Brian Burke held his final press conference as a member of the Toronto Maple Leafs‘ organization at noon Saturday, the hosting of which is a bizarre decision at best on the part of his still-employer and, at worst, a welcome dose of some universal justice to the fans who still aren’t feeling all that great about this. I sort of eulogized his tenure on Thursday and thought that would be the end of it. Today’s session, however, did offer a few salient points worth a brief follow-up.
First off, the press conference in and of itself was a surprise. That Burke was granted a public forum to discuss the personnel change without restriction is – I can’t decide – either a curious move of refreshing transparency or an additional indication of utter corporate incompetency on the part of Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment. But “Lots of fans love him, his press conferences pull huge ratings, and what can he say that will really hurt us?” just doesn’t seem like logic enough.
The organization was under no obligation to allow this. And given the lack of reasoning for aspects of Burke’s dismissal thus far, I sort of want to believe they just naively thought, “Sure, give him one more.” But I doubt it. This is still a corporation with calculating PR efforts in place. There has to be a conscious benefit for them.
The only possible explanation I can offer is that today was potentially an attempt at mitigation of future Burke wrath on MLSE’s part. Once he’s free contractually from the company, I’d imagine he’ll be a bit more willing to discuss this week’s events with more of his trademark candor. The MLSE board may have felt that, in offering Burke today’s forum, they’ve taken away future ammunition on his part that he was muzzled in any way and demonstrated some compassion for his “personal brand” that may affect how favourably (or how not unfavourably) he speaks of them in the future.
But that’s purely a guess. It was solid entertainment, and that’s the business they’re in, so maybe it’s as simple as that.
A handful of relevant points.
- Burke’s first jab at his employer came when he expressed that he’d have preferred to have been informed of the decision prior to his recent Russian travels, if only to avoid the cold he picked up. 4 out of 10 for subtlety.
- Has Burke technically been fired? Relieved of his GM duties, sure. But on paper, this is more of an organizational re-org than an outright dismissal. Semantics, I know. But something I keep wondering about.
- The “senior advisor” position Burke now holds was his suggestion, made through a call to Dale Lastman (this guy, he’s on the MLSE board, and was in the room with Tanenbaum and Anselmi when Brian received the news) on, apparently, Wednesday or Thursday. Exact comment:
I suggested a role as a senior advisor might make sense. [Lastman] said it did. I thought that’s what we were doing, I was informed yesterday (Friday) that the senior advisor role is to the Board and Tom and not hockey operations. That was not my understanding, but that’s fine. We’ll go from there and see what that involves.”
- Burke’s obviously indicating that he wanted to be involved on the hockey side, and was implying as much during his initial suggestion. Subsequently, the Board or a combination of its members decided that his position is, essentially, not in any way involved with that. He’s not happy, and we shouldn’t be either. Say what you will about Burke’s performance in the role – he’s a valuable hockey mind, and paying him $3 million next year to not put it to use for you is like buying out ninety-seven Colby Armstrongs.
- I mean, really – yeah, I’m gonna belabour this with multiple bullets – how do you explain that to a shareholder? The same shareholders who apparently have the power to influence the decision by complaining about a lack of winning are entirely fine with the company pissing away $3+ million on a personality conflict? Why isn’t a non-Burke head going to roll for that?
- Burke clearly wanted to convey that conflict with the new ownership (either in general, or with specific members) was a factor, but without actually saying it. The closest we’ll ever get to Brian Burke firing back against the Board publicly will be: “I’d like to go work for a team that doesn’t get sold next time.” 2 out of 10 for subtlety, and 8 out of 10 for how rhetorically clever that is.
- It’s his final press conference, so you knew he had to give us one plaque-mountable Burke-ism. “The best part about today, Steve, is that I don’t ever have to talk to you again.” I’d bet anything Burke thought of that Wednesday afternoon, and spent most of the first ten minutes of his press conference praying Simmons would ask something.
