By HOWARD BERGER
TORONTO (July 2) – When Brian Burke met with reporters late Sunday afternoon, he made a remark that has become nothing less than a mantra – one of several patented in recent years – and a claim that pre-dated his time with the Maple Leafs. It sounded so familiar; so scripted, in fact, that I felt moved to research its history and application. Almost no time was required to unearth these four examples:
“We make more mistakes at the trade deadline than we make the whole rest of the year combined,” Burke said during a recent media conference call. “The pressure to win is so intense and unrelenting and unremitting that we, as a group, make horrible, horrible decisions at the trade deadline.” – CBC Sports, Feb. 14, 2008.
As Toronto GM Brian Burke is fond of pointing out (and obligingly did so on a conference call last week), GMs make more mistakes on this day than the rest of the year combined. For every good trade at the deadline, he posits, there are five or six poor ones. Burke’s Law, while hardly scientific, sounds about right. – Michael Farber, Sports Illustrated, Mar. 5, 2009.
“I say it every year, we make more mistakes at the deadline than during the rest of the year,” Burke said. “You think you need that last piece, the coach is yelling at you and the media is yelling at you, so you go and make a deal that you wouldn’t normally make.” – Lance Hornby, Toronto Sun, Jan. 25, 2010.
“I believe our group (NHL GMs) makes more mistakes on July 1 than we do all the rest of the year combined,” said Burke. “We hand out contracts with unrealistic values and unrealistic terms. When you’re in a hard-cap system, it bites you right in the bum at some point.” – Kevin McGran, Toronto Star, July 1, 2012.
Aside from the impossibility of the trade deadline and July 1 being the day that “most mistakes are made”, one is left to wonder exactly when Burke feels is the right time to build a hockey club. Those are two fairly significant occasions to ‘X’ off the calendar. Of course, Burke’s comments aren’t inaccurate. Few GMs in the post-lockout era can speak with such first-hand authority about wasting time and money in the aftermath of July 1 (Mike Komisarek, Francois Beauchemin, Colton Orr, Jonas Gustavsson, Ricard Wallin, Colby Armstrong, Brett Lebda, Tim Connolly, Philippe Dupuis). Fortunately for fans of the Maple Leafs, Burke was able to parlay one of the above-mentioned mistakes into a windfall on the trade front – pilfering his former team of Joffrey Lupul and Jake Gardiner for Beauchemin. It could, in fact, rank as one of the best deals any GM has made in recent years.
Otherwise, it is way too convenient for Burke to pontificate about the perils of the trade deadline and unrestricted free agency. The reason there are no significant deals for the Leafs to make at the end of February – and that no elite player will listen to Burke after July 1 – is simple: His effort to fast-track the Blue and White into playoff contention failed. Leafs are – by practically any measure – the worst team in the post-lockout NHL. As a result, Burke’s “I-have-no-patience-for-a-five-year-plan” has very likely put the Leafs in a ten-year plan. The Phil Kessel trade, by itself, proved Burke’s initial claim and has severely weakened any subsequent attempt to tell the world how invaluable first-round draft picks really are.
BRIAN BURKE: PRETTY MUCH BACK TO SQUARE-ONE WITH LEAFS.
It is possible Leafs may have a strong nucleus of young players in three or four years – Burke and his staff were uniformly recognized for a terrific haul at the recent NHL gathering in Pittsburgh – but only as a result of the Toronto GM switching gears after his initial scheme flopped. That cannot be swept under the carpet.
How intriguing it would be to watch Burke – hypothetically – stand in front of TV cameras with the Leafs among the NHL elite and tell fans he refuses to get involved with the big boys on July 1 “because we, as a group, make more mistakes on this day than the rest of the year combined (except for the trade deadline).” Even the club’s wildly indulgent followers might wag a finger or two.
Burke now claims he’s restricted to improving the Leafs via trade. That’s quite a corner for a GM to back himself into in the salary-capped NHL. Beyond Gardiner, who will struggle next season in his second year, there isn’t a blue-chipper in the organization. If Nazem Kadri and Joe Colborne cannot crack a bottom-feeder desperate for help, it isn’t likely rival GMs are drooling over the notion of landing either man. As always with the Leafs, we’ll soon be subject to the hyping of Jerry D’Amigo, Jesse Blacker, Greg McKegg, Tyler Biggs, Stuart Percy and others. If the Leafs beat Ottawa in a rookie tournament game, euphoria will run rampant – as it did when the now-long-gone Christian Hanson erupted for a hat-trick a couple of autumns ago.
Perhaps all of the above-mentioned will graduate to the NHL and contribute to a Leafs renaissance. Or maybe none will. The Toronto track-record of player-development has been thoroughly and routinely abysmal in the past four decades. For any of us to sit here and expect a team full of burgeoning stars is absolute folly.
The saving grace – as mentioned repeatedly in this corner – could be a front-line goalie. But, where do you find such a limited, precious commodity and how do you arrange for that person to join your hockey club? In a best-case scenario, Leafs already have such an asset in James Reimer. Otherwise, Burke’s options are pretty much limited to getting mugged by Mike Gillis in the Roberto Luongo “derby”. He can try to free Jonathan Bernier from gate-opening chores on the L.A. Kings’ bench, as the Stanley Cup champions will trot out Jonathan Quick 70 times per season. In so doing, however, Burke would merely be casting his lot on yet another unproven back-up; Bernier, though highly touted, has all of 48 games NHL experience since 2007-08.
For the moment, the Leafs are gripped by paralysis, simply because there is no viable alternative. Opposing teams are hardly lining up to acquire Toronto players and Burke’s quick-build attempt proved disastrous. All double-B can do – if provided the time by in-coming ownership – is sit tight; hope that several of his prospects mature, and maybe catch one of his managerial colleagues napping in trade discussion, as he’s done on several prior occasions.
For Brian to declare – even to hint – that such a plan was considered from the outset, however, is to show flagrant disrespect for the multitudes that worship his team.
Facebook: Howard Berger [Thornhill ON]