Brian Burke’s Worst Moves as Leafs’ GM

Published by Mark on Monday, December 6, 2010 — View Comments

Toronto Maple Leafs
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Brian Burke has stated he intends to rebuild the Leafs, but on an accelerated timeline. Why wait 5 years for a draft pick who may never be good enough for the NHL, when you can trade those picks and acquire players. In theory, this would make your team more competitive, more quickly. Unfortunately, the current Maple Leafs are attempting to disprove that theory. After so much anticipation among Leaf fans, that a top-flight GM was in town, the Toronto Maple Leafs are wallowing at the depths of the standings and the prospects for improvement look bleak.

While Brian Burke has made some good moves with this franchise, he’s appeared to make some serious errors in judgment. It is early to completely evaluate everything. But, at the 2 year-mark in Burke’s tenure, it’s a sad thing to know there are at least 5 moves that can be called his worst.

5. April 13, 2009. Burke states publicly his intention to trade up from the 7th draft selection in the 2009 draft, in an attempt to acquire John Tavares.

Brian Burke was early in his tenure as GM. Looking to rebuild his team, the ambition to draft the best player available would likely be a positive step. So, why have I listed this as Burke’s 5th Worst Move?

Well, first, Burke’s reputation preceded him. He did manage to make a significant deal while GM in Vancouver, trading to draft the Sedins one after the other. Other GMs would would not want to be the goat letting Burke do a similar thing, especially since he announced his intent publicly prior to the draft. Secondly, Burke really didn’t have much in the way of assets, other than the 7th pick, to deal. The Leafs were not loaded with young talent that made other teams sit up and drool. Third, the Islanders, holders of the first overall pick, are also in constant rebuild. It would have taken a mammoth deal for them to give up the best young player available. Lastly, Brian Burke’s announcement made it appear that a long rebuild, using the draft, was the plan. That plan was apparently abandoned a few months later as Burke traded his next 2 first round draft choices for Phil Kessel.

Ultimately, the Leafs were unable to move up at all. With Tavares, Hedman, Duchene, Kane and Brayden Schenn (a coveted player by the Leafs, as Luke was drafted the year previous) drafted ahead of him, Nazem Kadri was taken, saddled with not only the pressure of being the first round pick, but ‘the guy we had to settle for’.

4. Jun 30, 2010. Burke acquires Kris Versteeg and the rights to Bill Sweatt from the Chicago Blackhawks in exchange for Viktor Stalberg, Phillippe Paradis, and Chris DiDomenico.

This deal may yet work in Burke’s favour. Versteeg has been better of late, getting to a more respectable 7G, 7A, for 14 points. In fairness Stalberg’s numbers are a bit inflated, as he does get some time to play with Kane and Toews, which of course would not exist in Toronto. And, neither Paradis nor DiDomenico are on fire in their respective situations right now. Neither may ever make the NHL as a regular.

From my perspective, it’s a bad deal. Versteeg is a player who can help a team, even a rebuilding team. He’s played on a Cup-winner. He’s young, and he’s scored a few goals. But, as yet, he has not evolved into a player the Leafs want him to be, a first-line, 25-30 goal winger. He did well in Chicago, a team with Kane, Toews, Byfuglien, Sharp, Hossa… in other words, a lot of other weapons. As it turns out, now Stalberg is playing in Chicago and experiencing much the same kind of success. To me, that means Versteeg and Stalberg, though they may differ in temperment, are at about the same level.

But, Burke also gave up 2 additional prospects. He did get Bill Sweatt in return, but somehow, Sweatt either didn’t want to play here, or the Leafs didn’t really want him, or they wanted Marcel Mueller more. Either way, Sweatt was not signed. Paradis (which cost Jiri Tlusty, also not in the NHL these days) and DiDomenico may never pan out, but on a rebuilding team, they’d be 2 more potential NHLers given time to develop. As Paradis is still in junior, and DiDomenico is just into his first pro season, it was far too early to have a clear picture on where they’d end up.

3. Jul 1, 2009. Burke acquires Colin Stuart and Garnet Exelby from the Atlanta Thrashers in exchange for Pavel Kubina and Tim Stapleton

I never liked this deal from the start. Maybe I overvalue Kubina, maybe I underestimate the impact of his cap number. But all in all, I felt that Burke simply gave away a pretty decent asset.

Tim Stapleton is not currently an NHL regular, and Colin Stuart was traded to Calgary with Anton Stralman and a 7th round pick for Wayne Primeau and a 2nd round pick in 2011. Primeau filled in well as a 4th liner for a year, and a 2nd round pick is something that can yield a return for the Leafs. Stralman was flipped to Columbus for a 3rd round draft pick. The Stapleton for Stuart part of the deal, to me, winds up fairly equal.

