Months of uncertainty and speculation are likely to come to an end in the next week when Brian Burke and his associates meet with Richard Peddie and the MLSE. The groups have already spoken albeit lawyer to lawyer last weekend to confirm the Anaheim Ducks had signed papers allowing their former GM to talk with other teams and if reports are to be believed, groundwork was laid on the forthcoming negotiations.
With conjecture and rumor placing Burke in a potential cavalcade of locales in the week after his resignation, the reality is that, foregoing disastrous contractual talks, the Toronto Maple Leafs will name Brian Burke the organizations 13th general manager in its storied history with few other suitors looking to materialize at the eleventh hour. The move will be seen as a particular success for Peddie and sports lawyer Gord Kirke who have courted Burke from the moment they drew up a bullet point list of candidates and criteria early this year.
For Burke it will offer a chance to return to a hockey hotbed after three years in the sunbelt and an opportunity to combine his differing experiences in Vancouver and Anaheim with a side perennially teetering between media expectation and failure. Whilst Cliff Fletcher has done the best he could under the moniker of interim GM, development has been stunted and the popular veteran knew that he was merely laying a Schenn shaped biscuit base unto which the blue and white cheesecake would be built.
Burke will herald a much needed change of pace and common logic dictates that the incoming GM will be looking to put an early and indelible stamp on the Leafs be it waiving a high salary star such as the recently scratched Jason Blake, or trading big to secure a high level draft pick as he did in Hartford for Pronger. Whatever it may be, Burke could be seen as an accelerant to the rebuilding process the Leafs are undeniably facing after the era of stagnation seen under John Ferguson and with a modus operandi for rapid transition Burke is unlikely to wait it out in the Air Canada executive boxes.
With Burke’s arrival seen as an inevitability; many have decided to take the pre-incumbents period of grace as a chance to autopsy his past accomplishments to see what acumen the executive will bring to Toronto. Unavoidably most have chosen to draw comparisons between his most recent position in California and the dynamics of the Leafs organization he is about to inherit. Taking over the reigns of a Bryan Murray team steered for one season by Al Coates, Burke acquired control of Anaheim in 2005 fresh from the board room fallout in Vancouver. Securing a Stanley cup in just two seasons, Burke adopted a side that had drafted well under Murray and had built under its previous executives. Burke merely anchored the potential with Chris Pronger and Scott Niedermayer making minimal changes to an already winning formula.
Obviously the 2008 Maple Leafs are a different proposition to the 2005 Ducks. Half gutted in a stage of pre-rebuild and a roster so thin it would snap in the breeze, the Leafs don’t share the kind of prospects ladder Anaheim took into the lockout and don’t possess the brother of a blue chip defensemen, unless you consider Frantisek Kaberle a franchise blueliner.
With many subsequently looking to the successes and failures of the Anaheim franchise he left behind as a barometer for his suitability, it seems more likely that Burke will draw upon his four years in Vancouver as a starting point with the Maple Leafs physically small, short in depth and overtly European roster. Obtaining a Canucks side that had peaked and troughed under a decade of Pat Quinn, Brian Burke took charge of a Vancouver side that had finished dead last in the Pacific Division in '97-'98. With top scorer Pavel Bure refusing to play in Vancouver, Burke shipped the Russian megastar to Florida for franchise D-man Ed Jovanovski. With next to no offense Vancouver finished with the second worse record in the league but also the second overall draft pick. With twins Henrik and Daniel Sedin expected to be split for the first time in their careers on draft day, Burke rolled the dice to secure the third overall selection and both twins with a trade that saw Bryan McCabe and Vancouver's 2000 first round draft pick go to Chicago. With the Sedin's still gaining experience in the Swedish senior leagues in '99-'00 Vancouver punched above low expectations to just miss out on a playoff berth. Regardless with Burke getting the puzzle pieces in place early, the next three seasons saw Vancouver up their points tally from 83-90-94-104 before slipping to a still princely 101 points in Burke’s final year in charge.
Relying on unfashionable players to put up career points year in year out, Burke built on an early draft move to push the Canucks from bottom feeders to an elite unit that just lacked the quality required come the post season. Where he was shackled by the off ice salesmanship required to fill the General Motors Place, the guaranteed Air Canada sellouts will grant Burke the opportunity to tune the hockey formula that served so well in Vancouver. Furthermore with a fondness for physically strong and aggressive forwards Burke will find common ground in the west coast playing system currently favored by head coach Ron Wilson geared into a squad that currently lacks the prototypical Burke style players that could take the Leafs run and gun methodology to another level.
Subsequently when you take the Vancouver model into the context of the contemporary Leafs, the recruitment of Burke makes a lot of sense albeit with the idiosyncrasies common only to Toronto. Currently wavering in and about the fringes of a playoff place, Burke will be aware that finishing ninth in the Eastern Conference will only harm Toronto’s future on draft day. Expect Burke to fire sell players who do not fit into his long term plans early, fundamentally weakening the team for 2008-’09 with the goal of attaining a top two pick in the Tavares-Hedman draft. Don’t be surprised if Burke attempts to ship a big name for a first round draft pick, even if the trade bait is somewhat more scant in the 2008 Leafs than it was in the 1999 Canucks. Finally expect Burke to trade for west coast board runners and grinders and a full time enforcer in the George Parros mould, Mayers and Hollweg will not suffice on a Burke team that with little trade leverage are going to have to build from youth and development.
Burke’s era is upon us and, despite the naysayers, is a man with experience in rapid and successful rebuilds, you just have to look past Anaheim to see that he has succeeded before. Many may argue that the clash of personalities and the obstructive hand of Peddie could be a powder-keg in the years to come; but here and now Burke is the best man for the job.