- Burke slid in a final ownership jab right at the end. During one of his repeated efforts to deflect ownership (see what I did there?) of answers to the people who actually made the decision (what a concept!), he rapidly – but clearly – indicated that he wasn’t given a satisfactory reason for his dismissal. Disguising it as a subset of feigned ignorance (Concept, not quote: “It’s not up to me to answer that question, because they made the decision, and I can’t anyways because they never really fully explained it”) is another rhetorical trick that’s a trademark of excellent communication and public speaking skill. Much as I’m hopeful about the Nonis era, I’m gonna miss that stuff. A lot.
In summary: Burke didn’t go out guns blazing, but in (what I think more fairly approximates) true Burke fashion with a fair, honest, measured, and very calculated exit that communicated his displeasure in semi-subtle ways without openly attacking or professionally degrading anyone not named Steve.
“Genius how he towed the line, called the decision BS without directly saying it or ducking his own accountability.” – Alec Brownscombe.
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.
This feels like writing a eulogy. I hate it.
You win. Let’s start with that concession, up front. A straightforward address to every fan who wanted Burke gone. I anxiously and hopefully await confirmation that this still-vague, as-yet-in-progress, largely-similar-but-supposedly-slightly-new direction will provide the amazing results that you’ve been adamant it hypothetically will.
The proverbial sky has fallen in Leafland for the rest of us; those who believed that despite a few missteps (some of which were uncontrollable on the part of any general manager), the Brian Burke era rebuild was progressing at an expected and satisfactory, if disappointingly normal, pace.
To me, this is – superficially – a worst case scenario. Yet I’m old enough, and – thanks Gary! – jaded enough, to know that it’s not really the disaster I think it is. Even though I founded and designed an entire website dedicated to sort-of-lampooning one of the core pillars of Burke’s philosophy. I think I’ll just keep it like that in protest.
I’m perfectly aware that Brian Burke was not perfect, or a saviour, or even – sometimes – particularly awesome at his job. Let’s not pretend everybody wasn’t totally fine with the rebuild in early February 2012 when things were awesome and progressing exactly as planned that the rebuild has gone perfectly.
And make no mistake, this is a rebuild. It always was. Burke couldn’t verbally paint it that way; he has season tickets to sell and a corporate success story he wouldn’t dare jeopardize. He used the rhetoric of immediate winning to distract fans from the “real steel going up,” – though, admittedly, he himself only seemed committed to this plan after an initial failure of the phantom concept known as the quick NHL turnaround. Schematics for which are kept, I believe, in the Ark of the Covenant.
I’m a Burke defender, but not a blind Burke apologist. Here’s a convenient list of things we can all probably concede he brought to the table in a negative way:
- A three year-long lack of proven and reliable goaltending in a heated market like Toronto where it’s absolutely necessary (aside from a brief J.S. Giguere-shaped experiment) and a puzzlingly bold assertion of belief in a select group of unproven keepers with fewer real-life NHL games to their collective names than I played on my Xbox last month.
- An utter failure to capitalize on a promise of injecting truculence into a Toronto brand which so desperately needed it. Dion Phaneuf, Colton Orr, and the Michaels Brown and Komisarek seem to represent the sum total of this unfinished mandate.
- A tendency to set himself up for public relations failures by making bold predictions and proclamations that a success-starved Toronto market would inevitably and unfortunately consider promises. He excited us in the beginning, but inadvertently made the pain hit harder in the end when things went bad, as standard deviation would suggest they sometimes do.
- A sense of loyalty admirable in theory that became potentially detrimental to the organization in practice. (SEE: “Wilson, Ron”)
- An inconsistent use of candor that was refreshingly honest in the beginning and accidentally damaging when it was conspicuously absent (mainly during conversations about the performances of individual players)(SEE: “Komisarek, Mike” and “Gustavsson, Jonas”).
