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January 11, 2013
Zamboni Tracks
Burke Out In Toronto

by Ryan Wagman

On Wednesday evening, around 7:00pm EST, internet in my home evaporated. A text message sent to my brother living halfway across the city revealed that he, too, was offline. I was not even able to access WiFi. Rogers Communications was having a problem. I later learned that much of the Greater Toronto Area—at least those serviced by Rogers—had lost the web as well.

This is obviously a simple coincidence, but earlier the same day, news leaked out that the Toronto Maple Leafs' new ownership group, Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment (MLSE), of which 37.5% is owned by Rogers Communications, had formally decided to fire their embattled General Manager, Brian Burke, just four days before it was assumed that training camp would finally start.

While Burke losing his job was certainly to be expected at some point, the timing of this decision struck most of the hockey community as being very odd. The Board of Governors meeting was only hours away and this was the meeting that was to see the Board vote on ratifying the recent provisional CBA agreed to between representatives of the NHL and NHLPA over the past weekend. After all, many still believe that it was Burke who pushed for the inclusion of a provision that would allow for teams to, for the first time, trade cap space in player trades. In the previous CBA (in all previous CBAs), money was prohibited from changing hands in player deals.

Burke was out, and longtime right hand man Dave Nonis was named the new GM of the Original Six franchise. Nonis, who has worked under Burke in Vancouver, Anaheim, and for the past four years, Toronto, does not have the word "interim" in front of his new title, yet no news has leaked about contract length for his new position.

The first question to be asked, and the easiest one to answer, is whether or not Burke deserved the boot. On merit, the answer is undoubtedly, emphatically, yes. This answer has nothing to do with his self-professed anti-analytics stance, a viewpoint he shared last year at the MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference, when he stated that "Stats are like a lamppost to a drunk, useful for support, but not illumination". Simply put, the answer has to do with team success. Bearing in mind that Burke took over a failing franchise in 2008, the team has floundered under his watch, hovering between 74-85 points in his four-year term, not once making the playoffs.

Burke's tenure with the Leafs famously started off with the silver-haired one believing the team was only a key player or two away from serious contention. With that in mind, towards the close of his first offseason in the position, Burke packaged the Leafs' next two first round draft picks and their next second rounder to Boston for unsigned RFA Phil Kessel. In spite of 99 goals across the following three seasons, that trade would define Brian Burke's Toronto tenure, as both first rounders ended up as top 10 picks, including the number two overall pick that was used by the Bruins on budding superstar Tyler Seguin. While Kessel was every bit the rising All-Star sniper his supporters had made him out to be, he was often the only bright light on an otherwise dreary club.

In four seasons, the Leafs have ranked 30th, 29th, tied for 25th, and 29th in goals allowed per game. It is absolutely true that the GM never had to stand between the pipes in a valiant effort to stop enemy pucks, but it is just as true that it was always his choice as far as who to bring in to do so. Not only did Burke sign the netminders, but he also made waves by bringing aboard the famed goalie coach, Francois Allaire, whose resume included critical mentoring of a young Patrick Roy and a neophyte J-S Giguere. Having failed to repeat his magic with Vesa Toskala, Joey MacDonald, highly-touted Swedish import Jonas Gustavsson, a reunion with Giguere, and with only temporary success with a young James Reimer, Allaire quit his post this past September, citing meddling from the rest of the coaching staff as a primary reason.

When Burke took over the team a few weeks into the 2008-09 season, he inherited a squad that had recently seen upheaval in the coaching position, as Paul Maurice was shown the door in favor of Ron Wilson. Under the tandem of Burke and Wilson, not only were the Leafs among the worst teams at stopping the puck, but they were even worse when it came to killing penalties, ranking 30th, 30th, and 28th in three full seasons under the duo and 28th last year, in which Wilson was let go on March 2, as the team was caught in a horrific tailspin that took them out of playoff contention after a hot start. Part of that, again, was down to shoddy goaltending, and part was the inability of the team to play responsibly in their own end, as the team also ranked in the bottom half of the league in shots faced in three out of those four seasons.

The ineffectualness of Wilson traced back to Burke again—even though he was not hired by Burke—when the coach was given a contract extension last Christmas, on the heels of the aforementioned hot start. As I wrote in the recent Hockey Prospectus 2012-13 annual about the former coach, "In a pure meritocracy, one would be rewarded for success and punished—or at least not rewarded—for failure." In giving Wilson additional security, Burke brushed aside repeated failure to reward a very fleeting success. This trait followed Burke around on a number of his transactions throughout his Toronto tenure.

