On the first day of a new season, the only real question on the minds of Leafs fans is: Will the Toronto Maple Leafs make the playoffs in 2011-12? After a franchise record six consecutive seasons without playoff hockey in the city of Toronto, the startling reality is that there is no guarantee it won’t be seven consecutive seasons without playoff hockey. Brian Burke is entering his third full campaign as the General Manager, and while making substantial improvements in several areas of the organization, improvement at the NHL level has been slow.
Brian Burke is an extremely smart man, and isn’t one to blindly step into a situation. As a General Manager in the league it is more than reasonable to assume that he understood the difficulty of the job facing the new man in charge. Burke is also not the type of guy to back down from a challenge, and although he was undoubtedly aware that the Toronto franchise was in shambles, it’s tough to imagine he knew he was stepping into a runaway train. Regardless of who came in to clean up the mess left behind by the team’s prior mistakes, no quick fix was really possible that could get this team back into the playoffs quickly without repeating the same errors that led the team to the state it has wallowed in for years.
With the failures of the previous regime keeping the organization locked in a downward spiral, the true extent of the mess Burke inherited when he took over was impossible to properly assess. It was clear to everyone that there were many problems with the team, not just limited to the on-ice personnel. So Burke went to work, changing the thing he had the most control over as President and General Manager of the Toronto Maple Leafs: the front office. This work is an ongoing process, with Burke constantly adding individuals he thinks can help return the franchise to the postseason. The additions of former NHL GM’s in supporting roles, speaks volumes about Burke’s own character and the respect he has earned throughout the league.Â With Dave Nonis, Rick Dudley, Claude Loiselle and Dave Poulin in place in the front office, the collective braintrust of the Maple Leafs executive is extremely solid.
The fans can be forgiven for being impatient with the on-ice representation of the Toronto Maple Leafs; after all, there isn’t a single Leafs fan that needs to be reminded it has been 45 years since the last time the Stanley Cup was hoisted in Toronto. After the lockout, with the introduction of the salary cap and decline of big free agency as a route for the Leafs to acquire talent, the shortcomings of the development aspects of the franchise were exposed. If John Ferguson left one gift behind for the Leafs, it was an improved scouting staff that planted some seeds in form of James Reimer, Carl Gunnarsson and Nikolai Kulemin.
Unfortunately for the Leafs, with the NHL being the highest level of competition in the world, it is the most difficult level to show improvement. The Toronto Marlies, AHL affiliate to the Maple Leafs, have been completely overhauled and now serve their rightful purpose as a professional development tool. Burke has also made the talent pool far younger and installed a supporting cast that will help these young players to develop to their full potential. Just about every player that came up to the Leafs from the Marlies last season tipped their cap to the work of Dallas Eakins as playing a major role in their improvement and ability to reach the NHL level. Even though Brian Burke didn’t hire Eakins, he was able to recognize Eakins as an asset.
If any one area stands out as a strength for Burke, it’s the trading block. January 31, 2009 is a day any Leaf fan remembers as being the perfect anti-hangover coming on the heels of a bad loss to the Vancouver Canucks the night before. Â The ability to turn spare parts into meaningful pieces is perhaps what Burke has done most successfully since his ascension to the head of the Leafs organization. While the trade for Phil Kessel will be endlessly debated, Burke’s track record making trades is undeniably good. Even with all the good work done through trades, the team is still going to be in tough to make the playoffs this season.
It’s difficult to argue that Brian Burke’s tenure in charge of the Leafs is successful. Entering his third full season at the helm of the Leafs, the team has already shown improvement, but undoubtedly there were expectations that progress would be quicker. The trade for Phil Kessel accelerated the expectations of the fans that the team would be competitive sooner than the apparent standard 5 years. The time since then has seen every aspect of the organization improve under Burke, including the team at the NHL level. With playoff predictions split between making or missing the postseason, nobody disagrees that the Leafs are a better team this season than they’ve been for quite some time. Unfortunately, that doesn’t do much to ease the anxiety of a massive fanbase, all of which are hungering for playoff hockey in Toronto.
Whether or not the Leafs make the playoffs this season will likely come down to some degree of luck. Whether it’s injuries, the performance of a particular goaltender, or the progression of an extremely young group of players, the Leafs are expected to be close to, or in a playoff position by the time this season comes to a close. If the team is in a playoff spot come April, Burke will have accomplished his stated mission of getting into the playoffs. Should the team miss for another season, questions surrounding the security of his job will be asked – and loudly. But Brian Burke has done in just over three years as much as anyone could have managed given that he had to rebuild the entire organization from the front office to the minor league affiliate and the NHL team.
With a solid foundation in place and talent in the system, the Leafs are in a position to improve from a solid base, and hopefully continue to transform into an organization that continually produces good NHL players while being competitive in the playoffs year in and year out. Brian Burke was the right man for the job when he was hired, and he is still the right man for the job today.
Happy season opener everybody.
Burke’s Sportsnet Interview: