Brian Burke - the best man for the job in Toronto - The worst franchise that I have ever seen was the 2008-09 version of the Toronto Maple Leafs. They had little in the way of draft picks, their farm system was disgusting, and their pro team was filled with untradeable contracts. There wasn’t one franchise in the NHL that I would swap for the Leafs. They were horrible in every sense of the word.
Here are the prospects I profiled in the 2008 Fantasy Prospects Report:
Jiri Tlusty, Nikolai Kulemin, Jeremy Williams, Anton Stralman, Chris DiDomenico, Dale Mitchell, Tyler Ruegsegger and Justin Pogge.
Brian Burke was hired on November 29, 2008 just five days after his predecessor traded away Alex Steen and Carlo Colaiacovo for Lee Stempniak. This team was, to be blunt, horrible. The top three scorers were Jason Blake, Alexei Ponikarovsky and Matt Stajan! The top scoring defenseman was Pavel Kubina! It was like Brian Burke was handed a bowl of toothpicks, a stick of gum and a cup of water by the city of Toronto, who then informed him “You have four years to build a car with this, but fair warning – in about three years we’ll start screaming for your job if we aren’t happy with the progress…and in 3.5 years the media will start calling you a failure if you don’t have at least the semblance of a car in place.”
He was given nothing to work with. Less than nothing. "Nothing" would have been an upgrade. If you dispute this, look no further than this year's "worst" team, the Columbus Blue Jackets. Let's see, they had Rick Nash, Jeff Carter and the 2012 first overall pick. Those three assets alone, can/would garner them more return than the entire 2008-09 Toronto franchise. Think about it - Jeff Carter already brought the Jackets Jack Johnson and a first-round pick. Toronto's best asset in 2008-09, Nik Antropov, brought them a second-round draft pick. As bad as the Jackets' franchise is right now, they're still better - several times over - than the 2008-09 version of the Leafs. But I digress.
So we’re 3.5 years later now. Burke has won almost every trade he’s done (an exception being the overpayment of Phil Kessel, but he got a soon-to-be 40-goal player out of it, and at the time it wasn't clear exactly what the picks he gave up would turn into), adding Joffrey Lupul, Jake Gardiner and Dion Phaneuf for what was little more than a bag of pucks. The Top 3 players are now Kessel, Lupul, Mikhail Grabovski and the top d-man is Phaneuf. The cap situation for the future is under control. They own picks in Rounds 1, 2, 5, 6, 6. Their top prospects are now Joe Colborne, Nazem Kadri, Carter Ashton, Matt Frattin, Gregg McKegg, Jesse Blacker, Stuart Percy, Ben Scrivens and Mark Owuya .
The franchise is now one in which I would trade one of six or seven other franchises for. That’s an upgrade from zero. Taking too long? The Leafs were hopeless. Hopeless. You couldn’t turn that team into a contender in 3.5 seasons if you played GM in a Sim Hockey game. The only thing that Burke has done wrong, in my eyes, was stand pat at the deadline rather than move MacArthur and Kulemin for first-round picks, as he implied were offered. But had he done that, would the city of Toronto give him another three years to build this contender? Nope.
One could say that the Tim Connolly signing was a terrible one, but for a two-year deal it was a pretty good stopgap. After all, the free agent market for centermen was terrible, so buying himself a year or two to see what that market would be like in 2012 or 2013 - when the team is better suited to "contend" - was a great idea. Why would you want to blow your future budget on Brad Richards when Joe Thornton could become available for the same cap hit via trade in two years? Or a young potential No.1, say a Sam Gagner, could be had in a year or two at a great cap hit? Sign Brad Richards instead of Tim Connolly, and those options go bye-bye.
The point is – if fans and media pressure the team to fire Burke, I would have a hard time believing that they could find an upgrade for the GM job. I’ll say it flat out – it would be a mistake. I acknowledge that Burke may only get this team up to “fringe” playoff status next season, and it will be three years before he could get them into “Cup contender” status. And sure, that means that in the end it would take him 6.5 years to get it done. But you can’t speed up that process without a No.1 center and a top goaltender, and they don’t grow on trees. Would the Leafs be a Cup contender with Henrik Lundqvist and Pavel Datsyuk added in place of Tim Connolly and Jonas Gustavsson? Yep. But there is no easy way to get such players, so the 6.5 years thing may have to suffice.
There was a recent quote in the Toronto Sun that said something along the lines of "the Leafs lose when they need to win and win when they need to lose". How very true, but losing for a better draft pick is unacceptable in this market and winning to get into the playoffs is difficult with a team still a couple of years away from having enough pieces. The latter would be fixable sooner if the former weren't true, but it is what it is.