The Vancouver Canucks' Brian Burke likes to speak his mind, which is how he came to describe himself as a "lame-duck" general manager on the air this week, something few National Hockey League GMs would do, even if it were the truth.
As a manager without a contract beyond July 1, Burke is clearly a lame duck. Burke also went on to say the uncertainty over his future with the team wouldn't compromise his work leading up to the NHL's trade deadline and the playoffs. That is also true.
Now, Burke's value to the Canucks would rise if the team he built from the ground up made some noise in the 2004 postseason, which is why his focus from now until the March 9 trade deadline is to tweak his lineup to see what, if any, upgrades are available.
The larger issue is why did the Canucks' ownership let it get to this point in the first place? Burke joined the club in June of 1998 as the president and general manager, assuming control of a 64-point team that had finished in seventh (last) place in the Pacific Division, 18 games under. 500.
Within two years, they were a .500 club and now have made the playoffs in three successive seasons, going from 90 to 94 to 104 points in the standings.
Beyond overseeing the on-ice improvements, the Canucks have also turned the corner off the ice. They can't sell any more season tickets (in the past year, their base jumped to 16,400 from 11,900). He also introduced a successful pay-per-view initiative, he got the club involved in the lottery business and he's succeeded in signing his star players (Markus Naslund, Todd Bertuzzi and Ed Jovanovski) to long-term contracts in the $5-million to $7-million a year range, when players of comparable, or even lesser achievements, were getting in the $8-million to $10-million range.
Part of Burke's ability to make the collective agreement work was the fact that he and the league's former chief legal counsel, Jeff Pash, were the two major architects of the current agreement. Presumably, whatever new NHL economic order emerges, Burke's knowledge of the inner workings of collective bargaining suggests he will be better equipped than many of his peers to figure out the pros and cons of the new deal.
Accordingly, it's hard to see this as anything more than careless foot-dragging on the part of an organization that should know better. On the other hand, in an NHL world that rewards the likes of Glen Sather with seven-year contracts, you just never know, do you?
Popular hockey commentator Don Cherry will have to retire eventually, and when he does, who will inherit his coveted position as the focal point of the Hockey Night in Canada between-periods show? How would the Red Wings' Brett Hull sound? Hull is scheduled to make his second appearance in three weeks on Saturday on the CBC's Satellite Hot Stove segment and suggested this week that he'd "love nothing better" than to work in television when his playing career is over. Hull described his first experience on the segment as "a lot of fun" and he works well in front of the camera. Most important, though, Hull possesses the No. 1 quality needed to step into someone like Cherry's shoes -- he has opinions, lots of them. In an era when most athletes are afraid to comment on the state of the weather for fear of alienating someone, Hull doesn't mind saying what's on his mind.
Even though they are long gone from the playoff race, don't expect the Carolina Hurricanes to be especially active at the trade deadline. The reason: Their most marketable assets don't want to go anywhere as rent-a-players, and because they have no-trade clauses in their contracts, they are in a position to say no to any overtures that come their way. Centre Rod Brind'Amour was virtually untradeable because of his contract anyway (a five-year, $24-million contract that runs until 2006-07). Ron Francis doesn't want to go anywhere, either, even though the Boston Bruins would love to pick him up for the playoffs to take some scoring pressure off Joe Thornton. Ideally, the Bruins see Brian Rolston as a quality No. 3 centre, but believe they need to upgrade their second line (especially with the concern about Sergei Samsonov's health) to make any kind of playoff noise. Jeff O'Neill could be on the move if someone was interested in a "hockey deal" (this year's phrase of choice, heading into the trade deadline), but his mediocre statistics and outspoken nature make him something less than a prize catch.