By HOWARD BERGER
TORONTO (Feb. 26) – Trying to imagine the raw disappointment coursing through Brian Burke right now is no simple task.
As recently as 19 nights ago, it appeared the Leafs’ general manager had finally assembled a playoff-worthy collection – his club, returning to full health for the first time this season, in the midst of a 10-4-2 tear and inching toward rarefied ground in the Eastern Conference.
When the Leafs hurried to Pearson Airport after a 6-3 romp over Edmonton on Feb. 6, they sat seventh in the East and only four points behind fourth-place Philadelphia – a spot that ensures home-ice advantage in the opening round of the Stanley Cup tournament.
Somewhere in the sky between Toronto and Winnipeg that night, Burke’s team forgot how to play.
A 1-7-1 implosion in the ensuing three weeks has all but destroyed another Leaf season. Burke’s prime task heading toward the NHL trade deadline on Monday is to assure that he doesn’t destroy the club for the next five years.
To prevent such a calamity, he’ll need to muster every conceivable ounce of restraint, because you just know he’s appropriately pissed off right now to torch the entire club. To maintain a reasonable heading after Monday, Burke must thoroughly disregard external forces – fans, media, acquaintances – those that rule with emotion. He cannot concern himself with reputation, or govern his approach to the deadline on a frantic, impulsive urge to make the playoffs this spring at any cost. Undoubtedly, there are a dozen NHL colleagues smacking their lips over the idea of tempting double-B with a quick-fix solution prior to the trade embargo. Burke must turn his back on any such “benevolence.”
At no point during his tenure in this city has the essential act of managing the Leafs been as critical as it is right now. Somehow, Burke and his lieutenants have to determine – in the next 36 hours – whether the current skid is a dreadfully-timed slump, or oddly indicative of team-composition and chemistry while performing at close to full strength. Management must determine why the club appears to have all but quit at a vital juncture of the season; whether such capitulation reflects a breakdown between the players and coach Ron Wilson, or if shoddy goaltending – as it often can – has merely sapped the team of resolve.
If the latter prevails, Burke and Co. must conclude why it has failed; to what degree the malfunction falls on Francois Allaire, and whether James Reimer and/or Jonas Gustavsson can be counted upon in the future.
Remember, it was only a year ago that Reimer performed very well in games that became exponentially critical as a result of his brilliance. The bigger the task, the taller he stood, nearly digging the Leafs out of a 14-point playoff hole. In what most would consider an improved circumstance at the same juncture of this season, Reimer has completely lost his way.
Is it a blip in his sophomore development, or did he catch a wave as a rookie and ride it from crest to fizzle?
Watching Gustavsson founder has to be particularly galling for Burke, who did more than just fire off an email wondering if the Swedish-born goalie would bring his act to Toronto. The GM spiked his frequent-flier account running between Canada and Europe in the summer of 2009 to lure the Monster. This isn’t what he bargained for.
BRIAN BURKE HAS MUCH TO PONDER BEFORE MONDAY AFTERNOON.
And though it seemed unlikely less than a month ago, the Leafs have encountered the type of free-fall that wrecked each of the past two seasons. In 2009-10, it was an 0-7-1 stagger from the gate; last year, a 1-8-3 collapse between Oct. 18 and Nov. 13. When a slide reaches this dimension in the NHL’s three-point-game era, it hardly matters at which point of the schedule it occurs.
For Burke, however, it is happening at the absolute worst time, given the proximity to the trade deadline. His conclusions over the next 36 hours have the potential to severely impact the Maple Leafs for half-a-decade, or longer.
Additionally, the burden he feels may be greater than any of us can understand. With new ownership presumably on the horizon, he might be doubly anxious to stop the bleeding and move the club in yet another direction, prompting an unwary, short-sighted deal before 3 p.m. on Monday.
All else being equal, however, the betting here is that Burke will resist temptation and refuse to deplete his stock of promising, young players. Though he’s having a tough year, what is the purpose – for example – of trading up to draft Luke Schenn (as Cliff Fletcher did in 2008); devoting time and resource to his development, and then sending him away in Year 4?
Why pump your fist at acquiring such a potential gem as Jake Gardiner only to use him as deadline bait a season later?
The Leafs have tried this overnight stuff for eons without any pay-off. It didn’t work in the 1970s and it doesn’t work today.
Creating more of an illusion before the trade cut-off on Monday will simply prolong the pattern.
I’ll assume that Burke is probably in agreement.
Coincidentally, it was 40 years ago this weekend that Leafs goaltending absorbed one of its toughest blows. On Saturday, Feb. 26, 1972, the Leafs clobbered Vancouver, 7-1, at Maple Leaf Gardens. After the game, Bernie Parent went home and packed a bag. The next morning – unbeknownst to the Leafs, enjoying a day off – Parent flew from Toronto to Miami and held a press conference announcing his defection to the Screaming Eagles of the new World Hockey Association, which began play the following season.
Leafs owner Harold Ballard felt the WHA was a pipe-dream and that warnings from Parent’s agent, Howard Casper, were a bluff. He essentially dared the goalie to accept the deal Miami was offering. At the time, Casper and the Leafs were less than $10,000 apart on a long-term contract.
Parent’s stay in the new league was brief. Upon returning to the NHL, he refused to play for Ballard. Leafs GM Jim Gregory was forced to trade the goalie he had acquired in such a brilliant move two years earlier. He sent Parent back to Philadelphia and received netminder Doug Favell in return.
The following spring (1974), Parent won the Conn Smythe Trophy while back-stopping the Flyers to their first of consecutive Stanley Cups. He’s been in the Hall of Fame since 1984.
BERNIE PARENT, WITH FLYERS TEAMMATE BOBBY CLARKE AND THE STANLEY CUP.
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