Burke’s Fluctuating Credo

By HOWARD BERGER

TORONTO (July 10) – The difficulty Brian Burke faces in trying to improve the dreadful Maple Leafs is fundamental: there isn’t enough quality or depth at any position on the hockey club. In Burke’s quest, therefore, to augment the team via trade – admittedly, his only reasonable alternative – the GM cannot enhance one element without severely weakening another. The option of emptying the cupboard of prospects is still available, though Burke now seems determined to stray from the calamitous policy that governed his initial months on the job.

Without a surplus of goods anywhere on the depth-chart, upgrading the Leafs in the short term will be nearly impossible. Such resplendent players as Ryan Getzlaf, Bobby Ryan, Shea Weber, Paul Stastny, Rick Nash and Roberto Luongo are not going to be given away by their current clubs, and those that have negotiated movement privileges are hardly pining for Toronto. Of greater concern for the Leafs is a gradual erosion of the Burke credo: building from the goal out.

Referring, again, to the excellent book by Jason Farris, Behind the Moves, Burke says, “The hardest position to play on the ice surface is goal, by far. The second hardest is defense, and so that’s where you have to concentrate your scouting and your money. If you look at how I build my teams, I spend all my money on the blue line. You can’t win unless you keep the puck out of your net.” Let’s examine that policy.

At the moment, the Leafs have but one netminder under contract that has played more than 70 games in the NHL. Down the stretch of the 2010-11 season, James Reimer provided the club its best range of goaltending in the post-lockout era. A debilitating neck injury and the typical sophomore yips counterbalanced his rookie performance. If what we saw from Reimer before his collision with Brian Gionta is authentic, the Leafs are in great shape. If not, the struggle will continue.

After spending dollops of time and cash running between Toronto and Stockholm three summers ago, Burke gave up on Jonas Gustavsson, yet the most prolific franchise in the NHL over the past decade-and-a-half felt the Monster worthy of a two-year contract. It will be fascinating to see if unheralded Jim Bedard has more success with Gustavsson in Detroit than did Francois Allaire here in Toronto.

OPTIMUS REIM: ONLY PUCK-STOPPER CURRENTLY UNDER CONTRACT WITH LEAFS.

THE MONSTER: IN RED.

In the past 17 months, Burke has traded defensemen Francois Beauchemin, Tomas Kaberle, Keith Aulie and Luke Schenn. He received Jake Gardiner in the Beauchemin deal and used a second-round pick obtained from Boston in the Kaberle swap to trade for John-Michael Liles. Right now, the Leafs defense corps is comprised of Dion Phaneuf, Mike Komisarek, Liles, Carl Gunnarsson, Gardiner, Korbinian Holzer and un-signed Cody Franson. There’s a puck-handling upside to this group but not a single entity established at playing shut-down defense in the NHL.

Phaneuf is a very good open-ice hitter; his shot is a weapon when fired accurately and he’s put his heart-and-soul into the Leafs captaincy. Still, he remains terribly mistake-prone in the vicinity of his own net. Likewise, Komisarek can throw a terrific check and he legitimately detests losing. But, his misadventures with the puck have kept him in suit-and-tie on most game nights. Liles is quick and smart in the offensive zone; average-to-mediocre behind the blue-line. Gardiner could develop into a spectacular rushing defenseman but he’ll never be counted upon to thwart the opposition. Gunnarsson is the Leafs most reliable defender and would be invaluable on a team with a bona fide first pairing. Holzer is a complete unknown, and Franson hasn’t a clue, yet, how to deploy his enormous frame while defending Leafs territory.

The trades of Aulie and Schenn contradicted Burke’s team-building strategy. The GM often espoused about how he insisted on Aulie in order to close the multi-player Phaneuf deal with Calgary. A big, strapping rearguard, Aulie was said to be a cornerstone of the Leafs future. Burke traded him to Tampa Bay for unproven Carter Ashton because he needed “more size up front.”

KEITH AULIE (3): FRANCHISE “CORNERSTONE” TRADED TO LIGHTNING FOR SIZE UP FRONT.

Schenn, once a “future captain of the Leafs,” according to Burke, was dealt to Philadelphia for a more established commodity – James van Riemsdyk – but also to improve Leafs forward bulk. How were these trades examples of “spending all my money on the blue line” and building from the goal out? Anyone foolish enough to believe there’s such a thing as a “surplus of defensemen” should look again at what Leafs have right now; factor in the inevitable injury or three, and explain how it jibes with Burke’s credo that you “cannot win unless you keep the puck out of your net.”

The hope for every Leafs fan is that Randy Carlyle – an excellent teacher of fundamental hockey – can stop the bleeding. But, Carlyle isn’t a miracle worker and his increasing level of exasperation after taking over the club from Ron Wilson was an unfettered plea for significant change. Burke is apparently trying to alter the Blue and White, but against what odds? When attractive free agents routinely look elsewhere; when players with movement restrictions habitually exclude Toronto; when there is no depth at any position on the hockey club, and when the GM – after coughing up a pair of first-rounders to the Bruins – now insists he’ll retain prospects and draft choices, how does one make a significant off-season deal?

If a playoff pretender has a desirable asset, the trade deadline provides a good opportunity to brighten the future. Burke, however, calls the deadline (or is it July 1?) the day GMs “make the most mistakes in the calendar year”; besides, he admitted the build-up to the deadline last February sent the Leafs into a team-wide conniption.

So, what exactly is the answer to this interminable riddle? And how can it rationally be solved before the Leafs playoff drought reaches double figures?

Email: howardLberger@gmail.com

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