Brian Burke’s message wasn’t exactly a new one.
Even after four losing, playoff-less seasons, the Toronto Maple Leafs general manager highlighted the same issues with his roster as he always has in his season-ending address on Tuesday morning.
He wants to upgrade in goal, at centre and make his team bigger and harder to play against.
Which sounds an awful lot like a Brian Burke press conference from 2008 or so.
This was a “stay the course” type message, one where Burke gave a vote of confidence to the core of a team that finished with the fifth worst record in the NHL this season.
His comments came on the day that team owner Larry Tanenbaum took out a full page ad in every Toronto newspaper offering an apology to the team’s fan base.
“I’m trying to build a championship team here,” Burke said. “And that’s very hard to see here today, but the building blocks, the keys that you need – the Phil Kessels, the Joffrey Lupuls, the Jake Gardiners, the Dion Phaneufs, the second line – all those things have been put in place.
“And that’s what can’t be overlooked as you analyze and dissect a season. Even a season that’s marked by failure. I think we’re going in the right direction.”
Burke is a man on an island on that front of late, as his team won only seven of its final 29 games in crashing into the league basement in February and March.
The Leafs finished the season with the second worst team save percentage in the league, the second most goals allowed and the third worst penalty kill, which are all problems that have existed throughout Burke’s tenure.
Burke didn’t lay out exactly how he would attempt to fix what ails his team, only that he doesn’t see a solution in free agency and that he expects trades to be the best avenue for improving the Leafs.
He also indicated it was unlikely he would move the team’s first-round pick, which will be either first, fifth or sixth overall depending on Tuesday night’s draft lottery results.
Here were his key points in terms of his plans for the off-season:
1) “We need to address the size of the group and the compete level of the group. I like teams that go into buildings and dictate how games are played, not get dictated to. That’s going to change. I was very unhappy with [how we played in Boston]”
2) “Positionally, we have to look at the goaltending. It wasn’t good enough this year. I think that James Reimer is the real deal. I think we can still plan on him being a No. 1 guy, but we have to look at if we can bring in a guy that gives us more options and more performance right from the get-go next year.”
3) “There will be change. We think we have assets going into this period where we can address some of the positional needs that we have. We retained our assets to stay in good position to do that.”
4) “We’ve avoided doing those wonky contracts [in free agency]that I think are cap circumvention and it’s cost us a couple players. That’s not going to change. I intend to address the positional needs the old-fashioned way, which is through trades. Not through free agency. Looking at the pool, I can’t see a lot of impact [players]there.”
5) “I would say for us goaltending and a No. 1 centre would be the biggest positional needs.”
Few of the questions Burke faced on Tuesday were easy. One of the more interesting ones he was asked was why it has been so difficult to turn things around since he was hired in November of 2008.
Burke was the GM with the Anaheim Ducks for just under two years when that team won its first and only Stanley Cup in 2007.
“It’s not easy to fix a team that’s broken,” Burke said. “It’s not. And I had no illusions or delusions about that except that I watched general managers get up there the first day [they were hired]and say we’ve got a five-year plan... I don’t respect that.
“My view was I was hopeful we could do it quicker. We haven’t. But I haven’t changed the plan... We have more first-round picks [in the organization] than any other team in the NHL... It’s a young group, we haven’t gone old, we haven’t tried to band-aid things, we’ve tried to build them. But yes, it’s frustrating. It’s very difficult.
“I was in the playoffs seven straight years before I got here. This has been agonizing. I’m sure you can see it in my face – I haven’t slept in a month, two months. If fans think they’re disappointed, I can assure you the general manager is far more disappointed.”
Burke, however, also dismissed the route two other organizations have taken to success.
One was the rebuild undertaken by Florida Panthers GM Dale Tallon last summer, when he added nine new players – mostly via free agency – and the team went on to make the playoffs this season for the first time in 12 years.
The other was the scorched earth path taken by the Pittsburgh Penguins prior to the lockout, a strategy that relied on getting several very high draft picks over the course of four or five years.
The Penguins drafted Sidney Crosby in 2005 when the draft order was determined entirely by a lottery and went on to win the Stanley Cup a few years later in 2009.
“Pittsburgh model, my ass,” Burke said. “They won a god dammed lottery and they got the best player in the game. Is that available to me? Should we do that? Should we ask the league to have a lottery this year? And maybe we pick first.”
He then explained, at least in part, why he never promised one of those five-year rebuilds when he first arrived in Toronto three-and-a-half years ago.
“I’m not a patient person,” Burke said. “I was born impatient and I’m going to die impatient. I don’t like what’s happened here. I don’t like our lack of progress. Obviously I’m driving the bus, I’m ultimately responsible. I’m not happy with where we are today. I thought we’d be farther ahead than where we are right now.”
While Burke’s job is not in danger this off-season after receiving a mild vote of support from ownership, it’s highly likely that another playoff miss would mark his last season in Toronto, putting pressure on him to finally deliver in 2012-13.
Burke didn’t disagree Tuesday when asked whether he felt his job was on the line after so many years without success.
“Our jobs are always on the line,” he said. “You want to be a general manager in the NHL, your job’s always on the line. That’s a fact of life.”
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