Which leaves Kubina for Exelby. Burke wants ‘pugnacity, truculence, tenacity, belligerence’. Exelby, at least on paper, brings that over Kubina any day. But, one-for-one, a decent puck mover, with a heavy shot, Kubina has to hold more value than Exelby. Even factoring the cap implications, wasn’t there a way to maybe move Kubina for a second round pick, keep Stralman and Stapleton, and just avoid getting Primeau? You’re thinking sure, but then you don’t get Exelby. What’s the difference? Leafs lost a key defenceman to injury in Komisarek, Exelby still only managed to play in 51 games, contributing a goal and 3 assists, with only 73 penalty minutes. After one season, they let him walk, and he’s tried out with the Rangers, been let go, and currently plays for Chicago’s AHL affiliate. Kubina on the other hand, put up 6 goals and 28 assists in Atlanta, and Stralman put up the same numbers in Columbus.

2. Summer 2010. Burke is unable to trade Tomas Kaberle during the suspension of his NTC.

Simply put, it would appear Burke overestimated the rate of return for Kaberle. In the end, Burke let it be known that unless he got what he felt was a proper deal, he would keep Kabby for the final year of his contract.

The trouble is, Burke already went out and traded for Phaneuf, and signed Lebda to a 2 year deal. Don’t get me wrong. I like Kaberle. I know he’s not as good as some fans make him out to be. I know he’s not at all physical, makes mistakes, doesn’t shoot enough. I have no problem with him being a lifelong Maple Leaf. But, Brian Burke set the whole thing up in a way to use Kaberle, a puck mover with an expiring contract and still young at 32, to upgrade his forwards. As Kaberle’s NTC came back into play, the Leafs suddenly had a lot of cap money tied to the blueline, with Komisarek, Beauchemin, Phaneuf, Kaberle, Schenn, Gunnarsson and Lebda, as well as Keith Aulie. And, no upgrade at forward.

We don’t know what was offered for Kaberle. Perhaps it really was so little as to not be worthwhile. However, as Kabby approaches the end of his contract, is it likely to think that his trade value is going to rise? At the trade deadline, will the Leafs get a better offer? Or worse, will Kaberle not waive his NTC, and walk, meaning the Leafs are unable to acquire anything but cap space? And, could the team have been better served by having Gunnarsson and Lebda playing as regulars, maybe with Aulie as a 7th?

1. Sep 18, 2009. Burke acquires Phil Kessel from the Boston Bruins in exchange for Toronto’s 1st round choice 2010 (2nd overall, Tyler Seguin), Toronto’s 2nd round choice (32nd overall, Jared Knight), Toronto’s 1st round choice 2011 (pending).

It’s a popular choice to make this number 1. And an easy one. I don’t think Phil Kessel is a bad player. He simply is what he is, a sniper who lacks for an all-around game, and who thrives when paired with a skilled centreman. But I think there are 3 reasons why it’s a bad deal.

The first is that Burke acquired Kessel and has not acquired anything else to compliment him so that his talents are maximized. In other words, a skill centre, a faceoff machine, a slick passer. He signed Tyler Bozak, drafted Nazem Kadri. But 25 games into this season, it’s shown that neither of these players is a top-flight centre in the NHL (yet). Kessel is a sniper now. That’s why Burke got him. He has shown he can score at the NHL level. You cannot put him with a player who is learning to be a passer. He needs a player who is already an NHL level first line centre. Someone to compliment his talents. It’s a little like building a high-end hot rod engine, then dropping it into a chassis that still needs the rotting floors and frame rails replaced, and calling it a show car.

Secondly, even if Kessel goes on to score 50 goals each season in the years he’s a Leaf, this team was not at a point where a 50 goal scorer was going to help them climb the standings. There’s just not enough supporting talent.

Thirdly, the price of 3 high draft choices was simply too much. People do argue that the Leafs were not supposed to finish 29th under the plan. It’s somewhat immaterial, because even the most optimistic fan could have seen that the Leafs best would get them no higher than 20th overall. That equates to the 2010 picks being no worse than 10th and 40th. And at those spots, it’s pretty likely Boston would get a decent player. The 2011 pick might have been lower (thought it looks like it will be top 5 now). Tie it back to the first 2 points, and ultimately, even in an accelerated rebuild, 3 high draft choices would have been more valuable to the leafs than one sniper.

In conclusion though Brian Burke has only been on the job 2 years, and there’s been some positives, the 5 moves above have set the team further behind in it’s development. It’s not possible to know what might have been in terms of had one trade or another been made (or not made), but 25 games or so into the 2010-2011 season, the Maple Leafs remain at the bottom of the standings, and have let a few prospects go to other teams, while missing out on the chance to twice draft what usually turn out to be blue-chip type players. Burke needs to re-evaluate his plan and stop thinking that Leafs fans need appeasement now. What Leaf fans need is a strong franchise, stocked with the best talent it can get.