Thursday, February 09, 2012

Trading Brian Burke

A few weeks back I was on the phone with a sports reporter talking about the MLG Time Capsule. Rather unexpectedly, he asked me the following question: Of the Canadian NHL teams, which GM would I rank 4th best.

The question made me laugh. It’s a great question as the top and the bottom are pretty easily defined. But the middle? That’s fertile ground.

To get to number four, I wasn’t sure if I should start with the worst GM (Tambellinni) or the best (Gillis?).

In the end, I used a pincer method of sorts going with Tambellinni at 7, Gauthier at 6, and Feaster at 5. From the top end, Gillis is in at 1 and Burke at 2. That left Bryan Murray or whoever the GM of the Jets is (Kevin Cheveldayoff – had to google it) for the number four slot.

I was stumped as to who should get the number four ranking. Murray’s Senators aren’t any great shakes but at that point in the season they were certainly outperforming their expected pace. On the other hand, I can’t name a single move or decision made by Cheveldayoff.

Due to this perception of inactivity, I gave the number four spot to the Jets GM by default. An answer I’m pretty sure the reporter on the other end of the phone anticipated. Don’t know that he agreed with it though.

* * *

I’m reading a wonderful book about Stoke’s first season in the Premiership. It’s a game-by-game accounting of their inaugural year by a great writer and committed fan who travels to (just about) every game.

On one of the many road trips between his home in Norwich and wherever the hell Stoke are playing, he and his travel companions debate which general managers in the Premiership they’d trade Stoke’s GM Tony Pulis for.

This got me thinking about my recent call with the sports reporter, the matter of the 4th best Canadian teams’ GM, and the ranking of Brian Burke.

I like Burke. I think he’s a passionate GM who is dedicated to winning in Toronto. I get the feeling he hates losing more than we fans do - something I wouldn't have thought possible a few years ago.

I also think Burke's passion for winning is matched by his bluster and hot air. He’s got a terrible blind spot about goalies and his scouts have struck out at the draft more often than not.

That said, how many NHL GMs would I actually swap Burke for? Lets add it up…

Bob Murray, Anaheim
This is the guy who traded for Jason Blake and Vesa Toskala. On the brighter side, he traded Toskala before he ever played a game in Anaheim. I don’t follow the Ducks very closely, but he seems to be in that dangerous netherworld where the team isn’t competing and isn’t rebuilding either.

Peter Chiarelli, Boston
In a heartbeat. He was assistant GM to the Sens when they were ascendant and has built a fantastic team with loads of depth and a hard identity in Boston. Chiarelli and his assistants have done a masterful job managing the Bs cap, even with a few questionable contracts. Would love to see what he could do in Toronto.

Darcy Regier, Buffalo
His team seems to have a real knack for developing talent. If it weren’t for massive injuries to the Sabres blue line, they likely would have won the Cup in 2006. This has always made me wonder what Regier would be capable of doing if given the resources of a deep pocketed owner. Turns out it involves massive over-pays for the likes of Ville Leino and Christian Erhoff. The Sabres have the highest salary commitment in the NHL and will miss the playoffs.

Jay Feaster, Calgary
Anyone who can spell NHL knows that the Flames need a serious rebuild. Jay Feaster has not yet recognized this.

Jim Rutherford, Carolina
Rutherford swings some interesting deals, drafts pretty well, and has a Stanley Cup ring. That said, his teams seem to oscillate between being somewhat decent and absolutely horrid. He also seems to randomly hire and fire Paul Maurice, a coach I can’t abide. He seems to GM like my kids play board games, sure there’s an occasional win, but there doesn’t seem to be much strategy or forethought.

Stan Bowman, Chicago
Bowman’s not even two years into his tenure. He took over a pretty stacked club and landed a Stanley Cup. I would think his surname alone would buy him a few year’s media grace in Toronto. As for the more important parts of his C.V. I’d say the jury is still out.
I’ll call this one a push.

Greg Sherman, Colorado
Of the 30 GMs in the NHL, this was the only one I had to google. Had no idea who was running the show in Denver. (Full disclosure, I had to google Cheveldayoff a few weeks ago). The fact that I can name 28 NHL GMs and not this guy does not bode well. According to ESPN, he made just 9 roster moves in all of 2010. Yikes.

Scott Howson, Columbus
Anyone that thinks starting a season with Steve Mason and Curtis Sanford is welcome to join my hockey pool. Run the NHL team I cheer for? Not a chance.

Joe Niewendyk, Dallas
How ugly was that James Neal and Matt Niskanen deal for Alex Goligoski? That said, every time he botched a deal like that in Toronto, they could probably cue up a highlight real on the scoreboard culminating in those ugly playoff goals on Lalime and we’d all be enthralled again for another few weeks. I think Joe’s too junior to be Leafs GM yet.

Ken Holland, Detroit

Steve Tambellini, Edmonton
Quite possibly the worst GM in the NHL. If he had to organize my kid’s grade one class trip to the ROM, they’d end up in Waterloo at RIM.

Dale Tallon, Florida
He pretty much built the roster that won the Hawks the Cup, but he also screwed up the RFA offers that led to many pieces of the Cup-winning team being moved. In Florida, he re-aquired Brian Campbell’s over-sized contract and inexplicably moved-out the very serviceable David Booth for the old and damaged Mikael Samuelsson and Marco Sturm. And what’s up with those glasses?

