The Big Goodbye: An Alternative Perspective

Photo: Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

“He had a good dream. It’s the only dream you can have – to come out number-one man. He fought it out here, and this is where I’m gonna win it for him.”
– Happy Loman in Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman

I can’t say I am as distraught as some of the other writers on this site about Burke’s departure (I’m not). I will say I’m shocked by the timing. Coming out of a Collective Bargaining Agreement that sees many of Burke’s personal principles put into play league wide, and the amount of cap space he to work with this summer, it gave me the feeling that he would’ve been given the benefit of doubt running the team through the 2013-14 season. Guess not. Can I blame them? No.

When I think of Brian Burke’s tenure in Toronto, I think about a man who arrived with big dreams and was crushed under the weight of the reality of the situation. The Leafs were going to skip a rebuild, they were going to be a contender quickly, they were going to have one of the deepest farm systems in the league. Unfortunately, grand dreams do not equal grand execution, and in that sense I can’t help but think that Brian Burke’s legacy to Maple Leafs will be as the Willy Loman of GMs. I would have loved to lived in the world where Burke’s plans came to fruition, but alas you need star centres, top tier defensemen, and reliable goaltending to even consider yourself ready to talk about winning.
While some foundation work has certainly been put into place during the Burke tenure, it’s hard to say he moved the dial in a significant manner for the Leafs. Most pro-Burke people will point to his track record with building a more impressive collection of prospects within the organization. Arguably he’s moved the dial from horrible to mediocre, but that’s about it. The Kessel trade (I deal I still support) cost the Leafs two ten draft picks, a blunder that we would have crucified John Ferguson Jr. for. Outside of his two top ten picks, he has failed to furnish the Leafs with much in the way of high end potential (though the jury is still out on Josh Leivo) and seemed to value having a large quantity of “safe” third liners, and 2/3rd pairing defensemen over rolling the dice on higher potential players.

Burke’s record through Free Agency has also been a failure. Outside of Clarke MacArthur and Francois Beauchemin, everyone else can safely be regarded as a bust. Perhaps my philosophy differs somewhat from Brian Burke, but I would have rather see one elite signing at $9 million per season than three second tier signings totaling $11 million.

The previous point leads into another of my concerns about how the staffing of the 3rd defensive pairing and 3rd and 4th forward lines have been approached. Overpayments for role players, good guys in the room, and healthy scratches from championship teams have plagued Toronto. I for one will happily embrace a change from the aggressive recruitment of non-skilled players.

I don’t know if there is any point to mentioning goaltending here, as we can all see the problem clear as day, but it is laughable that Burke never resolved it. Especially after Dan Cloutier was the nail in his coffin in Vancouver, you would have hoped that this would’ve been the first thing Burke addressed as the Leafs GM. Instead we were treated to bizarre European and NCAA signings, waiver claims, and the acquisition of a contractual albatross that was on the decline and had lost his starter role in Anaheim. Perhaps we’d be in a better place if Burke had simply re-signed Gerber.

I have raked Burke over the coals more than I would have liked to in this post. I feel bad about that because he’s fundamentally a man I have great respect for. His ability to give back to the community, his passion for the game and his strong ethical beliefs will all be things I will miss about him. He truly is a great man. He just missed the mark when it came to turning the franchise around. That’s the disappointing piece amid the rumours of the real reason why he was let go. I can understand not liking his body of work, but to cast him aside for who he is was poor reasoning by the MLSE board.