Let’s start with the easy part: Brian Burke failed in Toronto.
There’s really no way to spin it otherwise. Some people will try, because that’s how these things always work, but it’s futile. Brian Burke failed.
He came to the Maple Leafs in 2008 when it seemed that the franchise had hit rock bottom, and, as general manager, he never made it significantly better. He missed the NHL playoffs all four years. He took over a team coming off an 83-point season that everyone agreed was a disaster and managed to top that total only once. He compiled a .490 winning percentage, which, in a league that gives out points for losing, is indisputably awful.
All of that might have been acceptable if Burke, who was fired Wednesday, could point to an organization stocked with can’t-miss prospects. But the Leafs don’t even have that. The farm system is in better shape than it was when he inherited it, because it would've been nearly impossible for it not to be. But not by much, and with the (optimistically) possible exception of defenseman Morgan Rielly, it’s lacking the sort of top-tier young talent that almost all of today’s winning NHL teams are built around.
No playoffs. No blue chips. No progress. And, increasingly, no hope. That’s failure, any way you cut it.
So that’s the easy part. Now the harder question: Why? Why did someone who seemed like such a perfect fit for the job fail so spectacularly?
At the MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference this past winter, Toronto Maple Leafs general manager Brian Burke was asked to identify the best negotiator he'd worked with throughout his career.
"Gary Bettman," he said. "There's smart — and then there's Bettman smart. He's a very three-steps-ahead type guy."
Burke, who was onstage as part of a panel called "The Art and Analytics of Negotiation," gave an example of the NHL commissioner's inner Bobby Fischer.
"Actually had to ask him to slow down a few times when we were doing the CBA back in '94," he said. "Because he's getting ahead of all of us, talkin' to himself in the room: 'Well, this won't work,' 'Well, yeah, but in three years ' Huh?"
Last night Bettman once again delivered a speed-talking monologue on collective bargaining that left people bewildered, though this time it wasn't behind closed doors.
Earlier this week, Toronto Maple Leafs GM Brian Burke was adamant that he was not in the market for someone to supplement and/or replace Jonas Gustavsson and James Reimer in net. "We are not looking for a goaltender at this point," he said in an e-mail to The Globe and Mail.
That was before Gustavsson turned in a clunker of a performance Tuesday night. The Leafs, who are on the playoff bubble, lost to the New Jersey Devils 4-3 in overtime as Gustavsson was weak on the five-hole in regulation and unfortunate with his positioning on the overtime goal, which was headed wide but caromed off his equipment and into the net to erase what had been a late comeback by Toronto.
On Wednesday, Burke changed his tune on TSN Radio. "It's very hard to watch what happened and not wonder if we have enough [in net]," he said, before deploying the tried-and-true double negative: "I'm not sure that we're not going to be in the market [for a goalie] before we're done," he said. "The fact is we're losing games because we're not stopping the puck enough."
It's a tough time for goalies in Toronto, though I did enjoy the way this Toronto Sun headline sought to put a positive spin on whether Burke's words might affect his netminders' performance going forward: "Goalies already felt lowly."
With Toronto one of the teams that might be in the market at the deadline for a goalie, who would potentially be available? Here's a look at some of the names that have been floated as being goalies in play (not just for Toronto, but to other teams who may be seeking help in net) leading up to Monday's trade deadline:
Hockey’s Three Stars of Comedy is a monthly feature that will recognize the three NHL personalities from around the league who produced the most comedic fodder for fans. It will appear every month until the Leafs fall out of playoff contention and the author finds himself drinking heavily in his backyard while screaming “I can’t believe I fell for this again!” at the moon.