Brian Burke set to become new Leaf GM
As a GM, Burke needs no introduction. His sole year as GM of the Hartford Whalers in 1992-93 was not noteworthy except for the drafting of Chris Pronger, but his star began to really take off when he took over the reins of the Vancouver Canucks in 1997. In six seasons, Burke took a similarly moribund Canucks team and transformed them into division champions, dethroning the powerhouse Colorado Avalanche for the Northwest Division title in 2003-04 after coming up short in 2002-03. In 2005, Burke assumed the same role for the Ducks, reviving the fortunes of the 2003 Cup Finalists and bringing the Stanley Cup to the Pacific Coast in 2007 after a five game rout of the Ottawa Senators. So it comes as no surprise that when the Leafs not so secretly began to court Burke that excitement began to build in Leafland.
The first question that arose in Toronto after the news broke is what kind of team Burke is going to build. This one is murky. There was the thought that since the Ducks won the 2007 Stanley Cup with a rough-and-tumble approach that he would do the same in Toronto but the Ducks had already assembled that kind of team in the years previously and Burke just added to it, since Burke didn’t especially go out of his way to acquire big players. Furthermore, the Canucks weren’t known for being an overtly gritty bunch, since their top forwards were primarily finesse players (the Sedin twins, Markus Naslund, Mattias Ohlund, Brendan Morrison). One aspect does stick out in both teams and that is speed- Burke’s teams tended to be very quick and offensively minded, with strong puck-moving defencemen. A bit of that nucleus already exists in Toronto, with the existence of Tomas Kaberle and Anton Strahlman on the backend and up front with the likes of newcomer Lee Stempniak and Jason Blake. The Leafs do lack that punishing, “shutdown” defender right now but Luke Schenn seems poised to eventually become that defenceman in the future.
The second question is one that leaves no doubt- how well Burke is going to do. There is no hint of a doubt in my mind that Burke will restore the Leafs to relevancy. Critics have pointed out the Cup-winning Ducks team was already essentially assembled when Burke took over, but they miss the fact that Burke added three key elements to that Cup run during his tenure- Scott Niedermayer, Chris Pronger and Francois Beauchemin. Yes, Niedermayer was likely to sign with Anaheim anyway because he had a desire to play with his brother Rob; and Pronger essentially fell into his lap because Mr. Pronger couldn’t stand up to the Mrs., but the Beauchemin deal was an astute one. In one of the greatest swindles of recent memory, Burke dealt the declining Sergei Fedorov to the Columbus Blue Jackets early in 2005-06 for the rights to Beauchemin, who only blossomed into the perfect compliment to Pronger, a bruising defenceman who just happened to have a cannon from the point. There are blunders from his days in Anaheim (for example, the Mathieu Schnieder deal he was forced to make because he mismanaged the salary cap), but Burke’s innovation led to the Ducks’ ultimate victory.
The bigger quarry into Burke’s skill is his days with the Canucks. In the early 1990s, the Canucks were NHL powers, being division winners in 1992-93 and Cup Finalists in 1993-94, but then fell on hard times, becoming the NHL’s worst team by 1997-98. In three short years, Burke had the Canucks back in the playoffs, pulling off three major deals in the process. First, he dealt the declining Trevor Linden and Alexander Mogilny to the New York Islanders and New Jersey Devils (respectively) for Bryan McCabe and Todd Bertuzzi (from the Islanders) and Morrison (from the Devils) late in 1997-98. Then, midway through the 1998-99 season, he traded the disgruntled Pavel Bure to the Florida Panthers in a package of players that netted him Ed Jovanovski. Finally, on Draft Day 1999, he sent McCabe to the Chicago Blackhawks to land the third overall draft pick, allowing him to simultaneously announce the drafting of Henrik and Daniel Sedin. Coupled with the already-present Naslund and Ohlund, those players served as the core of a Canucks team that almost overnight became a Stanley Cup contender. What kept the Canucks from converting on their full potential was his failure to land a goaltender, but if there was any question that Burke couldn’t build a team “from scratch” (as he had to in Vancouver and will in Toronto), all you have to do is look at the Canucks and see the answer.
Whether or not the Leafs will win the Cup with Burke at the helm will depend on how patient Leaf fans will be (who knows after what will likely be 41 seasons without the Cup) and how much autonomy Burke will actually receive from the meddling MLSE (who seemed to stop caring after the Leafs became a playoff team during the Pat Quinn and the first Cliff Fletcher administrations). However, there’s no question that Burke brings with him a winning attitude and a knack for finding skill that few of his peers can match, which is only going to be refreshing in victory-starved Leafland.