Many of the free agents brought in to the hockey Mecca were poor players who should not have been expected to contribute greatly to a winning team, but who had enjoyed some recent success, which had excited Burke and loosed the Toronto purse strings. Of course, if Burke was more interested in advanced statistics—even only moderately advanced concepts such of puck possession metrics—he might have avoided giving a five-year contract to Mike Komisarek, four years to Colton Orr, and three years to Francois Beauchemin, contracts that were immediately panned by the sabermetric community. I could go on—three years for Colby Armstrong, two years for Brett Lebda, and two years for Tim Connolly, among other lesser deals.

It wasn't all bad, as Burke did have a deft trade touch, illustrated nicely in his swap of the aforementioned Beauchemin to Anaheim for Joffrey Lupul, Jake Gardiner, and a conditional pick, or his big trade with Calgary that sent Ian White and high-salaried spare parts to the Flames for Dion Phaneuf and a few other spare parts. On other occasions, Burke was able to salvage young assets in exchange for veteran pieces that were not in the Leafs' future plans as one season after another was consigned to history. The Tomas Kaberle and Kris Versteeg sales are examples.

If the organization is stronger today than it was when Burke took the helm four plus years ago, it is only because the system was so poor at the time that it would have been impossible to degrade it. Yet in spite of disappointing results at the NHL level in each season of his term, the system is not stocked with high upside youth, with only last summer's fifth overall selection, Morgan Rielly, looking like a future star. Gardiner is still in his ascendancy and Kessel looks to have several more 30+ goal seasons in him, but the goaltending situation is still very cloudy, and the hope that one of Nazem Kadri or Joe Colborne could develop into a number one center has already passed.

More issues could be cited, such as Burke's self-imposed limitations in terms of not trading in the two weeks leading up to Christmas or his unwillingness to use CBA loopholes to strengthen the club, but at a certain point, it just gets to be piling on. After all, the man just lost his job (although not his salary, nor access to the executive parking lot, as he will stay on in a non-hockey advisory role until further notice).

So while it is quite reasonable to suggest that Burke had earned his current job status, the question to be asked is "Why now?" In other words, "Why not earlier?" Of course, there is no definite answer to that question available, but we may speculate freely. First, we look back and see that the sale of the Maple Leafs from the Ontario Teachers' Pension Plan to MLSE was only closed on August 22, 2012. Three weeks later, barely enough time for the new Board to get to know the staff, the NHL lockout was in place. To the best of my knowledge, there was no formal rule preventing team transactions at the executive level during the lockout, even if player movement was strictly curtailed. It is feasible that the NHL had asked teams to hold off on all managerial moves as well during the work stoppage. Even if that was not the case, we know that Burke was heavily involved on the NHL side, including the above-mentioned cap hit movement provision. Just as players should be viewed as assets to their general managers, general managers are merely assets to the team owners. Burke, a Harvard-trained lawyer, was certainly a useful asset during the last CBA negotiations, and the MLSE board must not have seen the need to jettison the man during the lockout. With that thankfully behind us, Burke was no longer seen as an asset to MLSE.

This explanation especially holds up if rumors that Burke was decidedly unimpressive in early interviews with his new boss are true. Among other things, it was reported that he could not offer any reasonable explanation for the teams' struggles under his watch and was generally brusque with his new management. Other innuendo emerged that Burke was not interested in trading for the long-term contract attached to goaltender Roberto Luongo of the Canucks, a move that was whole-heartedly supported by many others in the Toronto managerial sphere. Nonis, who dealt for Luongo when he had earlier replaced Burke as GM in Vancouver, is thought to be on board with once more trading for the veteran stopper.

All of this leads to our third, and final, question, "What's next in Toronto?" As mentioned earlier, Nonis is not known to have signed a long term deal as the GM. The thinking here is that the ownership is not sure if he is truly the man to put the Leafs on a new path. Having worked so closely with Brian Burke for so long, Nonis gives the impression of being a chip off the old block—he even admitted as much in his introductory press conference, claiming that he would act in much the same way as Burke did, with relatively little difference. In a short season, a team like the Toronto Maple Leafs, with perpetually sold out stands and a rabid fan base, has little to lose in giving Nonis a trial run. Even though success or failure in the standings in a 48-game slate may not be truly indicative of success—especially at the general manager level—the Leafs' record in the abbreviated 2013 season will likely play an outsized role in the GM position going into the next full season, even more than Nonis' ability to play nice with his bosses. Should the Leafs miss the playoffs once again, expect the organization to veer in an entirely new direction. More answers will be forthcoming when we see how the Luongo situation plays out, but the story here is far from over.

Ryan Wagman is an author of Hockey Prospectus. You can contact Ryan by clicking here or click here to see Ryan's other articles.

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