For Burke, Head Must Prevail Over Heart


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.


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.




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12 comments on “For Burke, Head Must Prevail Over Heart

  1. Howie,
    I agree witrh most of your thoughts and appreciate your photo montage and timeless memrobillia …I concour with David.the BIGGEST additon the Leafs can make is subtraction.. They need to FIRE THAT POMPOUS ASS WILSON.
    He once remarked to you, how many REGULAR season wins he has to his credit..In todays water down NHL I am sure most of us could say the same…He is/was a playoff loser.A coach who’s style and arrogant ways of teaching a young team is the most detromental to this organization! Burkie (The Turkey) gave his buddy a one year extension.NICE!! Pay him! NOW FIRE HIM! OMG We need a coaching change in the worst way..

  2. I hope Brian Burke stands pat on not blowing things up on this deadline. I’ll be happy with a capable veteran goalie & a reasonable upgrade of toughness & leadership up front. This Leafs team looks spooked, & I hope it’s just a case of a “virgin to the deadline” squad. Just want to point out I’ve been making similar excuses for this Leafs Organization for way too long now.

  3. Good blog again Howard.

    I know you disagree, but I think the problem is in the coaching not the talent they have on this team.

    I am not a fan of Ron Wilson. He has had some good seasons coaching in Washington and San Jose, but it just doesn’t seem to be working for him here in Toronto.

    I lost respect for him when he used a press conference after a game to get into a verbal fight with you in 2009. Professional people don’t do that. It showed how insecure he is or maybe that he is a huge ego. It would have been better for him to confront you one on one if he felt you said something on the air about his coaching decisions.

    You and others close to the team have recently started to question the coaching tactics of goaltending coach Allaire and I think there is some merit to question what he is doing with Reimer and Gustavsson. Reimer always seems to be on his knees whenever the puck is near the net.

    I hope Burke doesn’t panic and trade away some of the great talent the LEAFS now have on the team.

    I think a new head coach, (and goaltending coach too), would bring a breath of fresh air to the team. Look at what Ken Hitchcock has done in St. Louis.

  4. Nash is not 32 years old he is just going into his prime.
    He would immediately be the best player on the roster. You are trading prospects and potential for the real deal. Give Columbus Gardiner, Kadri, Komisarek and a 1st and get the deal done.

  5. I agree with most, however i don’t know what the big surprise here amongst all the leaf fans. At the beginning of the year,i am sure most TML fans had the leafs fighting for a playoff spot, and thats exactly where they are.

    I don’t know the need to upgrade anywhere but in net. Bottom line is simple, an average team with above average goaltending = playoffs.

    In toronto, you need a proven goaltender and someone with a history. This city is a hell whole for a young promising goalie. Reimer had back to back shutouts 3 weeks ago and now is a young goalie playing with no confidence.

    Its a shame, i believe both the goalies we have are good, just not in Toronto.

    Looking at a bigger picture, this team, the way it is assembled, is at best a 7th seed eastern conference playoff team, and that is still possible as bad as they have been the past few weeks.


  6. Kevin, I agree….how many times do you get a chance to acquire a star player…Howard I remember a time when you proposed to trade for “Pronger” a any cost…Kaberle, was the piece we wouldn’t give up…Is Gardner the piece today?..don’t strip the team of its youth, but lets not over rate it as well…2 years ago we wouldn’t trade Shenn, can we say the same now…why do we show such loayality for players who don’t produce, the same for the coach??? Grabowski, did we really offer him 5 mill a year???Why??he hasn’t produced when it counted…Armstrong?Connley?do we have to pay pentalty killers that much money, who don’t play half the time…John

  7. The fundamental problem with this year was Burke’s gamble with 2 unproven goalies. While other issues exist on a 16-20th ranked team (see PK, consistent secondary scoring, properly coaching/managing a nervous young team at the most critical point of the season, etc.) the self proclaimed “build from the net out” philosophy has been unforgivably been abandoned.

    Not wanting to give up on Gustavson, a guy he chased hard and a guy dealing with several extenuating circumstances, Burke was backed into a corner with Reimer’s strong play last spring.

    Was Jiggy’s presence last year more key to Reimer’s success than many give credit? Right now, that looks to be the case. Lacking a mentor/steady veteran hand clearly has sabotaged the Leafs over the last 3 horrendous weeks.

    A deep management staff failed to (a) recognize the value of leadership between the pipes and (b) to have the stones to choose between 2 young goalies going forward.

  8. Burke needs to realize this is not a playoff caliber team, plain and simple. The Leafs NEED to be sellers. With so few other sellers there is no reason they couldn’t get a good return for Mikhail Grabovski. He would easily be the best rental forward on the market now that Ruutu and Hemsky are re-signed.

    I wouldn’t be completely opposed to Burke trading away a young asset like Schenn but only if they are getting a young player of equal or greater quality in return. No trading away valuable assets for players 30 or over, and no trading for rentals.

  9. For once Howard I agree. The only deals burke should consider is getting rid of overpriced talent on this team or a one for one swap of young players.

  10. Promising 2nd tier talent.

    Burke sold us a bill of goods. All his talk about pugnacity, testosterone and truculence was all just words. He’s built the softest team in the NHL that is nowhere near a playoff team. Their play – when it really matters – has proven that.

    His talk about accountability? The very presence of Ron Wilson, defies those words!

    Building from the net out? What did James Reimer do to deserve a 3 year contract? Half a season! It also must be asked if Allaire didn’t ruin a promising Gustavsson also. He was a better goaltender as a rookie than he is now.

    Also, what free agent signing has he made, that hasn’t been a bust. There is so much cap space tied up in bad contracts that trying to squeeze anyone into this particular unit and make it better, will be impossible. Yes, he moved out some deadwood, but has just replaced it with the same, in many instances.

    If there is any way that he can get a player like Nash – no matter what he has to give up – he must do it. Then build around him! If not this, then you have to sink to the bottom and do it right.

    As of this moment and going forward with the present plan, this is a middle of the pack or slightly lower team for years to come!

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