Those of you who know me, or follow me on twitter (@mapleleafmuse), will know that I’m a bit of a podcast addict. Apart from the mainstream media stuff, I also love listening to fan-made content and in case you have yet to do so, I invite you all to check out Leaf Matters with Matteo and Michael. They’ve had some excellent guests and offer an alternative source for Leafs fans looking for informative, well-articulated, and lively discussions on all things Leafs.
On Monday April 22nd, 2013, Brian Burke took some time out of his busy schedule as a scout for the Anaheim Ducks and joined Chris Nilan, a former NHL enforcer, on TSN 690 Montreal to talk about the Leafs‘ playoff clinch and the Montreal Canadiens’ recent struggles. Below is a slightly-shortened transcript I put together of the interview. If you want to hear the full 10-minute interview, it’s available at the TSN Podcast Centre.
Q: The National Post just came out with 5 reasons why the Leafs made the playoffs; 1) the hiring of Carlyle, 2) the graduation of Nazem Kadri, 3) the trade for JVR, 4) signing Jay McClement, 5) the promotion of Mark Fraser. Out of those five, which one do you think is most important?
Burke: Well, I think the coach is the most important, and there seems to be this debate whether it’s my team or whether I’m getting enough credit for it. As I said to Nonis yesterday, first off, I’m not interested in debates like that – people can have their own views and are entitled to them. Whatever I did [in Toronto], whether you like it or not, Dave Nonis was a huge part of it, he was my right-hand man. So, if in fact people say “oh, this is Brian Burke’s team”, it’s got Dave Nonis’ fingerprints all over it. I’m not interested in who gets credit for what, I’m happy that they’ve made the playoffs and I wish them well. I think ownership is entitled to make changes when they want to, and I’ll move on.
Q: So with the emergence of Nazem Kadri and James Reimer’s play in net, do you think this has gotten tougher in bringing up guys like Fraser, Orr. Do you think bringing up those guys has something to do with some of the success?
Burke: Well not some, I think a great deal. First off, that’s not only how Randy Carlyle’s teams play, that’s how my teams have always played. Don’t tell me that Nazem Kadri, Phil Kessel, and Joffrey Lupul would be having the freedom that they’ve gotten on the ice without some of the ‘iron’ that’s dressed. I don’t think one tough guy could ever solve problems for a team, I think you need team toughness, I think you need numbers, and I think you need some size – not just guys who are tough. Dave Nonis made a waiver-claim on McClaren, he’s been a really important piece. The promotion of Mark Fraser, important piece. The rebirth of Colton Orr as a player, important piece, and I give Dallas Eakins credit for that with the Marlies. So, I think there are a lot of factors but now, this is a hard to for other teams to play [against].
Q: James Reimer has been playing particularly well the last couple of games, with the exception against the New York Islanders, but a couple of shutouts and one-goal games. Do you think Reimer is ready to take his game to the next level, is he establishing himself as one of the ‘top-tier’ goalies in the NHL?
Burke: I think that’s premature. First off, you earn your pay-stub in this business in the playoffs, and it remains to be seen if James will do that. I don’t say “can’t” because he has already done it in the minors. I believe in him, I said it all summer and no one would listen. I said all along that I believe in James Reimer. He is a great kid and he’s playing extremely well. I watched the Islanders games, I watched the highlights, and I’m not sure I’d hang that one on [Reimer]. To me, blaming goaltending when the rest of your team doesn’t perform, is like saying “I didn’t get a date because I was wearing an ugly shirt.” Well, there is probably more to it than the shirt. So, to me, I don’t particularly buy that game. I think he has played consistently well, he’s athletic, he’s big. He’s a great kid and I’m happy for him.
Q: Montreal Canadiens are in a tailspin and Carey Price is struggling. You talked about having a tough team, this is a team that added one piece as far as toughness, being Brandon Prust, and I think it’s starting to show they have a small team. Do you think the fatigue is starting to set in?
