What Happened to the Leafs?
Trade deadline day is an overhyped media circus. It’s hard on the players, hard on the fans, and particularly hard on the GM’s. They’re the ones that have to answer to the media at the end of the day and try and justify what they did or didn’t do. The biggest example of this is with Brian Burke in Toronto. Leafs Nation is impatient. They suffer from A.D.D., O.C.D., and they all have a Ph.D. They want, what they want, when they want it… until they don’t want it anymore. Which makes Brian Burke the perfect GM for Toronto. He speaks his mind, wheels and deals, and always has a game plan (which he can blow up at any time). But mainly, he wants to win a cup, and he will do whatever it takes to get there. That includes being a major player on trade deadline day, free agent day, and throughout the offseason. Which is also what the fans crave whether or not it actually helps the team or future of the franchise.
This year though, Burke was very quiet. We all know he was going after the “big fish” like a lot of other teams were, but he has done that in the past to no avail and that hasn’t stopped him from making other moves. So why did it stop him this year? Well it might have to do with the fact that he is in his 4th year of his 5-year plan. If he liquidates his assets, no matter how lucrative the return, it’s a step backwards for the time being. And time is something Burke doesn’t have. So as good as something like a first round pick is for the future, it does nothing for Brian Burke now. I hate to think that he is just doing what is best for himself and not necessarily the team, but with his job and legacy on the line, I don’t think he feels he has a choice.
As of Monday, the Leafs were down and out. They have been dropping games, and can’t seem to stop the bleeding. So come trade deadline, it doesn’t take a graduate of Harvard Law to figure out that there are only two options here. One, make the necessary changes to improve your club and get into the playoffs. Or two, do what you can to improve the clubs future. There is no doubt in my mind Burke did his due diligence on the first scenario. But in his post-deadline press conference, he made it perfectly clear he didn’t even entertain the second. His reasoning was that he thought the team was still good enough to sneak into the playoffs this year, and that he wanted to stand behind them. I have nothing against being noble, and it is true that the Leafs have a legitimate shot at squeaking into the playoffs. But this statement was made for selfish reasons. As I was alluding to above, his job and integrity are on the line.
Let us not forget, Brian Burke promised Leafs Nation a contender, not just a playoff spot, and here we are in year four with neither. Burke knows this as well as anyone, which is why he decided to roll the dice on Monday. His only hope is riding on the team he has now, plus whatever he can do in the off-season. Year five is looming, and although he does have a six year contract, Leafs nation will wield the axe themselves if next year is also a bust. That being said, I do think Burke has made some significant changes to the makeup of this team, and I think for the most part they have been positive. I also think he is very knowledgeable of the game, and very skilled with the art of negotiations. Unfortunately he has been unlucky, and can be very stubborn. He had a chance to take the highroad on Monday, and was too proud to take it.
He could have admitted things didn’t work out the way he planned, and done his best to set this franchise up for the future. He was offered numerous first round picks for various roster players, and that’s just what we know about, who knows what else he was offered behind closed doors. The players that offers were made on, were, Grabovski, Kulemin, MacArthur, Reimer, Gardiner, Colbourne and Schenn. So to me, the obvious thing to do for the teams future would be to keep Gardiner and Colbourne because they are basically picks that have just hatched, and since you weren’t able to make a move for another goalie you obviously have to keep Reimer for now. But what about the other four guys? There’s no doubt that Grabovski is a great talent and well worth the money he is getting now, but he is currently in negotiations for a new contract and the rumoured price tag is upwards of five million. In my mind, not worth it, take the first round pick. Kulemin and MacArthur are solid players, but easily replaceable, there’s two more top picks. And finally Schenn, I still believe he can mature into a reliable defenseman, but I think that’s a challenge for another team. So there is four first round picks for a mediocre second line, and a third line defenseman. More than enough to make a play at Nash, that elusive top centreman, or take five shots at getting the next Eberle (drafted late first round). I’m not saying it would have been quite that easy, but it would have been the right thing to do.
The other bone I have to pick with Burke, is the Wilson situation. Finishing at the bottom of the league two years in a row, with a team that’s clearly not rebuilding (they traded away both first round picks), is grounds for dismissal. Having it happen a third year, is insulting and unacceptable. Were now in year four. The main reason Burke hasn’t fired Wilson, and its no real surprise, they are really good friends. The other not so glamorous reason is, that he has been a human shield for Burke. He has deflected all of the attention, and taken all of the heat for the last three disappointing seasons. That time is finally at an end now, as it appears he has no other choice. The fans and the rest of the media (I say rest because I have been writing about this for two years now), are calling for blood in a bad way. Leafs nation wants it done immediately! But I’m sure for Wilson’s sake Burke will show some class for his old-time friend and let the rest of the season play out.
As frustrated as I am with the way Burke has treated the Blue and White recently, I don’t entirely blame him. Most people in his situation would do whatever it takes to protect their job as well, not to mention their future and reputation in the business. It’s just unfortunate that it is at the expense of so many others. The Burke era hasn’t been all storm clouds and mud puddles though. He is smart, successful, and has done a lot of good for the organization. And the best part about that is, its not over yet. Yes, the picks would have been nice, but what if his plan does work? What if they do pull off a miracle and make it into the playoffs? What if he does draft the next Eberle, or land Rick Nash? And what if he does build a team that contends for the Cup next year?
It’s not probable, but it’s also not impossible. Burke offered us a team in five years, and we accepted. We owe him that time. So until then, bite your tongue if you have to because the negativity helps no one, especially the players. He deserves his time, and he deserves his final year. So lets give it to him, and see what he can do with it…