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Leafs' struggles rooted in Burke's enthusiasm

The Hockey News

The Hockey News

Three years ago, just after Brian Burke won the Stanley Cup in Anaheim, THN anointed Burke the best GM in the NHL. But as Wile E. Coyote proved every time one of his ACME contraptions went awry and he ended up crushed under a boulder, genius can indeed be fleeting.

After all, Lou Lamoriello was a genius once. So was Glen Sather, for all of you in the under-30 crowd. There’s something about genius that makes it fade once your teams start piling up losing seasons. Even geniuses are judged on results.

Which brings us to Burke, whose IQ didn’t drop 30 points the moment he landed in Toronto. He still has a Cup, something 23 of his 29 counterparts cannot say. More impressively, Burke walked out with the two best players from the horrible ’99 draft. He also built the Canucks into a contender and money-maker on a shoestring budget.

But what made Burke such a good GM elsewhere has caused his struggles with the Leafs. Decisiveness and passion have always ruled Burke, but those two traits have caused him to make some very questionable moves.

Above all, Burke has gone wrong in the way he has grossly misjudged the hockey market in Toronto. He bought into all the age-old and misguided notions about this organization and its fan base, and in doing so, used that observation to make a flurry of ill-advised moves.

Shortly after Burke was hired in 2008, he opined that, “The guy that turns this team around and wins a championship here, they’re going to name schools after him.” A search of the hundreds of schools in the Toronto area failed to come up with a Conn Smythe Elementary or Punch Imlach Secondary and the way the Leafs are headed, it’s probably fair to say the Toronto District Board of Education won’t be breaking ground on the Brian Burke Middle School anytime soon.

And that’s because for all his smarts and his ability to change cultures, Burke believed the same myths that have been perpetuated by this organization for far too long. He was brought in to make the organization a winner and was seduced into believing the rebuild had to be done quickly. And nothing could have been further from the truth. What Leaf fans want more than a quick fix is a long-term plan that will make their team a legitimate contender. They’ve waited more than 40 years for a Cup, a couple of more seasons of painful rebuilding would not have been a problem. And if anyone had that mandate, it was Burke.

It was that notion, plus the fact Burke envisioned his roster as being better than it actually is, that caused him to make his moves. None of them is more questionable than the acquisition of Phil Kessel for so many reasons. First, please point out to us when there has ever been a successful rebuild in the NHL that has been accomplished by trading away draft picks. Teams that build themselves into contenders hoard their picks, they don’t deal them away. Ever.

And the biggest problem with Kessel is that his talent and ability to put up points seduce people. He is the kind of player who will score a hat trick in an 8-2 win, but goes alarmingly AWOL when his team really needs him to step up. He was that way long before he ever came to Toronto and he probably won’t ever change.

Those kinds of moves have set any meaningful rebuild back by years. And it was largely done because Burke came in thinking the fans were impatient, the media was comprised of a bunch of blood-suckers and the pressure on anyone to play in this atmosphere is suffocating.

All of it is totally false, just like the notion there exists a Blue and White disease that makes players who are unconditionally loved far too comfortable. Well, you can’t have it both ways, can you? You can’t complain about the unbearable pressure of performing in Toronto, then accuse your players of being fat cats because they can do no wrong. There is no more pressure or unconditional love showered upon the Leafs than there are on the New York Yankees, Manchester United or the L.A. Lakers.

But in Toronto, it’s apparently a “disgrace” that fans boo an underachieving, mistake-prone captain or that the future of a coach who hasn’t coaxed any results out of his roster is questioned. Anyone who knows Burke quickly realizes he’s taking the heat off his team by putting it on himself, but it is born of a notion that Leaf fans are ready to pounce and eat their own.

Nothing could be further from the truth and nobody, not Burke or anyone else, is going to fix this thing until they realize that.

This article originally appeared in the Dec. 6 edition of The Hockey News magazine.

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