Q&A: Brian Burke on Maple Leafs shakeup, Oilers goalies, Hall’s big deal

Brian Burke joined Sportsnet Central to discuss his new book, Burke's Law: A Life in Hockey, the stories he told in the book, and whether he had any regrets throughout the writing process with Stephen Brunt.

Most reporters will tell you the most tedious part of the gig is transcribing interviews.

Mindlessly typing out and making sense of the interviewee’s responses, which so often include abandoned sentences, half-completed thoughts and get lousy with “ums” and “ahs” and repetition.

This is why few subjects make for solid Q&As. ’Tis better to pluck a few choice quotes, couch them with explanation and context, and discard the cliches and boring bits.

Such is not the case, however, with Brian Burke.

The man speaks directly and succinctly, with purpose and conviction. You’re never guessing where to put the period and begin the next sentence.

You may not always agree with his opinion, but you’re seldom left foggy on what it is.

To the point, as they say, is Burke’s manner. But don’t mistake bluntness for unkindness.

The longtime executive and rookie author’s first book, Burke’s Law: A Life in Hockey (with Stephen Brunt), bubbles with barroom tales of boardroom conflict. It’s in stores now.

Part One of our conversation — which you can read here — tackles his story-writing process and features fun tales from the past, involving Phil Kessel, Nail Yakupov and a furious Pat Quinn.

In Part Two, below, Burke explains why Brad Richards never signed with the Maple Leafs and takes on the recent off-season shakeups in Buffalo, Edmonton, Vegas and Toronto.

SPORTSNET.CA: I found it interesting that Ralph Kreuger played such a big role in recruiting Taylor Hall to Buffalo. Was that common when you were GM, to have the head coach involved in free agency?

BRIAN BURKE: He’d at least have a phone call with the guy, to express interest. One of the bigger pitches we made was when Brad Richards became an unrestricted free agent (in 2011). We prepared a very sophisticated pitch on an iPad, and the last shot was his sweater hanging in the Leafs dressing room with his number and name on the back. (Then Toronto assistant GM) Dave Nonis made the pitch because I was in Kandahar. And that’s the one (Toronto Sun columnist) Steve Simmons criticized me for.

We offered six years at $6 million, and the agent just laughed at us. So, I’ve got a landline, I’m hooked up on my iPad, I’ve got my cellphone working, and I’m using a major’s office in Kandahar. And it’s midnight over there. Davey says, “They said we’re not even close to the money.” So, I think we went to six years at seven — $42 million — and they said, “You’re not even close.” He got $60 million, nine years at $6.66 million (from the Rangers), but we dropped out at 42. We tried to sign Ed Jovanovski that year. We offered three years; Florida gave him four. We set our prices internally, and if that doesn’t get the guy, that doesn’t get the guy. That’s the end of it. Now, Brad Richards ended up getting bought out of that contract. It’s widely viewed as one of the worst contracts in the history of the league. We weren’t going higher.

Hall going to Buffalo is, in part, an effort to keep Jack Eichel happy. Gives him a superstar winger to play with. Did you ever acquire a player to keep a star happy?

Certainly, we would sell players on that. We would say, “Look, we don’t have the right partner right now. I will get you a partner.” I remember when I traded for Ed Jovanovski in Vancouver, Scott Lachance was his partner — perfect partner for him. When Scott left, I remember Eddie calling me saying, “What am I gonna do?” I said, “Don’t worry. We’ll get you a partner.” We got Marek Malik, and they were great together. So, I have promised to address a need. I don’t think I ever did what they’re doing in Buffalo, but what they’re doing in Buffalo makes sense to me.

What do you make of the Golden Knights? So many names getting leaked out as trade bait. Marc-Andre Fleury was available. Alec Martinez, Max Pacioretty, all these guys. Some of them will be back at training camp thinking they’re unwanted or expendable.

They’re going to get a reputation for churning the roster. They make their sales pitch: We want you here. We’ll give you a five-year deal. No state taxes in Nevada. You’ll be a key part of our team. And as soon as they can get a better player, they hoof ’em. And that’s got to be unsettling in the room.

