Saturday, 29 November 2008

Burke Hits Toronto

Brian Burke faced the media today at the press conference held by Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment to announce his hiring. Burke has been around a long time, so I expected him to have all the "right answers", but some of the stuff he said was refreshing. Does this move make the Leafs better? Short-term, no. Personally, I think it will take the Leafs a minimum of three years to right the ship with Burke at the helm. I'm almost certain four-to-five years should be expected. This is a team that tried to sign aging veterans and traded for players past their primes by giving up their future every year. The cupboard is bare, and it will take Burke some time to restock the pantry.

Burke becomes the 13th general manager in 92 years of Toronto Maple Leafs hockey, and the first American to lead the front office. His new deal is worth a reported $17 million over six years. The Irishman is expected to turn the Leafs into a contender, and he has six years to do so. However, let's take a look at what Burke said today during his introduction.

"Luke Schenn looks like the real deal to me.": This is pretty much a no-brainer. Schenn is the only draft pick in recent Leafs' history to start the season as an 18 year-old, and perform at a high level. He's shown heart and skill the entire time in Toronto, and could be Burke's new version of the Chris Pronger experiment in Hartford.

Luke Schenn is exactly who Burke should focus building his defensive unit around. Schenn has the look of a young Pronger - poised, solid defensively, confident - and should be the foundation of the new-look Leafs. Burke also had praise for Mikhail Grabovski by stating that he had tried to acquire the young forward while he was in Anaheim. Grabovski is a good starting point for Burke to work with up front, but Grabovski still needs to grow as a player before he can be considered the cornerstone of the forward unit of the Leafs.

"You're talking about the Vatican if you're a Catholic.": Brian Burke's comparison of Toronto in the hockey world to the Vatican in the religious world is pretty much bang-on. The "Centre of the Universe" hasn't won a Stanley Cup since 1967, and the fans are on the verge of being rabid. However, as Burke stated a few moments later, the Leafs have "blank pages to write on" now. The Burke era is a brand-new era in Leafs hockey, and this should bear fruit if fans are patient.

Again, this team has little to nothing on the farm when you look up and down the roster of the AHL's Toronto Marlies. Justin Pogge is the best goaltending prospect that the Leafs have, and he hasn't been able to stick with the NHL club. Staffan Kronwall is the best defensive prospect, and he's been up and down more than the stock market. Jiri Tlusty might be the Leafs top forward prospect, but he just doesn't seem to be a top-six forward for the Leafs. Clearly, the Leafs need to start building from within to become the contender that they want to be. But this will require patience from the fans in order to become a contender. Are Maple Leafs fans willing to wait three, four, five years to become the powerful Leafs of the past?

"I don't think players should get traded at Christmas time.": Burke introduced a concept he has used in both Vancouver and Anaheim where he institutes a no-trade freeze period ten days before the NHL freeze goes into place. That means that the trade freeze for the Leafs will start on December 9. It doesn't give Burke a lot of time to make changes before the Christmas break, so I wouldn't expect any moves until at least mid-January.

The issue facing Burke is that he doesn't have a lot of valuable assets to make deals for high-round draft picks or dynamic, young players. The guys who are contributing are solid, young players, but do you give up a two solid second- or third-line players in the future for something now? These first two years of his contract will be the biggest test for Burke, and will prove his mettle if he can acquire some pieces who will contribute in a large way down the road.

"This guy has two dollars less than God already.": It sounds as if Burke has no interest in signing Mats Sundin whatsoever. And, personally, that's a good move. Burke spoke of how he will be fiscally-responsible when it comes to signing players, and Mats Sundin is looking for a large payday. He doesn't really need the money, so this is just Sundin using his name to grab a few extra zeroes on the number being offered to him. Burke made it clear that a high-paid player will not play "half-assed" while cashing a paycheque, and I believe that Burke will avoid any meeting in Los Angeles with Mats Sundin and/or his agent, J.P. Barry for the reason of not wasting anyone's time.

Really, though, if you're a Maple Leafs fan, do you even want to see Sundin back after he railroaded your team last season by refusing to waive his no-trade clause? He's out there taking the highest offer from the best team available this season, and yet he wouldn't waive his no-trade clause for a couple of months last season? That's absolute crap if you ask me.

Honestly, Burke's signing puts a very smart hockey man in a very demanding hockey job, and it should be noted that there will be no shortage of money in Leafs-land to get the job done. I would expect that Burke will sign a bonafide tough guy this summer in order to prevent guys like Luke Schenn from dropping the gloves. I think you'll see some true grit from this team by this time next season, whether it be from their current group or new guys that have been brought in.

It should be no surprise that the Leafs will be much tougher two years from now. The Anaheim Ducks led the league in fighting majors during their Stanley Cup season, and no one backed down from a fight in Anaheim. Burke made it clear during the press conference that he will build from the goaltender out, and that should prove genius when you consider the youthful bluelines of Montreal, Pittsburgh, and Detroit. Those teams have a couple of key veterans, but there are always young guys stepping up and there is an abundance of skill and grit in the defensive zones. And it's not like Anaheim had a weak defence corps either.

The building of the Leafs back to their lofty status of the pre-expansion days starts on November 29, 2008. Only time will tell how this plays out, but the future as it stands right now is very bright. And since Al Strachan is based in Toronto, even if you don't like the Leafs, the UFC-style arguments that Strachan and Burke have will certainly be entertaining.

Until next time, keep your sticks on the ice!

1 comment:

Johnson said...

I agree Sundin is a waste of time. The guy's a bum. He could've waived, played for a contender last year and given the Leafs some leverage to sign some young guys and start building. But he's happy having won a gold medal and doesn't care about the cup. I think Burke is smart enough to just let him go.