TORONTO – Toronto Maple Leafs general manager Brian Burke will not fire his head coach as punishment for his team’s disintegrating season, saying Ron Wilson’s job is “as safe as the gold in the treasury at Fort Knox.”
In an expansive and entertaining question-and-answer session with reporters on Thursday, Burke conceded frustration with the way the Leafs have been playing. But he said that frustration would not prompt him to ask defenceman Tomas Kaberle to waive his no-trade clause, nor would it lead to regret in the surrender of two first-round draft picks in exchange for struggling forward Phil Kessel.
Toronto had lost four in a row heading into Thursday night’s game against the Philadelphia Flyers, managing only one win in its last seven games. The Leafs had the National Hockey League’s worst penalty-kill (68.1 per cent) and sat 28th of 30 teams in the overall standings as Burke addressed the media.
“I don’t fault the coaches at all for where we are,” he said. “There is not going to be a coaching change here. That’s not been considered, discussed, whatever.”
“Some people would say that’s because you guys are friends,” a veteran radio reporter suggested.
“Well,” Burke said, “some people would be idiots if they said that.”
Burke and Wilson have been friends for decades, having been teammates at Providence College. Wilson is in the second season of a four-year contract reported to be worth around US$1.6 million annually.
“All I expect Burkie to do is his job, and if there are issues, to speak to me about it,” Wilson said. “We’re professionals. If Burkie thinks the best thing is to change coaches, then I would expect him to act professional and do it. And if he did it, it wouldn’t have anything to do with our friendship.”
One thing Burke said he would not do is approach Kaberle to surrender his no-trade clause. The 31-year-old, who is under contract for the bargain price of US$4.25-million through next season, took the ice Thursday as the team leader in assists (35) and points (39).
“Kaberle has been a great Leaf, he’s a great guy,” Burke said. “He’s played well and hard for us, and has been a quality citizen. He earned that fair and square, and I am not going to ask him to waive it.”
Burke said he sent a note to Kaberle’s agent saying as much on Wednesday, and said the notion of fairness to a veteran player outweighs the quality of any offers the Leafs might field for the defenceman’s services. Protecting the integrity of a no-trade clause – even if it was provided by his predecessor, John Ferguson Jr. – is an important sales tool for the Leafs if they want to attract free agents, Burke said.
Kaberle has said he would prefer to remain in Toronto, but if he or his agent were to approach the Leafs with the possibility of waiving the clause, Burke said he would not accept a list of fewer than 10 potential teams. That said, Burke suggested he has not been overwhelmed by the quality of offers put forth by his counterparts around the NHL.
“We’re getting wonderful offers,” Burke said. “It’s like watching National Geographic, when you see a dead zebra and there’s vultures everywhere. Only the zebra’s not dead yet.”
It could be healthier, though.
Kessel’s prolonged scoring drought had been one of the team’s primary ailments. Burke surrendered first-round picks in 2010 and 2011 for the young winger, who had one goal in 13 games heading into play Thursday.
“We’ve got a 21-year-old who scored 36 goals in the National Hockey League last year,” Burke said. “And I’d make that trade again today. And if it was the end of the year and it was a lottery pick, I’d still make that trade. We believe we got the player we need to take it to the next level.”
Burke rhymed off a list of reasons why the Leafs have failed to get to that next level so far this season, including the team’s propensity for surrendering the early lead, and for an individual unwillingness to win battles for the puck.
“You have no idea how frustrating it is,” Burke said. “If we didn’t know the group could win hockey games, then it would be, ‘OK, we’ve got real problems and we’ve got to tear this thing down to the foundation and rebuild it.’ But we know this team can win hockey games, and yet, we’re not doing it.”