It’s been four years since the Toronto Maple Leafs hired Brian Burke to be their general manager. Since then, Leafs Nation has had to put up with a lot of losing, and their team remains untroubled by post-season appearances. After more than 650 regular-season games since 2004 and no playoffs to show for them, this is make-or-break time for Burke.
The NHL board of governors has just rubber-stamped the sale of the team to a consortium composed of two of Canada’s biggest communications companies, Bell and Rogers. Now that there are new owners, the next step in the seemingly never-ending rebuild is the Entry Draft. In Pittsburgh on Friday, Burke and his team will be making some of the most important decisions in the modern history of this storied team.
It’s a tricky balancing act. Does Burke pull the trigger on a trade to pick higher than fifth to get one of the stars of the draft such as forward Filip Forsberg or defenseman Ryan Murray? Will he do a deal for a goaltender such as Canucks netminder Roberto Luongo?
If Burke decides to keep the Leafs picking fifth overall, it could work out well. The Leafs might get a player such as Alex Galchenyuk, who could turn out to be the offensive equal of the top player in the draft, Nail Yakupov. He could also promote from within. The Toronto Marlies were swept in the Calder Cup, but they have some good young talent in forwards Nazim Kadri and Matt Frattin, and puckstopper Ben Scrivens among others.
Whatever he does, it has to be right — and it has to be seen to be right. His decisions have to produce results right away, and that’s a lot of pressure. Not many of his moves have been right in the last few years.
Burke is known for his blustery pronouncements: “pugnacity” and “truculence,” anyone? He will never be forgiven by some for The Trade, which landed sniper Phil Kessel from the Boston Bruins for two first-round picks — they turned into hotshot Tyler Seguin (2010) and Dougie Hamilton (2011) — along with a second-rounder in 2010 (Jared Knight). Burke rankled many when he gave his former head coach Ron Wilson a one-year, $2-million contract extension last Christmas, only to fire him less than three months later.
Even so, Burke is well-respected in the hockey community and has a web of contacts he’s built since his first executive job with the Vancouver Canucks in 1987. He won a Stanley Cup in 2007 as the general manager of the Anaheim Ducks; his head coach then is the same one he has now, Randy Carlyle.
If he was to be fired tomorrow, it wouldn’t be easy to replace someone with 25 years of experience. Regardless of his pedigree, however, Burke needs to show positive movement to his new employers or his time in Toronto will surely be done.