- A curious lack of respect for the time and effort required to properly tie a Windsor knot.
There. That was pretty thorough. Have we eliminated any fears that I’m not capable of seeing past bias in this discussion? Wonderful. Let’s contrast the above with a list of things he did well.
- Led a complete reconstruction of overall organizational health, rebuilding prospect depth and a pipeline that was virtually non-existent prior to his arrival. (SEE: “Things required to win and/or perpetually contend.”)
- Returned a sense of integrity, character, and operational legitimacy to a franchise that was previously broken at virtually every level, except the one where they keep the big machine that prints money.
- For the most part, implemented and stuck to a desperately necessary rebuilding plan centered around the acquisition of youthful assets and player development. For the most part…oh, I already said that.
- Added a level of theatricality and engagement to the media discourse in a city that, despite its repeated denials, absolutely [censored]ing craves it day in and day out.
- Made several ridiculously lopsided trades (in the organization’s favour) which, in terms of asset value, probably offset a small handful of questionable ones by a significant margin.
- Contributed tirelessly to community causes.
Ultimately, how do many people define success in Brian Burke’s job? Winning. His teams didn’t. Fair enough. I think that’s an oversimplification of what a general manager’s true mandate is, but hey, if we haven’t convinced you of that by now, we’re not going to.
But Brian Burke isn’t just an executive. He was a personality. And his greatest asset might be what ended up costing him the most.
Burke arrived in town amidst a storm of optimism and bold candor, one I’ll equally candidly admit hooked me completely. I was captivated by this man’s bravado and approach, and absolutely sold on his vision. I bought every word in every press conference. I even hung on as a defender through some of the toughest times, right up until the inexplicable swoon of 2012. I lasted that long not because it made any objective sense to do so, but because I was so engaged by Burke himself on what the organization was trying to constructive do.
Burke may have essentially been fired not because of a scuttled Luongo deal or a personal scuffle with one Bell Executive – but because he failed to meet expectations that he himself set, perhaps impetuously. A victim of his own rhetoric, you might say. He boldly proclaimed that he wasn’t operating under a five-year plan, for example, despite changing course rather significantly midway through his tenure to correspond to what approximated exactly that. His time in Toronto, in a nutshell:
“Let’s try this, but really quickly.”
“It’s not working.”
“Did we speed it up at all?”
“Maybe a little. But the results are really volatile. Inconsistent.”
“Alright. Let’s go back to doing it the normal way, but serious this time.”
“They want Frattin, Bozak, and a second for Luongo.”
“No. Tell them to piss off. That’s exactly what we’re not going to do now.”
“Brian, can you come in here for a minute?”
Let’s not pretend like our impatience didn’t subvert Burke’s efforts. (Despite the fact that, y’know, he started with basically nothing). The Burke-inspired analogy would be asking a baker to create you a chocolate soufflé from flour, sand, and stagnant pond water in 30 minutes. The contrarians would say, “Well, he could go out and get the proper ingredients,” to which I would reply, “Yeah, but doesn’t that mean we should give him some extra time?” To which they would say, “Alex Anthopoulos would have just stolen someone else’s soufflé. Screw Brian.”
I sort of eerily alluded to this whole possibility last year. I just want that on the record. I may have spent a few thousand words comparing Brian Burke to Christopher Nolan’s cinematic Batman. Seems relevant now. Wednesday was basically the last scene of ‘The Dark Knight.’
Speaking of my go-to analysis style (film comparisons), there’s a really, really phenomenal movie coming out on DVD soon that I may have referenced sort of directly in this post’s title. I’ll spare everyone the superficial details and cut straight to the metaphor: it’s all about institutional failure.
Let me be more specific. It’s about what happens when the institutions in our lives fail us.