Burke: I haven’t watched Montreal a lot and I’ve been focusing on the Ducks, obviously as my primary team, so I probably couldn’t give real intelligent commentary but that’s never stopped me from offering an opinion before. My view of signing Brandon Prust was a huge pick-up. I think he’s really made a difference for their team, and the reason why it’s so hard to fathom this slump is because they haven’t had one all year. But, most teams go through peaks and valleys throughout the season. I think [Therien] has done a good job, Subban is having a career year, and I think this is a good team. They’re just going through the slump Toronto went through probably ten games ago, or Boston went through at some point. These guys came out of the gate sprinting, sprinted all the way, and now they’ve hit a rough patch and people are [freaking out]. I don’t think they’ve lost any more games than any else around them has, they’ve just picked a poor time to do it and I do believe that team can bounce back. I think Carey Price is one of the best goaltenders in the NHL.
Q: Looking out to the Western Conference, the Blackhawks have probably been the class of the NHL so far this season, and I think a lot of people would say that if the Ducks were to make the Stanley Cup Finals, they’ll have to go through Chicago. Are there any other teams you’re keeping your eye on, or you expect to be a difficult ‘out’ in the playoffs?
Burke: I think, from a playoff perspective, there is a real danger in looking past teams of saying that “if we get past this team, we’ll have to worry about that team.” The teams that do that generally lose early. The minute that you’re not worried about the team you have to beat, there are no easy playoff matches and even in a Cup year we had in Anaheim where we were fortunate enough to with the cup in ’07, we lost five games in the whole playoffs – 4-1 in all the rounds except against Detroit and people as telling you that you’re steamrolling them. Well, I can tell you, even in the Detroit series, we were fortunate enough to win Game 5 in Detroit – they hit 3 posts that night, and we went back and won Game 6. So, the margin for error, and the margin for victory, are so close. If you are so arrogant that you say to yourself “we have to worry about this team, and you’re not worried about the team that’s putting on their skates down the hall, you’re going to lose. So I think there are a bunch of good teams in the West. I think L.A. has a great team, I think they proved it last year and I don’t think they’ve lost a thing. I think San Jose has been a dangerous team all year. I think St. Louis made more improvements at the Trade Deadline than anybody. So, I think there is a whole bunch of threats and anyone is coming out will face a rocky road.
Q: What does your future hold for you? Are you looking to get back into the NHL and be a General Manager somewhere in this league?
Q: So you’re not retiring?
Burke: Hahaha…no, no I’m not retiring. I’m working very diligently towards my next gig and I don’t know where, or when, that’s going to be but that’s my plan.
First of all, it really does sound like Burke has moved on, and for good reason. The Ducks are in the midst of capping off a great season and should have high expectations heading into the playoffs. That Burke would land on his feet so quickly shouldn’t surprise anyone either and the hockey world is better for his involvement. I have no doubts that he will once again be an NHL GM, it’s just a matter of time.
One of the things that stuck out to me in this interview is Burke’s insistence on Nonis’ impact on past deals, even while he was a GM. In many ways, the majority of the Leafs’ current success, and first playoff berth in nine years, is attributable to Burke’s time as the Leafs’ GM. In other words, if the current success proves sustainable, Burke should be given a lot credit for putting us on the right track. However, if it’s true that Nonis played a big part in the Burke-era rebuild, that also means that we can expect a similar cap prudence, opportunistic transactional behavior, and organizational vision. In many respects, the managerial transition from Burke to Nonis has been relatively seamless and that is the hallmark of a deep management group and a robust succession strategy, all of which was instituted by Burke.
Burke’s feelings on the impact of the Leaf’s enforcers (Orr, McClaren, Fraser) on the increased “freedom” that players like Kessel, Kadri, and Lupul have enjoyed are also not surprising and sounds similar to some of the things we’ve heard from Carlyle. What this tells me is that as even though Burke may no longer be the GM, his influence and philosophy will linger so long as Carlyle continues to coach. Add on the fact that the Leafs are having some success with this system – I know many will argue that this season is an outlier – and we may be looking at Burke’s team for a while longer.