Brian Burke would rather be hated than pitied.
Really, what else is there to take away from yesterday's open-ended invitation to John Tavares to hold the NHL's draft process hostage?
Using the opportunity presented by his postmortem for another Toronto Maple Leafs season out of the playoffs, the club's president and general manager made it clear he will move heaven, earth and maybe even Luke Schenn to get Tavares. Burke didn't even wait for the draft lottery to be held before saying he will try to move up from the Maple Leafs' position (seventh) in the June event.
"You go after the team right away as soon as you figure out the [draft]sequence," Burke said at a morning news conference at the Air Canada Centre. "When I've done this before, everybody got the guy they wanted."
Okay, it's a long way from a statement of intent to Tavares that Burke will try to orchestrate a Lindros-ian escape from one of the NHL's wastelands to a place where the game and Tavares actually matter. And don't trade in those Schenn jerseys yet because while Burke reminded everybody that "even Wayne Gretzky was traded," he also made it clear that Schenn was as close as anybody on the team to "untouchable."
Given Burke's track record in landing defenceman Chris Pronger for the Hartford Whalers in 1993 - it took two trades on the draft floor - and coming out of the 1999 draft with both Henrik and Daniel Sedin after dealing with four teams and essentially bullying then Tampa Bay Lightning GM Rick Dudley, it is a statement that is more than just empty bravado.
Just look at the way the Leafs are constructed. Before Burke took the dais yesterday, it was telling that head coach Ron Wilson rattled off Mikhail Grabovski, John Mitchell, Nikolai Kulemin and Schenn as core players. He quickly added that now healthy goaltender Vesa Toskala was not an entire waste of space, either. (Burke said he liked the fact that after he called Toskala out, "he told me to stick it.")
Burke talked up the U.S. college free agents he'd signed and wanted to sign. Later yesterday, the Leafs signed a U.S. college prospect, Swedish forward Viktor Stalberg of the University of Vermont Catamounts. Stalberg, who finished fifth in the NCAA with 24 goals this season, was named a Division 1 first-team All-American by the American Hockey Coaches Association. Burke also signed winger Robert Slaney of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League's Cape Breton Screaming Eagles. Slaney finished 10th in league scoring this season with 36 goals and 81 points.
At his news conference, Burke also made a cryptic reference to Grabovski, one of the few Leafs who plays bigger than his physical stature. Burke has had discussions with Grabovski's agent, Gary Greenstin, and the talks have "not been successful."
Hey, it's early, so no worries, right?
Burke went on from there, noting that even the worst team in the history of the NHL, the 1974-75 Washington Capitals, "had a leading scorer." Grabovski, he said pointedly, benefited from "situational ice time on a team that wasn't very competitive."
"You can never confuse those things when you're a player," Burke said. "I think players who play here for a long time confuse the media passion and attraction for this team with being a good hockey player. They come off the ice and there's 20 people want to talk to them. 'I must be a good hockey player.' No … they're waiting because you are a member of the Toronto Maple Leafs.
"There are players on this team - and who have played here before - who confuse their role on a team that's struggling with being a good hockey player. 'I'm on the second power-play unit … I must be a good hockey player!' No, we don't have a very good team, and so you get that ice time. We'll find out where that balance comes in, and whether a player's realistic about that assessment."
This is more than just bluster or good showmanship. Burke has a great deal of currency in these parts.
He's spat in the face of conventional wisdom that said the team's fan base wouldn't handle a garroting of the club. He's had the stones to back up his talk, and don't think the powers that be at Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment haven't noticed. He wants a bigger team, yet he has also made it clear he will keep this club light on its feet financially. The biggest strength of this franchise is its financial resources, and even if the salary cap bites hard, the Leafs are still going to be strong relative to every other team. Maybe even stronger.
So good on Burke. It's about time this franchise started tossing its weight around. Nobody has much liked the Maple Leafs around the NHL for years because they were viewed as underachieving, smug whiners and yappers. They were the rich kids on the block who kept cracking up daddy's Bimmer. If Burke has his way, there will be a whole new reason to hate this team in the next few years. The right phone call here. The proper whisper there …
So, John Tavares. How badly do you want to be a Maple Leaf?