It was just like old times.
Brian Burke, sitting in the Air Canada Centre press box, sporting a scowl, an unbuttoned top button on his shirt and watching on as the Toronto Maple Leafs took the ice.
The only change? A new haircut – with the term hockey hair not quite doing the look justice – and a new team, as he is still settling in as president of hockey ops with the Calgary Flames.
“It’s weird coming in here tonight,” Burke mused to Sportsnet during the first intermission. “You do take some satisfaction about beating teams that let you go for sure.”
That wasn’t how it played out.
Playing for their playoff lives, the Leafs pulled ahead with two goals early in the third period in what became a 3-2 win over a green Flames team, finally ending the agony of a season-killing eight-game losing streak.
Along the way, they got three goals from surprising sources – including David Clarkson’s breakaway winner that was only his fifth tally of the season – some depth scoring that has been sorely lacking all year.
The win boosts their faint playoff hopes to an 8.6 per cent chance, with a pivotal meeting with the Boston Bruins looming large on Thursday.
But the bigger story remained up in the executive suites.
What’s remarkable when you look back at the Burke era – which began 5 1/2 years ago with the bold proclamation that he had no patience for five-year rebuilds – is just how much it continues to haunt the Leafs.
Most of the foundation of the roster is leftover from his tenure. There’s captain Dion Phaneuf, top scorer Phil Kessel, James van Riemsdyk, Joffrey Lupul and Jake Gardiner, with all five added in high profile trades that will forever define the good of Burke’s time with the franchise.
Such as it was.
In his absence, the holdover management crew led by Dave Nonis has had very mixed results in attempting to improve the roster. The biggest plus has been the play of netminder Jonathan Bernier, but the minuses are considerable, with Clarkson’s cap-killing seven-year deal, a failure to bolster the blueline and, of course, this latest meltdown at a crucial point of the season.
While some have given Nonis a free pass due to the fact he has only been in the top job a mere 15 months, there’s a longer history involved here, too, one that matters when you dissect the mess Toronto’s year has become.
Nonis was Burke’s right-hand man essentially the entire trying time – hired away from Anaheim in December of 2008 – and the majority of the Leafs key executive staff are in the same boat.
Vice-president of hockey ops Dave Poulin arrived in the summer of 2009, and the Leafs proceeded to finish second last in the league without the benefit of a first-round pick.
Assistant GM Claude Loiselle joined the next off-season, and the following year was again a trying campaign, with a 22nd place finish in large part due to continued woes in goal.
Then came 2011-12, when the first so-called 18-wheeler went off the cliff, coach Ron Wilson was fired and the Leafs were finally able to benefit in some sense by drafting Morgan Rielly fifth overall.
(Burke was able to see some of his handiwork there in person on Tuesday as Rielly helped create Toronto’s second goal with a terrific foray into the offensive zone. Dave Bolland was ultimately credited with the goal after a Flames defender knocked it in.)
But that late-season collapse – almost exactly two years prior to this one – was ultimately the end of Burke’s time in Toronto.
Even if his presence lives on.
Tuesday’s game against Burke’s Flames marked the 428th regular season outing that Nonis has been a high ranking hockey exec with the Leafs, the equivalent of more than five 82-game seasons.
In that time, they’ve won just 190 times – or 36 per 82 games – and been the equivalent of an 83-point team in a league where 92 is the average.
How you apportion blame for what’s gone on over those years – including the Leafs playoff hopes once again being on life support, even after Tuesday’s win – is up for debate, but what’s noteworthy is just how involved Nonis was in high level decisions even back when Burke was in charge.
Several outside executives have noted, for one, that late in Burke’s tenure Nonis was the de facto GM, dealing with contract negotiations and acting as an influential counterbalance to his mentor’s more impulsive decision making.
What’s clear, too, is that both men view the game in a similar way. Like Burke, Nonis emphasizes size and toughness in his teams, and even went so far as to tailor his roster in the off-season to a likeminded coach in Randy Carlyle, a Burke hire whose head now sits on the firing line.
So while Burke may be long gone, off on another adventure, the Leafs mantra certainly appears largely unchanged, even in the face of all those losses over the years.
Nonis, Poulin and Loiselle have carried on a similar vision and it’s produced similar results, at least in the wake of last year’s successful half-season, with the roster that had been set when Burke was still involved.
In light of that, the biggest question facing new ownership is if this season is simply another chapter in a never-ending rebuild – one about to hit Year 6 with some familiar faces in charge – or something different altogether.
It’s not a pleasant one.
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