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Burke admits Leafs' season another failure

As far as Brian Burke press conferences go, this one hardly ranked as the most compelling theatre.

The Toronto Maple Leafs general manager made his season-ending address on Tuesday at the Air Canada Centre, speaking for nearly 30 minutes from a podium and then another 10 away from the cameras.

Normally 40 minutes of Burke would be too few for the many media covering the team, but this was different in that almost everything that was said could have been predicted weeks beforehand.

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The truth is, after three seasons out of the playoffs in Toronto, there's not much left for Burke to say.

Either he will land a top centre in the off-season or he won't. Either his coach - safe for at least another season - will improve their awful special teams or he won't.

And making the playoffs? Only time will tell if the young group that had a terrific 30-game run after the all-star break can keep that momentum going come October.

"I was in the playoffs seven straight years before I got here," Burke said. "This has been a long, slow tortuous process for me. I don't like it. I don't like being out of the playoffs and I take it personally. I'm sour about it."

Burke's been through rebuilds before, but in both Vancouver and Anaheim, the turnaround came quicker than this.

The Canucks, now the first-place darlings of the NHL, were back in the postseason after two years out under Burke. The Ducks, who won a Stanley Cup in his second season, never missed.

Three years is a new frontier. If it becomes four 12 months from now, Burke may be more than sour, as the good vibrations resonating after the Leafs' strong second half will be long forgotten.

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Burke knows that - and he knows he has a lot of work in front of him.

"When you miss the playoffs, your season is a failure," he said. "And that's the case here."

Asked Tuesday if he was confident about being able to land a No. 1 centre - the "top priority" he identified early in the proceedings - Burke was rather blunt.

"I'm not," he said. "We'll have to wait and see what's there is on July 1. Maybe we have to do it through a trade. We intend to be active on July 1, but we may not get our wish list on July 1. We won't be the only team being active, so we'll have to see."

Other than Dallas Stars centre Brad Richards, who will likely command a long-term, big dollar deal at age 31, it's hard to see what options Burke will have in free agency.

Tim Connolly is potentially available. Jason Arnott, Michal Handzus and other second- and third-tier options are, too.

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But Burke needs more of a home run, one that he has to know can only come via trade, especially if Richards proves uninterested or too much of a commitment. (Early indications are it may be both.)

The Leafs will have $14-million or more in cap space - "it's a lot," Burke said, "it's plenty" - even after signing their various free agents, all of which can essentially be spent on two key players in a centre and a puck-moving defenceman.

The problem, however, is that there may be very little of consequence to spend on - and that's not a new issue for this group.

"We haven't spent to the cap since I've been here," Burke said. "Not because ownership hasn't approved it but because we haven't seen a benefit to it. No sense just to spend money to spend money. If you spend money, it's to get better. We fully intend to spend to the cap if it's prudent. If it makes sense."

Not that that's been Burke's greatest source of aggravation in Toronto. No, the thing he has had the most difficulty hearing about is the ghosts of the past, the seven playoff-less seasons in a row and 44 years since a Stanley Cup.

Those obviously aren't all on the Leafs' latest caretaker, but he certainly feels that burden. And, for whatever progress has been made, the end goal of ending both droughts still seems far, far away.

"This group of athletes doesn't have to defend seven years," Burke said. "This group of athletes doesn't have to talk about 1967. The most frustrating thing for me in this marketplace is a question where you expect this group of athletes to apologize for failure that occurred before they ever got here. It's not right. And I told them I'm holding them accountable from the day they got here.

"So many years of no playoff success, I'll take responsibility for the ones on my watch. And I know fans are frustrated. Their clock is different than our clock. Our clock is how do we win a championship with this group starting with what we started with."

That clock may be behind that of the fans, but it's still ticking away. And when it runs out depends, in large part, in how Burke fares this summer.

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