Cornwall - Feb. 5, 2011 - At the beginning of this column, I will confess that I have been a Leafs fan for most of my life. That being said, I can hardly be considered an expert on NHL hockey. If nothing else, as a Leafs and NFL Bears fan, I can at least be described as loyal to my teams.
I have read and heard a great deal of chatter about Brian Burke's performance as the General Manager of our beloved Toronto Maple Leafs. Many are saying that his tenure in this role should be deemed a failure, but I truly believe it is too early to make a fair assessment of his success or lack thereof.
When he arrived in Toronto, there was an expectation that he would turn the Leafs into a playoff team in 3 to 5 years. If that is his benchmark, then really he cannot be judged until the summer of 2013. Burke took over the helm in the ACC on November 29, 2008, so if he has five years to get the Leafs into the playoffs, he has to do it before the end of the 2012-2013 season.
Since arriving in Toronto, Burke has made two key moves. First he moved two first round picks and a second for sniper Phil Kessel and then he shipped Nicklas Hagman, Matt Stajan, Jamal Mayers and Ian White to Calgary for the Leafs' current captain Dion Phaneuf, Fredrik Sjostrom and Keith Aulie.
Kessel is only 23 years old and has a long career ahead of him. He has already scored 115 NHL goals and over 215 points in his four and a half NHL seasons. He has twice scored over 30 goals in an NHL season, including last year on a pretty offensively challenged Leafs team. Kessel himself is a first round pick, chosen 5th overall in the 2006 Entry Draft.
By the time the Leafs had acquired him, he had proven himself as a bona fide NHLer. How many first round picks were busts. Do the names Pat Falloon, Bryan Fogarty, Doug Wickenheiser, Brett Lindros, Patrick Stefan, Brian Lawton, or Alexandre Daigle mean anything? The list is endless of first round disappointments, so I can understand why Burke moved on a proven, young, first-rounder instead of taking a chance in the draft.
In his rookie year, Kessel scored 11 goals and 30 points in 70 games. Currently, Tyler Seguin has 8 goals and 17 points in his first 50 games. It appears doubtful he will reach Kessel's rookie numbers and only time will tell how he will develop next year and beyond. Jared Knight of the London Knights was the second round selection in 2010. The Bruins still have the Leafs' first round pick in this June's Entry Draft.
It's been said that if you are going to trade a star, you need to get a star in return. The Leafs have their star, the verdict is still out if the Bruins got theirs. Think Pierre Gauthier would like a "do-over" on the Lars Eller / Jaroslav Halak deal? I liked the Kessel trade then and still like it today.
I think Burke did even better on the Phaneuf deal. Mayers and White are no longer in Calgary. Stajan has 4 goals and Hagman has 9 goal with the Flames this year. Sjostrom has not been lighting it up in Blue and White but that is not really his role. Aulie is a big defenceman that will likely play a role as a 5th or 6th D-man somewhere in the future.
Phaneuf has emerged as the face of the Leafs and their leader. Since entering the NHL, Phaneuf has been one of the top scoring defencemen, due in large part to his canon for a shot. Beyond his scoring touch, his toughness is a great fit for the Burke style of hockey. I have always like Dion Phaneuf and have him in both of my Fantasy pools. I was a happy man when Burke brought #3 to Toronto.
J.S. Giguere, Jonas Gustavsson and the emergence of James Reimer, leave the Leafs in a solid position between the pipes. Phaneuf, Tomas Kaberle, Mike Komisarek, Francois Beauchemin, Luke Schenn and Carl Gunnarsson is a respectable six on the back-end.
Where the Leafs really struggle in up-front. Kessel can score but has been snake bitten this year. Clarke MacArthur has been a pleasant surprise, as has Nikolai Kulemin and Mikhael Grabovski. More was expected from Kris Versteeg and Nazem Kadri. The Leafs currently rank 26th out of 30 teams in goals scored. Clearly this is where Burke needs to do some work.
It sure would be nice to see a Jarome Iginla, Brad Richards or another point a game forward make their way to TO. Joe Thornton would have looked good in Blue and White, but he has signed a 3 year deal with the Sharks. Not easy players to acquire.
Judgement day will come - in due time
Overall, I think Burke has made some decent moves in acquiring young, elite players in Kessel and Phaneuf, but clearly there is more work to do. Many people have called for his head, but I really think it is too early to pass judgement. I know the topic will be discussed many times in the coming months but the proper time to evaluate Brian Burke will be in June 2013.
Some day, we will see the Leafs back in the playoffs. Some day.