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Toronto Maple Leafs General Manager Brian Burke is approaching his third anniversary with the NHL club. FILE PHOTO: THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chris Young (Chris Young/CP)
Toronto Maple Leafs General Manager Brian Burke is approaching his third anniversary with the NHL club. FILE PHOTO: THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chris Young (Chris Young/CP)

Leafs Beat

Brian Burke hits three-year mark with Leafs flying high Add to ...

It’s safe to say Brian Burke is enjoying his three-year anniversary in Toronto a little more than No. 2.

Not that that should be all that difficult.

A year ago on Nov. 29, the Toronto Maple Leafs GM had little to show for all his changes. His team was in the midst of what would become a 9-19-3 slide, sitting third last in the Eastern Conference and fourth last in the NHL.

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Along with his coach, Burke was taking criticism from all sides, as Toronto appeared well on its way to the lottery draft – without a pick – for the second year in a row.

How quickly things have changed in a year.

Coming off an impressive 3-1-0 road trip, the Leafs are now 14-8-2, leading their division and sitting second in the conference after 24 games.

They’re on pace for 103 points – enough to match the franchise’s high – albeit with 70 per cent of the season still to play.

What has made Toronto’s run all the more impressive, however, is that it picked up from the tail end of last season. With Burke’s house cleaning essentially complete after he shipped long-time Leaf Tomas Kaberle out, his club became one of the hottest teams in the league.

In fact, since the all-star break last season, only two teams have put up more than the Leafs’ 72 points: The San Jose Sharks, with 76, and the Vancouver Canucks with 73.

Only the Chicago Blackhawks and Buffalo Sabres, meanwhile, have scored more goals in that span, as Toronto has surprisingly found the back of the net roughly three times a game ever since adding Joffrey Lupul last February.

They have, in short, become the exciting team Burke promised when he was introduced as GM exactly three years ago – even if flaws remain in their game.

The Leafs also look remarkably like a group that will be playing meaningful hockey in April, whether it’s to clinch a playoff spot or finally, unbelievably, play in the postseason for the first time since 2004.

Several of Burke’s key gambles have gotten them there, with the acquisition of the team’s top three scorers – Phil Kessel, Dion Phaneuf and Lupul – all coming within a year and a half of one another.

Add in names like Tim Connolly, John-Michael Liles and Clarke MacArthur, and you’ve got a group of six players in key roles after their former clubs chose to show them the door.

With each one, there’s been a skill to evaluating what’s there, to seeing something that their teams missed.

With Phaneuf especially, Burke was intimately involved in digging up just why he was being made available – and if he (or one of the Flames’ veterans) was to blame for the locker-room feud in Calgary.

(That Burke then made Phaneuf his captain mere months after acquiring him speaks volumes as to what he found.)

Picking out players like that takes time. And, looking back, it’s worth noting that one of the first things the Leafs GM asked for in Toronto was patience to get the job done.

He knew it wasn’t going to be easy.

“Changing the general manager doesn’t change the team,” Burke said. “It doesn’t change a lot of things. It’s going to take some time and some patience.

“Changing the general manager doesn’t change the roster we’re going to dress tonight. It doesn’t change the record of our team. It doesn’t change the chapters of history with unfulfilled expectations that preceded today.

“What it does represent though is a turning of the page. For me, we’re turning the page and now we get to write on blank pages and make changes and get this team to where it needs to be.”

What Burke’s written to date isn’t Shakespeare. The Leafs still take a lot of chances and allow a lot of goals. They haven’t killed penalties well for years and seem to be picked apart by teams like the Boston Bruins, who they’ll face back-to-back in their only games this week.

What is on those pages, however, reads like progress, as they have two of the league’s top scorers, a captain playing like a No. 1 defenceman and a young team on pace to make the playoffs.

It took three years to get here – and being a Stanley Cup contender is a ways off – but the man in charge has far fewer people calling for his head than at this time a year ago.

He’s earned a little more time and a little more patience.





Top teams since 2011 all-star break *

Teams

GP

W

L

OTL

Pts

1

San Jose

52

36

12

4

76

2

Vancouver

55

36

18

1

73

3

Buffalo

56

33

17

6

72

4

Chicago

56

32

16

8

72

5

Pittsburgh

56

32

16

8

72

6

Toronto

57

32

17

8

72

7

New Jersey

55

34

18

3

71

8

Washington

53

33

17

3

69

9

Boston

54

32

17

5

69

10

Los Angeles

55

30

16

9

69



*- entering Monday’s games

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