Brian Burke started his postmortem press conference Tuesday with his own apology for Toronto Maple Leafs fans, but it wasn’t too long before the general manager showed some defiance.
It came after he was asked about trying to build through the draft by finishing at the bottom of the NHL for several years – like the Pittsburgh Penguins did in getting Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin et al – which allowed Burke to haul out a favourite old rant.
“They won a … damn lottery and they got the best player in the game,” Burke snapped. “The Pittsburgh model, my [behind]”
There were a few other pugnacious words: “My view on how hockey teams are built and how hockey games are won has not changed. I still believe big, physical teams win hockey games.
“I’m not interested in making the playoffs unless it’s as part of a championship. That’s the goal here. It seems a mile away, I understand that. I can see people shaking their heads, but that is the goal.”
However, Burke’s demeanour suggested he is feeling the heat every bit as much as his boss, Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment Ltd. chairman Larry Tanenbaum, who issued his now-famous apology for the 2011-12 season a day earlier.
Burke’s florid complexion and relatively subdued manner suggested a man under much strain and, at one point, he admitted: “This is agonizing. I haven’t slept in a month, two months.”
The problem is, along with trying to find a way to solve the Leafs’ problems, Burke is battling a perception. The vast Toronto audience is convinced the only solution is to blow it up, as the armchair GMs love to say. Such conviction is fuelled by an anger rarely seen among Leafs fans, despite many, many years of failure.
The rage springs from the fans’ belief they were finally promised a spot in the playoffs after six years of watching other teams in the Stanley Cup tournament. When that hope evaporated in a stunning fall from grace in the last two months of the season, the reaction was visceral and sustained.
There is no doubt Burke is now at the most critical point of his 3 ½-year tenure. If he cannot get the Maple Leafs headed in the right direction next season, there is a good chance the incoming Bell and Rogers ownership honchos will prepare the ejector seat.
In both Burke and head coach Randy Carlyle’s media sessions it was obvious they believe the team’s two biggest problems are backbone and confidence. There is very little of the former, with the Leafs’ humiliating 8-0 loss in Boston to the Bruins last month brought up as Exhibit A, and none of the latter.
The priorities in making changes are a new No. 1 goaltender, a No. 1 centre and some bigger, meaner forwards. Burke had kind words for incumbent goaltender James Reimer but it’s clear the search is on for a new starter. Jonas Gustavsson, an unrestricted free agent this summer, is practically gone.
But with a thin free-agent market ahead, Burke said his moves will come via trades.
He said he will not sacrifice the team’s first-round pick for a young goaltender and believes he has enough assets to fill all of his positional needs. He also could not promise to open salary cap space by burying some big contracts in the minor leagues because no one knows if the new collective agreement expected next season will allow it.
At this point, Burke is unwilling to identify which players are untouchable, although he listed Phil Kessel, Joffrey Lupul, Jake Gardiner, Dion Phaneuf and the second line of Mikhail Grabovski, Nikolai Kulemin and Clarke MacArthur as “building blocks.”
On the positive side, more than one NHL pro scout is of the opinion a good goaltender will solve a lot of Toronto’s problems, particularly the absence of confidence. Fix the confidence and some of the other problems will go away, too.
However, Burke has to be careful. For example, the St. Louis Blues and Phoenix Coyotes found unlikely goaltending solutions in Brian Elliott and Mike Smith, respectively, but Burke will not be able to sell any reclamation gambles to Leafs Nation.
Burke is willing to admit landing the big No. 1 centre is also no easy task, but says finally getting bigger and meaner is within reach. He went back to that awful game in Boston as an example.
“How many big, physical players for Boston were menacing in that game?” he said. “About four. And the rest of the guys feed off that. You don’t need 20 big guys, you need four or five.”