Listening to the virtual lynch mob baying on all forms of media can make one think Brian Burke has been running the Toronto Maple Leafs since 1967 and is solely responsible for every pratfall along the way.
With the Leafs’ streak of missing the playoffs now at seven seasons, with four under Burke, many an e-mailer says any CEO of any business with similar results would be shown the door by the board of directors.
However, what works in business doesn’t translate to professional sports. If it did, every self-made billionaire who bought a team would be successful.
A major-league general manager needs at least five full seasons to show if his program works, more if he inherits the kind of mess Burke did in November of 2008.
Actually, Detroit Red Wings GM Ken Holland, who most of you will agree knows a thing or two about winning a Stanley Cup, believes it should be 10 years before a GM should be judged.
His argument is that’s how long it takes to change the culture of an organization after you take over. General managers cannot simply show up, declare the incumbents are louts and buffoons, sack them all and bring in new players. Theoretically, I suppose he could if the owner is willing to pay off all the contracts but the salary cap and the National Hockey League Players’ Association suggest otherwise.
The other problem for a new GM, Holland points out, is that the first player you draft with that supposed high pick from taking over a failed team will not be ready to make a meaningful contribution to your team for four years. And the smart picks you make in the second and third rounds of the entry draft will take even longer.
So a GM will be four-fifths of the way through a five-year mandate before the results are evident from his best draft pick. That’s thin evidence with which to judge a GM’s effectiveness.
Which brings us back to Mr. Burke. He is three years and four months into this job. Since he arrived in mid-season in 2008-09, at the very least Burke should get until the end of the 2013-14 season until he is hauled in front of the board of directors and ordered to explain himself.
Yes, I know Burke famously said he was not one for five-year plans when he made the Phil Kessel trade that dogs him to this day. This impulsiveness often makes Burke his own worst enemy but name one GM who is free of mistakes.
Believe it or not, Burke has had some success in the NHL. He won the Stanley Cup in 2007 with the Anaheim Ducks and built the foundation of the Vancouver Canucks along with David Nonis, who just happens to be his right-hand man with the Leafs. Nonis is also the fellow, those who know the dynamic of the crowded front office will tell you, who can talk Burke out of a rash decision.
Burke and Nonis drafted the Sedins and Ryan Kesler, traded for Roberto Luongo and brought Alexandre Burrows up through their system. Burke did inherit the bulk of his Stanley Cup team from predecessor Bryan Murray but he also made two major acquisitions for Anaheim in defencemen Chris Pronger and Scott Niedermayer.
All right, I hear you, and I agree Burke still hasn’t built the big, truculent (he should copyright that word) team he promised. He still doesn’t have a goaltender because he impetuously gave the job to James Reimer and he still doesn’t have a No. 1 centre.
But there are useful parts in place. As head coach Randy Carlyle notes, confidence is the big problem.
Getting a good goaltender will go a long way toward fixing the confidence problem. It will be difficult because there will be no good free agents and it will probably cost that high first-round pick Leafs fans are expecting but it’s not impossible. Trading that pick for a good young goaltender such as Jonathan Bernier is worth the risk.
Burke also needs to look at some internal situations. Such as captain Dion Phaneuf and goaltending coach François Allaire.
The trade for Phaneuf was a good one because it only cost a bunch of spare parts. However, there are enough questions about Phaneuf’s leadership that the decision to name him captain needs to be re-examined. This will be tricky, since taking the C away and keeping the player rarely works out.
Burke also needs to think about Allaire, who preaches a butterfly-or-nothing approach. The common denominator in the woes of goaltenders Reimer and Jonas Gustavsson is Allaire. There is no shortage of NHL types who say the strict butterfly style is no longer effective in today’s game.