Looking back on the Brian Burke era, it’s possible to see both the good and the bad.
The bad, to start, might be seen in the trade for Phil Kessel, the push for Mike Komisarek, the undeserved love for Ron Wilson and the general disdain for Nazem Kadri. These are the easy things to point out and they’ll likely attract the most attention as people debate Burke’s time at the helm of Toronto.
Many Leafs fans will disagree, but many will agree as well: I’ve never seen anything to like in Kessel. Sure, he can skate and shoot, but he lacks the drive and determination to succeed at the professional level. He might be able to get away with such a delicate attitude in another hockey market, but this is the center of the hockey universe. We demand more from our players than the occasional highlight reel goal. We’d trade all that for the one thing Kessel is missing and will likely never possess: heart. He’s no Doug Gilmour.
In trading for Kessel, the Leafs eventually gave-up Tyler Seguin and Dougie Hamilton - one player who is already climbing the NHL ladder and another who is sure to follow him. Just imagine how the Leafs’ bench would look with two young Canadians sitting there instead of the motley crew of Americans Burke brought to town.
Unfortunately, the Kessel trade is both more complicated and less complicated than it appears at first glance. In trading for Kessel, Burke had no idea he was giving away Seguin and Hamilton. All he knew was that a 20-something-year-old goal scorer came with the deal. It’s difficult to snag a kid who can score 36 goals in only his third NHL season. On paper, this might sound like a great deal – mystery draft picks for a bona fide talent – I mean, a great deal for a team that is one or two players away from making a serious run for the Cup.
When Burke inherited the Leafs, they were broken and old. He misjudged the team in front of him, not the draft picks in his hands. He thought Kessel was the missing piece, but the whole team was absent. For a GM, this is the worst type of sin: you should always know your own team.
Komisarek is another case of poor judgment. On paper, he fills the part of the prototypical defenceman. He’s big, he’s mean and he’s willing to push himself against the limits. The problem is that his limits are just that: limits. He can barely skate, his shot looks like a pass and his pass looks like something you would normally pass on. In short, he stinks. The size of the contract given to him, however, has prevented other guys like Cody Franson – one of the good pick-ups by Burke – from getting more ice time. The Leafs now find themselves in the same position Komisarek finds himself every time he hits the ice: he can’t go anywhere.
Want a sign that Komisarek should have been avoided from the start? The Montreal Canadiens – the team that drafted and developed him – had no trouble letting him go. That’s a bad sign.
Many people will argue that Wilson should have been fired within the first few days of his arrival in Toronto. I agree. His attitude sucks and he couldn’t teach the team to kill a penalty if his job depended on it. (Unfortunately, his job did not depend on teaching the team how to kill a penalty.) Burke, for all his stubbornness, failed to see the obvious and gave his friend a one-year contract extension over the 2011 Christmas period that quickly expired before the end of winter. Burke went from calling Wilson one of the Leafs’ bright spots to firing him within a matter of months. Another sign of poor judgement.
Don Cherry has beaten the Kadri issue to death, but I don’t see why guys like Matt Frattin, Carter Ashton and David Steckel among many others get time on the big club while one of the team’s most gifted offensive talents wastes away in the AHL. If Kadri doesn’t fit the Leafs mold, then he should be traded. By keeping him in the minors for so long, the Leafs have only lowered his confidence and decreased his trade value. I consider this a bad call.
As I said at the outset, there is plenty of good to see in the Brian Burke era as well. Dion Phaneuf, Jake Gardiner, Joffrey Lupul and Morgan Rielly: these guys are worth a serious look and I’ll return to them when the time is judged right.
Just be glad Burke is no longer the one making all the judgement calls.
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