TORONTO – Brian Burke needs to earn his money this summer.
While identifying a No. 1 centre as his top off-season priority Tuesday, the Toronto Maple Leafs general manager acknowledged they won’t be readily available. He agrees with coach Ron Wilson’s assertion the franchise is “two or three pieces” from being a Stanley Cup contender and intends to try and find those players.
“I believe in this group,” Burke said during his end of season media conference. “I think the building blocks we put in place in terms of the defence, the way the top-six (forwards) rounded out, I do think we’re close with a few additions.
“Whether we can get access to those players or are able to get them remains to be seen.”
It will likely take a deft move.
The only player that fits the bill among this year’s free-agent class is Brad Richards and he’s indicated all season he’d like to re-sign with the Dallas Stars before July 1. Burke could also aggressively pursue a trade, but teams are usually reluctant to part ways with the kind of player he seeks.
“Our top priority is a centre, no question about it,” he said.
The GM spent almost 45 minutes picking over the season—some at a podium, the rest with a small clutch of reporters—but it was decidedly tame by Burke standards. The only thing that drew his ire was a line of questioning that suggested some fans want to see Wilson fired.
“We don’t give a rat’s ass what the consensus is,” Burke replied.
It’s the sixth straight season the Maple Leafs have failed to qualify for the post-season, the last two-and-a-half of which Burke has been at the helm.
There has been a steady stream of change during that period and the GM finally believes he has a roster that can be called his own. That’s one of the main reasons he doesn’t hold Wilson and his coaching staff responsible for all the losing that has happened on their watch.
One constant concern over the past three seasons has been penalty killing—an area where the Leafs haven’t finished a year ranked higher than 28th since Wilson was hired.
“I felt the first time that I’ve given Ron a competitive group to play with was the second half of this season,” said Burke. “We got some people out of here that didn’t want to be here.
“I think that we got a goaltender who managed to make timely saves—that’s a three-quarters of penalty killing—so we need to improve in that area, I agree with you. But it’s too easy to pin on the coaches.”
Burke praised a number of players for their performance and indicated he viewed the strong second half of the year as a sign of things to come. Even though fans might be growing impatient with the long gap between successful seasons, he doesn’t think the current team should have to answer for that failure.
“This group of athletes doesn’t have to defend seven years, this group of athletes doesn’t have to talk about 1967,” said Burke. “The most frustrating thing for me in this marketplace is a question where you expect this group of athletes to apologize for failure that occurred before they ever got here. It’s not right.
“I’ve told them I am holding them accountable from the day they got here.”
The same goes for him.
Burke arrived with plenty of fanfare in November 2008 and has found himself frustrated by the amount of time it’s taken to taste success. It’s been an unfamiliar experience after being in charge of good teams in Anaheim and Vancouver.
“I was in the playoffs seven straight years before I got here,” said Burke. “This has been a long, slow, torturous process for me.
“I don’t like it, I don’t like being out of the playoffs. I take it personally. I’m sour about it, especially when we actually got close this year and made a push. I’m not happy.”
There’s only one way to change that.
Burke is part of the U.S. management team at the upcoming IIHF World Hockey Championship while Leafs senior vice-president Dave Nonis is assembling the Canadian squad. Once they return from Slovakia in mid-May, they’ll start planning for an important summer.
It won’t be easy to find the “two or three pieces” they need to make this team a contender.
“I don’t think Ron was wrong with that at all, but the question is can we add three guys who could have that impact through trade or free agency?” said Burke. “That’s a harder question.”
It’s one he must try and answer in the coming months.