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Leafs Beat

Red-hot Canucks have Leaf finger prints Add to ...

Brian Burke and Dave Nonis would never admit to it, but on Saturday night they will be permitted to look wistfully down at the opposition bench when their team meets the Vancouver Canucks.

After all, both men, now in charge of the sad-sack Toronto Maple Leafs, played a key role in guiding Vancouver from the bottom to the top of the NHL standings, adding piece after piece during their decade-long, back-to-back tenures as general manager of the Canucks.

The list of players remaining, in key roles, is a long one.

The Sedin twins were Burke picks, made following his first season after a bold gambit to land both the second and third overall selections in the draft. Four years later, with Vancouver climbing the standings, Burke chose Ryan Kesler as his first pick, 23rd overall.

Burke was fired in 2004, but Nonis, his right-hand man, picked up the reins, adding through the draft (Mason Raymond, Alex Edler, Kevin Bieksa, Cory Schneider) and one incredible trade (Roberto Luongo).

So it's with their fingerprints still all over the roster that the red-hot Canucks arrive at the Air Canada Centre, coming off a 7-1-0 run during which they have once again taken over the Northwest Division lead.

Burke's Leafs, meanwhile, are headed the other way, dropping 10 of their last 11 games with a lineup as thin offensively as Vancouver's is deep.

Foiled in a bid to acquire the Sedins when they nearly became free agents a year ago, Burke instead has to hope for offence from the likes of prospect Nazem Kadri, 20, whom Toronto recalled in the hopes he can provide "a spark" in these desperate times.

With his two-year anniversary in Toronto fast approaching, Burke said Friday he realizes he has not done the job to date.

"Someone asked me: 'Would you give yourself a high grade from the job you've done?'" Burke said. "I said 'How could you do that, the team finished 29th?'

"It would be pretty foolish of me to say I'm doing a great job. That being said, I do believe in the people I've brought in, I do believe in the people I've kept and I think this group can sort it out."

He has seen it before.

It may read like ancient history, but when Burke was first handed the Canucks' top job in 1998, Vancouver was Canada's basket-case franchise, mired in a similar rut as these Leafs. With new, foreign ownership and Mike Keenan (of all people) the interim GM, the Canucks finished with the NHL's third-worst record the season before Burke arrived.

In his first season, they fell from 64 to 58 points, landing in the territory required to draft at least one of the Sedins. The Canucks then began their rise, from 58 to 83 points in Burke's second campaign, to back to the playoffs in his third and, finally, over the 100-point plateau in his fifth and sixth seasons in Vancouver.

The franchise never had much playoff success, under Burke or Nonis, but they did progress, going from awful to contender in a handful of years.

They're still there, in some ways, averaging 98 points a season since Burke was given the boot.

That sort of long-range progression is hard to envision with the Leafs. This is a different era, with a salary-cap system and in a new city - one with higher expectations than Vancouver ever had in its forgettable, regrettable Mark Messier era.

"This isn't my first rodeo," Burke said. "This isn't the first time I've had a team struggle. I've had tough times before and I'm not panicking.

"If you want to take the bows when the team is winning, then you better take the heat when it's not winning. It is ultimately my responsibility. I drive the bus, I decide who gets on the bus, I decide who gets off the bus. If the bus is stuck in the ditch, then ultimately that's my responsibility."

Not only is the bus stuck, however, it has never left the ditch. While Burke's been here and pulled onto the highway before, the skeptics are growing by the day.

They're not particularly fond of ancient history.

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