When the NHL finally decided to have a season last week, many Leafs fans knew Brian Burke was on thin ice. There was a large segment of fans who believed Burke had only the upcoming shortened season to turn things around. Arguably, there was an even bigger group of fans who believed Burke had the current season, and then the offseason – where two of his former star players could be available – to turn the Leafs into a contender.
No one believed Burke wouldn’t oversee the Leafs starting the season on January 19th.
Brian Burke arrived in Toronto full of high expectations and bravado back in 2008. Ultimately, he leaves labelled a failure for not making the playoffs during his three-and-a-half-season tenure.
What not enough fans and pundits will do is wait and assess the true mark Burke left on the Leafs franchise once it’s realized.
Toronto is currently the second youngest team in the NHL. Their top players have yet to either play their best hockey, or are currently in their primes. And no matter what happens this season, they will go into the summer armed with only $39 million committed in salary and that’s if they don’t buyout Mike Komisarek.
There are undoubtedly numerous flaws on the current NHL roster, but there are pieces in place within the organization that could possibly fill some of the holes not presently filled, and now there is ample cap space to supplement whatever the young players can’t.
The simple fact of the matter is that Burke inherited a mess. Was he given an appropriate amount of time to fix it? Probably not. Should the Leafs be a better team than what they currently are, though? There’s a good argument to be made that they should be. But now, at the very least, Burke has set up the organization for success moving forward. Should they begin to achieve that success, he will deserve at least a share of the recognition and gratitude.
Nazem Kadri is the only player drafted under Burke’s reign that has played an NHL game to this point. While maybe that does say something about his draft record with Toronto – and it’s a maybe because he purposely lets his players develop slowly – chances are there will be some effective NHLers that emerge among the other 28 players selected under his supervision. The infamously incompetent JFJ left the Leafs some players that are only beginning to emerge in Carl Gunnarsson, James Reimer, Nikolai Kulemin and Matt Frattin. Considering Burke allocated many more resources into scouting and developing the farm team, it should eventually pay-off. The extent of that pay off we we won’t truly know for years.
Of course, this is not what fans expected from Burke when he was hired in 2009. Back then, if fans were told he’d make some good trades, some bad UFA signings, and the team wouldn’t finish within even the top 18 of the NHL overall, they would be pissed.
Maybe part of the problem all along with Burke was the level of expectations set for him, a large part of which he was responsible for himself. The Phil Kessel trade, regardless of how you feel about it, certainly didn’t do him any favours either in the grand scheme of things, pressure wise.
Burke took a job that, in retrospect, he was going to be unlikely to see through to the good stuff. Even if you measure all the transactions he made, in which the good most definitely outweighs the bad, the fact that the Leafs are where they still are is blamed squarely on his shoulders when really it’s a testament to what he had to begin with.
Let’s not forget that the first season and a half of his time with the Leafs was spent basically blowing up the roster he inherited. Only then did he really start addressing the holes on the roster. Currently, the Leafs have three top 4 D-men in Dion Phaneuf, Carl Gunnarsson and Jake Gardiner, along with a blue-chip prospect in the pipeline named Morgan Rielly. There are three legitimate top six forwards that are part of the present and future in Phil Kessel, Mikhail Grabovski, and James van Riemsdyk. Beyond that there are players such as Joffrey Lupul, Clarke MacArthur and Nazem Kadri who have shown the abilities or potential to be top six forwards, not to mention other potential or current contributors such as Kulemin, Matt Frattin, Josh Leivo, Greg McKegg and Jerry D’Amigo.
Clearly, the pieces assembled aren’t enough for the Leafs to think of competing for a Cup anytime soon. Nevertheless, it’s even more clear that Burke was setting himself up for what he had hoped would be a big summer. Now, he’ll never get the chance to take that step and we’ll never know what would have happened.
In the coming days, many will talk about what Burke didn’t do in his time here; what he should have done, what he could have done, and how he never made the playoffs. In reality, the real conversation regarding Burke’s true work – which was an approach built around youth – really needs to take place years from now when it actually comes to fruition.
As a tribute to the Burke-ian metaphor, I’ll conclude by saying that you can’t judge a farmer just based on the seeds he planted.
Brian Burke planted many seeds in his time here, and we’ve yet to see the yield.