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On the goalie carousel: Do you think running back with Mike Smith and Mikko Koskinen is enough for the Oilers to contend?

I do. Did you never watch MacGyver? I mean, they’ve got cap issues. They’re cobbling together a solution that last year was good enough until the playoffs. Playoffs, the goaltending failed them a little bit. Koskinen had a really good year last year. So did Mike Smith. Goaltending wasn’t the reason they had trouble winning in the regular season. To me, this makes sense till they get out of cap hell.

OK. I’m still skeptical because they went hard after Jacob Markstrom.

I don’t think they went anywhere near as hard as Calgary did. I think they were talking three years, and the Seattle (expansion draft) problem they wouldn’t solve for him. Like, he does not want to go to Seattle in expansion.

What’s your best T.J. Brodie story? Toronto fans will want to know more about this guy. You worked with him. What’s he like?

Very quiet. I was close with all of my players in Calgary, but T.J. was never comfortable sitting and talking to management. So, I go down (to the dressing room area) and have a coffee, he was always pleasant. Great guy. His wife’s lovely, too. He was always, “Hey, Burkie, how’s it going? How are the kids?” and then move on, right? Whereas other guys, like Gio (Mark Giordano), would sit down and have breakfast with me. Matthew Tkachuk would sit down. T.J. was always a little bit aloof.

My last year, there was a Christmas party or year-end party. He and his wife, Amber, got seated next to me. And I said, “Now you have to talk to me, T.J.” We had a really good talk. He’s a good kid. He’s a left shot, prefers the right side. He’ll be a good partner for Morgan Rielly. Really excellent skater. Elite skater. I think the change of scenery is gonna do him good.

Senior Writer Ryan Dixon and NHL Editor Rory Boylen always give it 110%, but never rely on clichés when it comes to podcasting. Instead, they use a mix of facts, fun and a varied group of hockey voices to cover Canada’s most beloved game.

The Leafs also added Wayne Simmons and Zach Bogosian. Are they tough enough yet to contend, or do they need to get tougher still?

I have a different theory of toughness. To say, we’re going to dress one forward that’s tough — that’s never enough. Zach Bogosian is a big guy, but he’s not going to fight much. He’ll play hard. I like all the moves they made. I’m not sure it’s enough.

You have to put the team on paper next to the Washington Capitals. You gotta put them on paper next to the Tampa Bay Lightning. That’s how you measure whether you have a chance or not. Who are the best teams in the East? In the West? Are they as good as Vegas now? I don’t think so. Are they as good as St. Louis? I don’t think so. Are they as good as Tampa? I don’t think so. But I like all the moves they made. They’re clearly better. They’ve added some sand and some leadership. Don’t underestimate Wayne Simmonds’ leadership skills.

Kyle Dubas speaks about toughness developing from within. Do you believe players develop toughness with age, or that players generally are what they are in terms of makeup?

I like the moves they made. We’ll find out see if this is enough. And if not, I believe Kyle will continue to try to address it. I think Kyle’s a smart man. He’s a great guy. I hope this is enough. And if it’s not, I hope he figures it out.

How much time does he have to figure it out? How many more chances do you get? He’s changed the coach. They haven’t won a playoff round…

Hang on. They switched out the assistants first. That’s the first thing you do. They tried to give (Mike) Babcock a chance and bring in two new assistants, just like I did with Ronnie Wilson. I switched out the assistant coaches, Tim Hunter and Rob Zettler, and brought in Greg Cronin and Scott Gordon. And it wasn’t enough. It didn’t save him. So, now Kyle brings his own coach in and makes a change for the better. That team was better under Sheldon Keefe. But, again, lack of success in the playoffs. So, at some point you run out of chances. I don’t sense they’re there yet. Kyle’s so confident, I think they’ve got the reins.

Alright, this has been awesome, Burkie. Anything else you want fans to know about the book?

Just caution people this is a grownup book. It’s not a kids’ book.

Missed Part 1 of our Brian Burke Q&A? Read it here.

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