which by all accounts, appears to be a legitimate, top line sniper, still seems bound to be a player lacking dimensions, and certainly does not seem like the type of leader and presence you build a team around.

    When speaking in poker terms, you need to identify a table strategy.  True students of the game will look at others who have successfully pulled off the strategy previously and study how it was done and try to replicate it and improve upon it.  Leaf fans will often remind each other that several Toronto GMs have tried similar approaches and failed.  This is obviously correct and certainly justifies the fan bases uncertainty with this direction.  However, anticipating and following failed strategies will ultimately result in a failed table strategy.  We must assume that Burke is a true student of the game.  He needs to look at his previous state and division rival in California – the San Jose Sharks.  The Sharks were built on the backs of adequate drafting, locking in key players for reasonable contracts, maintaining a large chip stack in the form of excessive salary cap room and picking off big pots at opportune times – even if they needed to overpay a bit financially.  Thornton, Heatley and Boyle were all trade acquisitions.  And although this has not translated into a Cup victory yet, they have consistently been one of the more dangerous players at the table.  The price to acquire these players was remarkably low.  The key to these transactions was an excess of cap space, a willingness to take gambles and an accumulation of assets that although did not fit into the teams long term plans, were maintained, developed and then utilized as effective bargaining chips.

    The strategy for Mr Burke at this point is beyound obvious.  The question is, does he have the required discipline to contain his natural personality and execute the strategy.  Will he take advantage of the opportunity to create cap freedom and flexibility between now and the start of next season.  With so many pending UFAs on his roster, he has a very unique opportunity to create cap flexibility.  He must then sit back and wait for big ticket, top end players to become available and pick them off.  Because of the fact that most of these players will come with big money, long term and likely slightly overvalued contracts, it is imperative that a game plan is developed and followed.  It is the ONLY way that this strategy has ever been done.  It is the ONLY successful template which exists for this strategy in this game with these rules.

    Will he be able to accept the possibility of another losing season?  How about losing another high pick to his rival in Boston by sticking with the inexpensive youth, through thick and thin if required until the sort of player you require becomes available?  Will he have the required clairvoyance to determine which youngsters fit into the teams long term plans and which ones are trade bait?  Will he have the proper capacity to negotiate affordable contracts for the youth early on and for longer term?  will he be able to develop and progress certain players with the sole intention of moving them when the opportunity arises in these big player, big contract transactions?

    Personally, I think it can be done – and Burke might be the right guy to pull off this strategy here in Toronto where others before him have failed.  The Leafs have enough good secondary pieces and have the cap flexibility coming.  The odds here are not stacked in Burkes favour however.  He has already given away his strategy, he has laid down several decent hands which, with a little development and commitment, could have been translated into significant returns when the right opportunities came about, and has spent right up to the cap.  All the while, he is sitting in 2nd last place.  Not the best starting point, but, if nothing else, the management strategy should be A LOT of fun to watch between now and the start of next season, even if the on ice product continues to falter.