Contemplating what Brian Burke has done during his time with the Toronto Maple Leafs puts me in mind of a man who’s invited friends over to his house after telling them he’s done some major renovations.
Naturally, people are going to waltz through the front door and expect a new marble countertop to be glistening in the sun, now shining through an exquisite bay window. Nobody walks in and asks if you overhauled the plumbing or installed energy-saving light bulbs.
There’s no getting around the fact the Leafs haven’t played a single playoff game during Burke’s four-year tenure in Toronto. Until that changes, it will continue to be the defining aspect of his run in Hogtown.
While the Leafs are still sorely lacking in terms of fancy finishes, the overall structure of the organization is much more stable than it was when Burke took the job he knew offered a chance to cement his legacy in hockey lore.
Leaf fans probably won’t start doing the Foligno leap simply because the team now has much greater pressure in the pipeline due to increased organizational depth. But the more quality players you have in your system, the harder they have to fight for jobs at every level, the better prepared they are to compete when the big club comes calling.
Last winter, while preparing a story on the Leafs for Sportsnet magazine, Toronto Marlies coach Dallas Eakins noted how different the current crop of Maple Leafs looked relative to when he first joined the organization a couple years prior to Burke’s arrival.
"I won’t name names, but there were players playing for the Toronto Maple Leafs who were just there by default," he said.
Many believe that was because former GM John Ferguson was never given the green light to build the franchise from the bottom up. Regardless, what Burke has done during his tenure is bury the last simmering coals of those post 2004-05-lockout Leaf teams that were dotted with players still dining out on the fact they’d been on the club when it was still good enough to make the playoffs and, occasionally, win more than one round.
Burke has shifted into the wrong gear more than once while bulldozing the remnants of an old regime, but at least there’s a discernable plan in place and a willingness to stick to it — especially in the past couple years.
Acquiring Phil Kessel in the fall of 2009 for two first-rounders was an attempt to accelerate the reboot that blew up in Burke’s face when the team bottomed out and handed the second overall pick to the Boston Bruins. Signings of Mike Komisarek and Francois Beauchemin were also ill-fated moves that proved there was no cutting the corner when it came to rescuing this franchise from its forlorn past.
But in recent times, when stars like Rick Nash became available, Burke resisted the temptation to bundle a bunch of the team’s prospects for a high-end star. It’s the right approach, because shipping out multiple pieces of the puzzle for one player who can score now is simply swapping one problem for another.
On two notable occasions when Burke has made a big swap, the result has been tilted heavily in Toronto’s favour. Dion Phaneuf may not have developed into the No. 1 stud he appeared on track to become early in his career, but the deal that brought him east from Calgary is still a clear victory.
And Burke likely had no idea how well he was covering his tracks when he dealt Beauchemin back to Anaheim for left winger Joffrey Lupul and young defenceman Jake Gardiner. Lupul needs to prove he can stay healthy, but has proven to be a very productive fit with Kessel, while Gardiner figures to be a sublime-skating staple on the blueline for years to come.
As for last summer’s acquisition of James van Riemsdyk for Luke Schenn; I’d roll the dice on a character-filled-yet-sputtering defensive defenceman for an injury-prone-but-tantalizingly talented power forward in the slap of a shot.
Things are starting to blossom on the farm, as Eakins and the Marlies made the Calder Cup final last year. That fact, on its own, isn’t necessarily a harbinger of good things to come, until you consider five of the team’s top-seven scorers in the post-season were 22 years old or younger. Another one, Matt Frattin, was a 24-year-old in his first pro season, so it’s not like the team was relying on a handful of AHL lifers to succeed.
The Marlies were also backstopped very astutely by Ben Scrivens during their run, which serves as a perfect segue to the present. Burke’s inability to stabilize the Leafs crease had a lot to do with the team’s stunning second-half stumble last season and stands as one of the reasons many deem his tenure as a failure thus far.
That Toronto features consequential holes is undeniable, though so is the fact there is, at long last, some kind of foundation upon which to build. Maybe Burke’s blueprint hasn’t wowed anybody, but considering the state of the team when he drew it up, it doesn’t deserve to be shredded just yet, either.