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Top Shelf: GM role more about vision than intuition

Speculation on Brian Burke's future in Anaheim is a hot topic in Toronto. (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)

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Speculation on Brian Burke's future in Anaheim is a hot topic in Toronto. (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)

The Toronto Maple Leafs haven’t won the Stanley Cup in more than 40 years, but that doesn’t mean there haven’t been a lot of parade plans.

No fan base in the league has a more extensive history of citing second round playoff losses and helter-skelter free agent signings as evidence the Stanley Cup is speeding up Highway 401 on a collision course with Toronto.

Even in these extra-lean post-lockout years, Leafs fans have found a great blue-and-white hope in the form of a person who isn’t even an employee of the team.

That man, of course, is Brian Burke.

Speculation that Burke will eventually leave his post as GM of the Anaheim Ducks to join the Leafs never really dies in Toronto, but the fires were stoked this week because Anaheim was in town to visit the Buds.

This story won’t go away until Burke either inks the lucrative extension he’s been offered by the Ducks (he says he’ll decide by December) or signs on for one of the most high-risk, high-reward positions in sport, GM of the Toronto Maple Leafs.

High risk because there is no easier way to sully a stellar reputation than by exposing it to the mess that’s been the Leafs over the past multiple decades. High reward because if you’re the person who can actually provide the guest of honor at a championship parade, it’s safe to say you’ll never have to buy a drink in Toronto again.

But if you’re naïve enough to think any GM – even one with a track record like Burke’s – can take over a team and automatically deliver a championship, you’re also in great danger of being duped by a magic bean vendor.

Running a hockey team is like trying to hit Major League Baseball pitching; smack that ball every third time you’re up and you’re Hall of Fame bound. In both endeavors, the odds simply aren’t in your favor.

That speaks to the fact Burke has delivered a championship in one of the three cities where he held the GM post. There are simply too many other good teams, sharp executives and intangibles that can roll the wrong way to guarantee results. Unless you’ve channeled the ghost of Sam Pollock, you’re never going to outsmart everybody.

But what any good GM in the league must have to foster any hope of success is vision and fortitude. There are multiple paths to glory and it’s the GM’s job to identify the one he feels best suits his team and execute moves that consistently keep with the game plan.

GMs operate under a heap of pressure, be it from ownership, fans and media or simply the high standards they all hold themselves to. Theirs is a job that requires enough backbone to overcome a lot of influences, including self-doubt and league trends, in order to stay the given course.

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What if Detroit GM Ken Holland believed the hype about his best players simply not being tough enough to win a title? Don’t forget, the logic du jour after the Fighty Ducks won the ’07 Cup was the championship equation requires a hearty dose of intimidation.

Holland wasn’t buying. He stuck with Henrik Zetterberg and Pavel Datsyuk, and now hordes of people believe a puck-possession game is the pony to ride.

Bob Gainey decided last year that his No. 1 goalie simply wasn’t good enough, so despite the fact his team was at the top of the Eastern Conference standings, he traded Cristobal Huet at the deadline.

My guess is Gainey didn’t think his team was going to win it all last year no matter who played goal, so he moved Huet and ensured some playoff experience for Carey Price, the guy he believes will be in net when the Canadiens are a true contender. It was an unconventional move that drew some ire at the time, but early this season Montreal has one of the best goalie tandems in the league.

Is Doug Risebrough spending his nights gazing up at the stars in Minnesota wondering what to do about Marian Gaborik? No sir – it’s sign this or pack your bags.

Yes, being a shrewd evaluator of talent is a highly profitable skill for a GM to possess, but the truth is, it’s far more important to surround yourself with the right people to help make calls on players, especially at the amateur level.

Again, see Holland, Ken.

The most crucial part of a GM’s job is the ability to synthesize information, devise a scheme, make the appropriate moves and have the courage to live with the consequences.

Brian Burke wouldn’t be a good GM in Toronto because he doesn’t make mistakes or can’t be fleeced in a trade. He’d be a good GM because he’d arrive, plan-in-hand, ready for action.

If he believed a complete ground-zero rebuild was required, he’d immediately ask Los Angeles GM Dean Lombardi what he thought of Vesa Toskala’s play, while sending out a mass email reminding every colleague in the NHL that Tomas Kaberle has a cap hit of just $4.25 million through 2010-11.

There would be no waffling; no second-guessing – just strict adherence to a well-constructed code.


Ryan Dixon is a writer and copy editor for The Hockey News magazine, the co-author of the book Hockey's Young Guns and a regular contributor to THN.com. His blog appears Wednesdays and his column, Top Shelf, appears Fridays.

For more great profiles, news and views from the world of hockey, Subscribe to The Hockey News magazine.

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