If I’m reading too much into a Bond flick, feel free to skip to the end. The whole premise of Skyfall is that Judi Dench screws some major stuff up in the name of cold patriotism and procedure (a failure of which 007 himself is a direct victim) and is called into question at a public enquiry. There is, frankly, a badass and brilliant scene where she’s literally facing this panel of public judges who are questioning her relevance, methods, and capabilities. She throws the optics of the situation back in their faces, standing on the defence that the end is worth the means, even if the means is mighty ugly.
There’s apparently no shortage of movie characters I’ll compare him to, but Brian Burke’s tenure in Toronto is essentially Judi Dench’s in Skyfall. (SPOILER: Things get poopy for ‘M’, too). Tough assignment, decisions that won’t be popular, and some questionable choices made in order to serve what is considered the greater good – despite the best of intentions. Screwups along the way, sure. But at the end of the day, these are the best people to protect you – because there’s a credibility and reliability that comes from experience.
In the end, it’s easy to hate the people who bear responsibility for what is an inevitably difficult process.
Are Burke’s detractors displeased because he executed the task poorly, or simply because he was the face of whomever had to take on this unfortunate task to begin with?
Near the end of Skyfall, Dench asks Bond – “I [censored] this up, didn’t I?” 007, who has perhaps as much reason as anyone to doubt her competency and performance, offers a reply of pure, honest pragmatism: “No. You did your job.” But the institution M serves, the one she’s sacrificed her public image for, doesn’t even seem to care that she was doing exactly what it needed and wanted her to.
Our world measures results, not intentions. If you’re still looking for an explanation in all this, that’s the best one I have to offer. Context be damned, it would seem.
I began this piece saying this is a worst case scenario. I know it’s not. General managers come and go. Some win championships, some don’t. I’m not going to pretend Brian Burke is the only man who can win a Stanley Cup in Toronto. I feel badly for him on a personal level, and I wish it hadn’t happened. If it were up to me, he’d be in his office tomorrow morning.
I fundamentally disagree with MLSE’s decision. And that’s the road leading to the real concern. The sickening feeling that we’ve been here before.
Much has been made about how dumb the timing of this is. Like, objectively stupid in both a hockey and business sense. I’m not sure there’s an adequate defense. Tom’s is, “Well there’s no good time to do this.” No, Tom, there’s not. But there are a bunch of bad ones, and MLSE bulls-eyed a prime example.
The paranoid side of my brain says this is a harbinger for the return of classic MLSE corporate micromanagement and committee-based decision making. The realistic side of my brain says this is… a harbinger for the return of classic MLSE corporate micromanagement and committee-based decision making.
I’m sorry this took so long. If only selfishly, I needed to post it, and I hope some of you identified with the sentiment.
Brian Burke will be remembered as GM who laid a lot of groundwork and ultimately accomplished nothing. That may be an objectively a fair assessment, but it robs his efforts of context, oversimplifies what is actually a far more complicated evaluation/discussion, and does a disservice to the man who rather obviously put a lot of effort into resurrecting a franchise which has, for years, been far more dead and competitively irrelevant than many of us on sites like this want to admit. He started with an organization that was far more broken than most, and ultimately received less time than he deserved to try and fix it.
He never failed to thank players and staff for their service. He deserves the same, at a bare minimum.
Thank you, Brian. Thank you for the hard work, thank you for your candor, thank you for your intentions, thank you for being inspiring at a time in this writer’s life when he needed it more than anyone will probably understand, and thank you for the colossally entertaining way in which you did it.
Thank you…for your style.
(I’d put some links here, but I’ve just spent twelve hours pretty furious at MLSE. Let them promote themselves).
When you watch a game like the one the Leafs put together last night, it’s easy to find yourself in panic mode. A few things about this version of blowing a point that stand out, at least to me, are the way the Leafs played in the 3rd period, as well as the way that Phil Kessel was able to be a steady threat throughout. In a game where the Leafs played their usual rope-a-dope style; coming out with guns-a-blazing, then playing dead, then coming to life to give the fan base a collective coronary, one has to ask themselves: Is this exciting, end-to-end style of hockey that our staff employs, going to give this team a chance to be consistent contenders for the playoffs, and furthermore, the big prize?
