By HOWARD BERGER
TORONTO (Sep. 5) – Of all the challenges Brian Burke has undertaken in his tumultuous career, the current one is not even remotely alien. For the second time in less than half-a-decade, Burke will oversee an “expansion” team in the National Hockey League. Those that live and breathe our national pastime in this city can easily remember the first occasion.
Such is the woebegone state of Burke’s newest club – the Calgary Flames – nearly 41 years after the franchise debuted in Atlanta. Though results from the lockout-shortened campaign of a year ago must be regarded somewhat dubiously, the Flames plummeted to their lowest-ever ranking among NHL teams – 25th of 30 – tied with Carolina, and ahead of only Florida, Colorado, Tampa Bay and Nashville. Not even in its inaugural season of 1972-73 did the franchise perform so abysmally.
Capably supported, that year, by goalies Dan Bouchard and Phil Myre, the fledgling Flames compiled a more-than respectable mark of 25-38-15 for 65 points – better than four rivals in the 16-team league, including Harold Ballard’s wreckage at Church and Carlton. By comparison, Atlanta finished a whopping 14 wins and 35 points ahead of its fellow beginner from Uniondale, N.Y. in the NHL’s third wave of expansion.
It was less than five years ago that Burke took the reigns of his first “expansion” team – the Maple Leafs having blundered to a franchise-tying mark of three consecutive non-playoff springs (squeezed out of the 2008 Stanley Cup tournament by a mere 11 points). When the playoff blemish broadened to a remarkable seven years, new ownership here in town severed Burke’s hold on the Blue and White – and did so rather abruptly, last January, after resolution of the four-month-long owners’ lockout. What double-B left behind, as it turned out, paved his route to an opportunity in western Canada.
BRIAN BURKE INTRODUCED IN CALGARY EARLIER TODAY.
You see, Burke is abundantly responsible for a position Leafs were never in when he presided over the hockey operation. Had such development occurred beforehand (with corresponding playoff gates at the Air Canada Centre), perhaps even his churlish disposition – incompatible with the Rogers/Bell consortium – may have been overlooked. As it were, the new owners had no reason to prolong their loathing for Burke and they tactlessly divested him of authority, anointing David Nonis as the new hockey czar mere days before the lockout-abbreviated schedule. Given his grace, Nonis would handily credit Burke for the sequence of moves that charted Leafs a new path:
• The incandescent trade of Feb. 9, 2011 that brought Joffrey Lupul and Jake Gardiner to the Leafs from Anaheim in exchange for veteran defenseman Francois Beauchemin.
• The salary dump/absorption with Nashville involving veterans Brett Lebda and Matthew Lombardi on July 3, 2011 that landed Toronto strapping defenseman Cody Franson.
• The acquisition, June 23, 2012, of forward James van Riemsdyk from Philadelphia (for defenseman Luke Schenn) that provided Leafs courage and upheaval around the opposition goal.
• The seemingly banal purchase – July 1, 2012 – of free agent Jay McClement, which went miles toward reversing Leaf penalty-killing woes.
• The unheralded free agent signing (Apr. 28, 2010) of Cornell University prospect Ben Scrivens, whom Los Angeles Kings accepted (along with 2007 Leafs draft pick Matt Frattin) in exchange for goalie Jonathan Bernier on June 23 of this year. Bernier is expected, by many, to develop into a front-line NHL stopper.
You can add the keen recommendation of Leaf amateur scouts under Burke to draft Nazem Kadri (2009), Jesse Blacker (2009), Brad Ross (2010), Petter Granberg (2010), Tyler Biggs (2011), Stuart Percy (2011) and particularly Morgan Rielly and Matt Finn (2012). Rielly, Gardiner and Franson could form the most enviable, young defense troika in the NHL.
Even the maniacally debated acquisition of Phil Kessel from Boston four years ago this month has garnered increasing merit – Kessel, for the past two seasons, being among the top-dozen performers in the NHL.
The Burke mistakes – particularly copious dollars wasted on free agents Mike Komisarek, Tim Connolly and Colby Armstrong; the intense wooing and acclaim of mediocre netminder Jonas Gustavsson, and the irrationally prolonged support of coach and good friend Ron Wilson – have been counter-balanced by decisions that should enable Leafs to climb the NHL chain.
Decisions observed by Ken King and the people in Calgary that today entrusted Burke with his second “expansion” project.
Keep eyes focused on 2017, Flames fans.
FACEBOOK: HOWARD BERGER [TORONTO]