Brian Burke was hired as GM of the Maple Leafs on Nov. 29, 2008. (Photo by Richard Wolowicz/Getty Images)
Whether it was because of his personality or his performance, Brian Burke deserved to be fired. It’s as simple as that, really.
Let’s start with personality. The Leafs are under new ownership, being guided now by Canada’s two most powerful media conglomerates. If one or both did not like Burke's style or clashed with him or found him to not be able to play with others, then they were fully within their rights to let him go. As Leafs executive Tom Anselmi pointed out, the relationship between ownership and the GM has to be smooth and in this case it clearly was not. The timing is bizarre to say the least, but the fact they did it is not.
When it comes to performance, it’s easy to make the case that Burke deserved to lose his job. There have been very few GMs who over-promised and under-delivered the way Burke did. Burke took over as GM of the Leafs on Nov. 29, 2008 and since then his team has had a 129-135-42 record with zero playoff appearances. Not good enough.
Your trusty correspondent believes that the end came rather early for Burke in Toronto. The exact day was Sept. 18, 2009 when he acquired Phil Kessel from the Boston Bruins for two first round picks and a second-rounder. That was the day Burke traded in all the currency he had and not only foolishly accelerated the building plan, but did it with a player who had neither the results nor the personality to be a go-to guy.
Burke made his most fatal mistakes early because he misjudged the Toronto market. If anyone had the latitude to take his time to do a proper rebuild, it was Burke. But instead, he was convinced that a market that has displayed nothing but unconditional love for this team despite the fact it has won nothing in four-plus decades would not have the patience for a rebuild. And in making the Kessel trade, he set the franchise back for years. Nobody could have predicted the Leafs would have finished second-last that season, but even if they had been better, the 2010 draft that saw them lose Tyler Seguin still produced players such as Nino Niederreiter, Jeff Skinner, Mikael Granlund, Cam Fowler, Brandon Gormley and Evgeny Kuznetsov. And they would not have lost the chance to draft Dougie Hamilton the next year.
Burke made it clear many times during his tenure with the Leafs that he is a man of principle when it comes to hockey matters. That’s what prevented him from signing Kessel to an offer sheet. (Which would have still resulted in the Leafs losing Seguin, but not Hamilton.) That’s what kept him from signing back-sliding contracts while every other team in the league was doing it. That prompted him to impose his own Christmas roster freeze. Noble concepts to be sure, but did they did absolutely nothing to enhance the Maple Leafs’ chances of getting better. Essentially, Burke took the two most prominent advantages he had – time and the ability to spend to the cap – and frittered them away with ill-advised moves. And for a guy who talked so tough, he didn’t exactly prove to be a hard-nosed negotiator when it came to doling out player contracts.
We may never know what his stance was on dealing for Roberto Luongo, but Burke failed to address the goaltending issue by attempting to deal for a proven goaltending commodity. Instead, he stubbornly insisted that a goaltending corps of James Reimer, Ben Scrivens and Jussi Rynnas was good enough to fill the most important position in the game. And the same person who placed so much of a premium on character made the cornerstones of his franchise Kessel and Dion Phaneuf. Feel free to discuss amongst yourselves.
That is not to give Burke the short shrift on some of the good things he did in Toronto. The actual acquisition of Phaneuf was a wise one, as was his trade for Joffrey Lupul and Jake Gardiner. He has been credited for restocking the Leafs prospect ranks and he does deserve some props for that, but the Leafs still ranked only 20th of 30 teams in THN’s Future Watch edition last year. Nazem Kadri has yet to prove he can consistently perform at an NHL level and Joe Colborne has four goals in 31 American League games this season. Defenseman Morgan Rielly looks promising, but all the Leafs did to get him was finish with the fifth-worst record in the NHL last season. And despite the fact Rielly played just 18 games last season, Burke was publicly stating that he thought the 18-year-old could be rushed into the NHL after the lockout.
Burke is a political animal and a close ally of NHL commissioner Gary Bettman. His fingerprints are all over the new collective bargaining agreement in the form of provisions for teams to retain salary in trades and to retroactively penalize teams who have buried big contracts in the minors. So it’s safe to assume he’ll find a landing place somewhere, either with the league head office or a team that needs a brash manager to sell hope and tickets.
And he may very well succeed again. But it wasn’t going to happen in Toronto. Certainly not now, and probably not ever.
Ken Campbell is the senior writer for The Hockey News and a regular contributor to THN.com with his column. To read more from Ken and THN's other stable of experts, subscribe to The Hockey News magazine. Follow Ken on Twitter at @THNKenCampbell.