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not about to come out and start calling for Ron Wilson’s head. I don’t necessarily believe Ronnie and Co. are the problem here. All I’m questioning is the pledge to play “exciting hockey” that Burke and Wilson made when Burke was brought in to rebuild the club. We understand that you want to put a product on the ice that puts fans in the seats, but let’s face it, despite years of mediocrity and astronomical ticket prices, the seats are full REGARDLESS of the product they ice. The fact of the matter is, You could make an argument on either side. Is it the style of hockey? Or is it the players tasks to carry it out? Whichever you may believe, there is a problem here.
I’ll take a stab at problem #1. When you play a run-and-gun style of hockey, you automatically lend yourself to high scoring affairs, usually on both sides. Playing a game that is based around building speed and moving the puck through the neutral zone the way the Leafs do, will inevitably result in dangerous turnovers, as most opposing coaches adjust to clog the neutral zone and force you to earn every inch of ice. This isn’t a problem for a lot of teams. A team that employs a run-and-gun, whom also has the kind of size and jam to win critical puck battles along the boards, will adjust to this defensive modification seamlessly, and begin a gritty dump and chase campaign. That’s where the Leafs have great trouble. With a glaring lack of size in the ranks of the Leafs’ top three lines, dump and chase style hockey rarely works, unless you can avoid puck battles by winning races. This is something that goes out the window if the opposition maintains defensive posture and positioning. It also makes for a frustrating night. The argument can be made that Wilson had great success with this system in San Jose, but the big difference in the two situations is easy to spot. Their names are Thornton, Marleau, Clowe, and Pavelski.
Assumption/Conclusion: Size in the top-9 is a HUGE need (change the record…..)
Let’s have a look at what many see as the biggest (immediate) problem. Dependable and consistent goaltending has been missing in Toronto since the lockout. The Maple Leafs have employed a laundry list of beauties in the post-lockout era, from such gems as Andrew Raycroft (Rayflop, as it were) to Vesa Toskala (Toskalol). JS Giguere was brought in to be a solid veteran presence, and a mentor to a young and developing Jonas Gustavsson, but injuries, and a lack of consistency out of the Monster opened the door to youngster James Reimer. Reimer shone down the stretch last season, and provided Leafs fans and the organization moments of brilliance. Coming into the season, Burke and Co. were happy to pin the teams fortunes on the young netminder, with every reason to believe that his high level of play would continue, as Reimer learned the ropes of being a starter in the league. The early injury, and once again inconsistent play of Jonas Gustavsson, led the Leafs to give the developing Ben Scrivens a look, to which he responded by showing good future potential, although not enough un-seat either netminder from the Leafs rotation. With the circus that Jonas put on in the crease last night, giving up 3 duffers, We’re back to square one. The most unfortunate aspect of the situation is the fact that for the first time in a long time, we don’t have a goalie standing on his head down the stretch, where they normally would, putting us just outside of the playoffs, but downgrading our draft pick. Sometimes the draft pick part isn’t the goalie’s fault. See: Boyd Devereaux
To close this random rambling, I’ll say this: The trade deadline, for better or worse, will determine this team’s fate. If Burke is unable to add some size and grit to the lineup (nevermind star power), this team is dead in the water. Even if the Leafs are able to squeak into the playoffs as a 7th or 8th seed, do they have kind of players through the roster like Gary Roberts and Darcy Tucker, in the pre-lockout era, that play such important roles in the post-season? The answer, my friends, is no. Burke will have to make some tough decisions in the coming week, possibly having to part with pieces that are hard for the fan base to swallow, but we all know you have to give quality to get quality.
Hang on folks, it’s going to be a rocky ride.
You can (and should) follow me on twitter with the handle @LeafswireJus