With Wilson Fired, Now Burke’s Underfire

Now that Ron Wilson has been fired, the pressure shifts squarely on Brian Burke and this pressure is growing every day.  Oddly enough, this pressure was unnecessarily established by Burke’s alpha ramblings as he took over for the Leafs in November, 4 years ago. He sabotaged himself in year 1 by saying he didn’t believe in a 5 year rebuild. He was going to work to win now.  Those in Vancouver, knowing Burke’s MO, laughed at this and knew he was making a mistake based on ego.  Look at Ottawa and Edmonton, where management preached that rebuilding would take time, but it would reap great rewards, not year and years of sitting in the middle of the pack.  These markets understood the dynamics of where their teams stood in terms of talent and experience and the fans bought into a strategic long-term building game plan. Brian Murray in Ottawa now looks like a genius as he has his team fighting for a playoff spot where there was no expectation. And this lack of expectation came from Brian Murray’s own stance on where he though his club was at. It’s the classic case of undersell/overpreform, unlike Burke’s approach of oversell/underperform.

Look at the Leafs collective roster. Player after player getting long term million multi dollar contractsyet failing to perform to the expectation that these contracts demand.  The Leafs need to start building a culture of having players take less $ to play in Toronto, much like it is done in Vancouver where almost every guy has taken a pay cut to stick around with the singular goal of winning the Stanley Cup. Burke hasn’t done well in negotiating contracts and with all the experienced management guys under him, I’m surprised this is one of the organizations greatest weakness.  His contracts overpay players over a long period of time. This has been one of his gravest failings as the GM of the Leafs.

At the time Burke was brought in as President and GM of MLSE Leafs fans would have been willing to go through a 5 year rebuild plan. And if that had happened, they would have had Tyler Seguin, (a soon to be franchise center) and Dougie Hamilton (who looks like one of the best well-rounded defence prospects to come out of the CHL since Alex Pietrangelo)  Leafs fans understood the process. They saw the rewards in Pittsburg and Chicago. And that’s what they wanted.  But Burke was too impatient and arrogant to institute a 5 year rebuild. Nope, he was going to start winning now. Well, now he’s into year 4 and it looks like this rebuild, that he assured would not take five years, which hass turned out to be correct, will take at least 7. One of the greatest mismanagement of expectations in the history of the NHL.

Burke’s biggest concerns now are his players and their bloated contracts.  Next year the Leafs have $31 million tied into Kessel, Lupul, Grabo, Armstrong, Lombardi, Bozak, Connelly and Steckle. Kulimen; Fratten and Rosehill are RFAs.  On defence he has Phanuef, Komi, Liles, Schenn, Gunnarson, and Gardiner at $21.5 mill. That’s with Franson as an RFA.  That’s a full roster with many of the contracts going well beyond next year.  It doesn’t leave much wiggle room unless Burke can dump these bad contracts, ie: Armstrong, Komi, Lombardi.  And yet this team is still searching for the key ingredients every team has when they win a championship.  A #1 center with depth behind him and elite goaltending.  The Leafs have neither. And these are not easy positions to fill. Unless you draft your own or overpay for one in freeagency, you generally get fleeced in the trade market trying to acquire one.

Which brings us to the offseason.  Their biggest asset to offload which would bring inthe best return would be Phanuef. Phanuef for Jeff Carter would have been the right trade for the Leafs. The Leafs could have subtracted from a position of strength, added to an area of need, kept a level cap structure, and given the team a true#1 C. But nope, Burke doesn’t like long-term deals, even at $5.3/year where you could buy out the last 3 years cheap. Carter’s still young (26), scores goals like clockwork, wins wherever he plays (World Champoinships, World Juniors, Calder Cup, Stanley Cup Finals), and is 6’3 to boot with and incredible shot, great skater, and a nose for the net where he gets plenty of dirty goals. Sound like a guy that fits the Burke mold? I thought so too.

With that opportunity now gone they must get creative with their payroll and player assets. Will Burke bury bad contacts in the minors?
I don’t see how the can expect to challenge for a playoff spot with an underwhelming Komi, Kulimen, Armstrong, Connley, and Lombardi. And these guys are supposed to be the veterans on the team. It’s a dynamic couched in failure.

And Leafs’ fans are sure sick of failure. If Burke doesn’t correct these mistakes, his job should be on the line and if he doesn’t see that or can’t fathom that, then I’d say instead of us witnessing him eliminate blue-white disease which was his first goal here as GM, he’s become patient 0. The seed carrier spreading the disease through the entire organization. Did anyone get the feeling that Burke pushed Grabovski to the limit in their contract talks? No!  It seemed like Grabo tabled an offer and Burke jumped up and said, “where do I sign?” Negotiations should be tough for both parties. They’re uncomfortable and unpleasant.  Did all this added stress weaken Burke to the point where he didn’t have the wherewithal to tough it out with Grabo’s agent?  Maybe, but I don’t think so.  This seemed like a couple of kids sharing cake at a party. No grunt work. No holding fast to your mandate to get the player to sign a reasonable deal for both side. I see no middle ground here. Just Grabos patting Burke on the shoulder as Burke bowed on his knees.

All these issues have led to an underperforming product. And it’s Leafs fans who pay the price. Will it ever end?  If Burke isn’t willing to pay the price while negotiating contracts, he’s going to end up paying the ultimate price, loss of pride for failure and being fired.  Maybe it won’t be Burke calling a talk show host a coward before he hangs up on him in mid interview, nope, in the future, I see it more like Brian calling an owner/President of an NHL organization asking for a job and getting hung up on.  His acts old, his desire’s dwindling, and he just doesn’t pick the right fights.  Get aggressive with players agents.  Use leverage, like the fact Grabo wants to stay in TO.  That’s a huge chip in your pocket.  Bargin them down to acceptable contracts.  This will fix your depth issues.  Don’t blow off your anger at a radio host for asking a legitimate question all listeners are interested in hearing.  Or are we all cowards too?

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