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).
On Saturday, I took in the Marlies 4-2 win against St. John’s with McKeen’s Hockey pro scouting coordinator Gus Katsaros. First off, he’s an excellent hockey guy who you should follow on Twitter @KatsHockey, if you aren’t already. More relevant to this piece, we discussed numerous Marlies and Leafs-related matters that I’ll go over here as points of discussion and analysis.
It’s worth noting that, when it comes to the game itself, it wasn’t the greatest. The Marlies and IceCaps both played the night before, and each team was noticeably tired. On a good day, St John’s isn’t the most exciting team to watch as there really isn’t much talent there – the IceCaps two leading scorers are both D-men who have 17 and 16 points respectively. Add in the fact that Alex Burmistrov wasn’t playing on top of the aforementioned note of both teams looking tired, and well, you can imagine what kind of game it was.
The Marlies are simply a much better team than the IceCaps, and even though they didn’t play their ‘A’ game, they took care of business. That’s what good teams do.
Anyways, here are some talking points from recent Marlies games I’ve taken in:
- It’s always interesting watching Joe Colborne. He’s so big, and he has a noticeably high skill level considering his size, plus he can move more than adequately. In the IceCaps game, he made two high end passes; the first was on a 3 on 3 rush, where Colborne brought the puck below the hash marks, both forwards charged the net and were guarded accordingly, and he recognized Korbinian Holzer trailing the play and hit him for a pass that allowed the defender to walk in for a semi-breakaway. Holzer’s shot didn’t hit the net. Then in the third period, Colborne was at the top of the circle on a power play and hit a streaking Mike Kostka backdoor, but he wasn’t able to convert. If you were to go through a bunch of game tape on Colborne for the year, you would obviously see things he needs to improve, but you would also see quite a few scoring opportunities he’s created that haven’t been buried. In this game alone, there were two prime scoring chances he created that at the end of the day went undetected.
- Gus actually charted out on-ice goals performance here. At the time of that piece, he had only been on for seven goals against, while the team average was 14. So in essence, he’s not on for many goals against, and he’s been creating. I’m not going to defend Colborne to the bitter end – I’m not even sure if I’m defending him right now – as he only has 9 points in 25 games in a year where he should be doing much better. He’s stopped going to the dirty areas, he has only 33 shots on net for the year, and he’s turning 23 in January. But, there are little positives that can be gleaned from his game. Maybe the chances he creates start getting buried in the second half? That could quickly change the current perception of him.
- One more note on Colborne. There was an instance in the second period where he attempted to cut in and shoot the puck off the rush, but a defender got his stick on it and deflected the shot wide. It was a pretty nondescript play, but I thought about it a lot. In pretty well any sport, most people know that competing against a guy that is bigger than you is exponentially more difficult because they can leverage their body and create space for themselves that makes it nearly impossible for someone with a smaller body to guard them. Joe Colborne is listed at 6’5, and there just aren’t many players bigger than him out there. So when you think of him trying to cut in and simply get a shot on net, it should be relatively easy for him. At 6’5, with his reach and skill, in the AHL, he should be able to effortlessly put pucks on net pretty well whenever he wants, yet he was guarded with ease. This brings me back to Poulin’s interview with Lindy’s Leafs Magazine over the summer in which he told us that Colborne grew another inch over the summer. In that sense, he’s still very much a kid growing into his own body and learning how to use it. Now, how long you can stay patient with a kid and hope that he puts it altogether, I don’t know. But there’s enough there to make you want to wait at least a little longer. As mentioned, the pieces are there, he’s creating chances and isn’t scored on very often. You’ve got yourself a player if he could ever learn how to leverage his body, control the puck, and fend off defenders in the dirty areas of the ice. It’s just a matter of how long the Leafs will be patient with him now, and obviously if Colborne can start producing results.
- This is a bit of good timing, as Kyle Cicerella just wrote an excellent piece on Abbott learning from Aucoin. I was going to comment on the fact that it’s pretty clear the Leafs are playing Abbott with Aucoin because, with Kadri out, nobody else up front can really think the game the way Abbott does. He’s 5’9, so he obviously isn’t very big, he’s not the fastest skater, nor does he have the best shot, but he thinks the game at a very high level. In fact, during the IceCaps game, in the first period, Abbott whipped a pass to Aucoin in the slot, and he wasn’t ready for it. Abbott is fighting an uphill battle because 5’9 undrafted forwards don’t get very many chances to stick in the NHL, but he’s throwing up a point per game now in his first AHL season, and is seeing consistent power play time at the moment. If he’s able to keep up his point totals, Abbott is going to force the Leafs to eventually take a look at him at the NHL level. But it’s only been 12 games, and it’s very hard to predict how smaller players will react to playing against NHLers. At the very least, he is getting everyone’s attention.
- During the IceCaps game, Gus pointed out an excellent play in which D’Amigo knew he was going to get flattened, but did so in order to make a play to advance the puck. This was something that I noted during the Marlies playoff run last year as he is a guy who will sacrifice his body to make plays. D’Amigo’s inconsistent game to game, but he’s been playing on the Marlies shutdown line for most of the year and has been killing penalties, which is what the Leafs will want him to do. You kind of wish D’Amigo was bigger than 5’11, but he’s a solid and bulky 210+ pounds and will get dirty. Of the many unfortunate effects of the lockout, one is that the Leafs can’t take a look at a guy like D’Amigo at the NHL level. Maybe he only would have played five games, but at least there would have been something to gauge him on at that level. Otherwise, are the Leafs going to feel confident throwing a rookie in on their shutdown line to play against the NHL’s elite night-in and night-out for 82 games come next year? That’s risky, to say the least.
- One of D’Amigo’s shutdown line mates, Will Acton, should be getting a lot more attention than he currently is. Acton has been playing against other teams top lines all season more or less. Meaning, when Rochester comes to town, he’s the one who lines up against Marcus Foligno, when it’s Grand Rapids, he plays against Gustav Nyquist, and so on. That right there speaks to the responsibility he’s being trusted with on a team that is expected to compete for a championship again this year. Acton’s 6’2, he finishes all of his checks, drops the gloves on occasion and can be depended on for a regular shift. Yes, the Leafs have Steckel and McClement as their 3C and 4C, but neither of them offer the physicality Acton does, plus Acton can play wing. Simply put, he plays Randy Carlyle hockey, and there aren’t many players on the Leafs or Marlies you can honestly say that about. Acton may or may not be playing himself into a spot on the Leafs, but he is playing himself into the conversation, and that’s a feat in itself. This is a kid whom many thought was signed because of his last name. Now he’s becoming an important player on a good Marlies team.
I’m going to cut off the player notes here. I’ll be reading the comments if anyone wants to discuss other players there. I didn’t want to write too much and overwhelm.
On a more important note, I hope everyone has an excellent holiday and/or Merry Christmas.
The Leafs placed oft-injured winger Colby Armstrong on unconditional waivers today in an effort to buy the 29-year old out of the last year of his contract. Armstrong arrived through free agency in 2010, but never had the impact that his $3.0 million dollar / year contract commanded. Instead of having Armstrong eat the $3.0 million in cap space this year, the Maple Leafs opted to buy him out, saving $2.0 million in cap space this season, and $1.0 million actual cash.
We’re unsure at this point if the fresh roster spot will go to a young player like Matt Frattin, or if the money will go towards a UFA signing.
Either way, both parties needed to head in separate directions and this move accomplishes that.