Garth Snow, New York Islanders
I like a lot of the moves Snow has made as GM of the Islanders (Parenteau, Moulson, Grabner, Neilsen). Unfairly, I can’t shake the feeling that his tenure in New York is some type of performance art. It doesn’t seem quite legit.

Dean Lombardi, LA Kings
I was a big fan of how Lombardi built the Kings. He had patience, he assembled the right pieces, he avoided overpaying free agents, but it’s not looking like all of that patience and planning is going to pay off. Thinking of where the Leafs are in their development cycle and Lombardi’s (to date) failure to get the Kings to the next level, I’m starting to have my doubts. I’m on the fence, but I wouldn’t be in knots if he got the nod…er, um…let’s say Yes.

Chuck Fletcher, Minnesota
This is like trying to decide how you want to eat your tofu. No matter how you dress it up, it’s still kind of a boring, indescribable meh. And this particular tofu has missed the playoffs three years running (looking like a fourth).

Pierre Gauthier, Montreal

David Poile, Nashville
I’m sure the detractors will point to the Forsberg deal or the awful Rinne contract, but this is the guy I was hoping the Leafs would land when they were searching for a GM to replace JFJ. With limited resources and a no-name roster, Poile somehow builds teams that compete year after year.

Lou Lamoriello, New Jersey
Lou will be 70 later this year.

Glen Sather, New York Rangers
Has any executive in any industry ridden out 18 year old success like Slats? Pre-lockout, he assembled some awful teams with huge payrolls. Post-lockout, his best moves have been burying his own mistakes. The Rangers are looking good this year, but I’m thinking there window closes soon. I don’t think Slats has the jam to get that team where it needs to go.

Bryan Murray, Ottawa
How Murray has survived the purges in Ottawa is beyond me. They go through coaches like my kids going through Candy on November 1st. Add in the playoff misses, less than stellar drafts, and half-assed rebuild and you’ve got a Sens team that’s likely to miss the playoffs for the 2nd year in a row and third time in four years. The Sens’ real shot at success passed them by in 2008.

Mike Paul Holmgren, Philadelphia
Did a beautiful job transforming this team starting in late in 2007. If only he could avoid whatever is in the water in Philly that kills goalies dead. The franchise has been a virtual elephant’s graveyard for keepers for 20+ years. I’m on the fence on this one…the Pronger over 35 deal combined with the awful goaltending decisions…when I asked my pal Chemmy about Holmgren as Leafs GM, he replied, "Oh God no. Is this happening?" That tilts it.

Don Maloney, Phoenix
Solid drafting, good cap management, and a modicum of success in what has to be a difficult operating environment. On the other hand, they’re a marginal team who’ve never won a playoff series (last playoff series win was as the Jets in 1987, soon to be 25 years and counting!).

Ray Shero, Pittsburgh
Big fan of Dan Bylsma and am really impressed with how this team has performed despite injuries.

Doug Wilson, San Jose
This team has been so good for so long it’s almost like Wilson’s work is taken for granted. On the flip side, they just can’t seem to get over the hump and I have to wonder if their window is starting to close. Thornton is 33, Marleau is 32...

Doug Armstrong, St. Louis
When I think of the Blues, the first thing that comes to mind is wanting a do-over on the Steen deal. Anyways, not even two years into his tenure, Armstrong’s Blues are having an amazing season. Who knew the likes of Arnott, Langenbrunner, Nichol could still contribute at 37. I’ve long preached the value of veterans on one year deals and it’s certainly paying off in St. Louis. Yeah, it’s early days for Armstrong, but he put up very impressive numbers in Dallas (210-109-35-23) and he’s doing it again in St.Louis.

Steve Yzerman, Tampa Bay
How quickly the golden boy has faded. Reminds me of the adage, show me a good hockey coach and I’ll show you a team with a good goalie. Yzerman walked into a talented Tampa Bay club that was on the upswing. This year, sub-par goaltending has held the club back. In some quarters he’ll get bonus points for his work with Team Canada, but this country has so much hockey depth, you could probably pull the top names from a hat and ice a great team. I’m going to take a wait and see on Yzerman, see how he handles the goaltending issue in Tampa.

Vancouver, Mike Gillis
When the rats and finks wear your team colours, they’re lovingly called agitators and pests.

Washington, George McPhee
Good old GM GM. On paper, the Caps looked like the team to beat in the east this year. The Boudreau firing seemed premature and the Hunter hiring seems misguided. Still, I like a lot of what he’s done with the Caps. I wouldn’t be upset if he came to Toronto.

Winnipeg, Kevin Cheveldayoff
Two weeks ago, I had to hit up Google to figure out who this guy was. As the fourth best GM in Canada, he’s not good enough for my Leafs.

* * *

So that’s seven GMs I’d swap Burke for, four I’m on the fence about and 18 that are a definite no.

As much as I question Burke, I have to admit I’m surprised I’d take nearly 25% of the GMs in the League in his place…not the totals I expected.

Then again, ask me next week and the numbers might be completely different.


  1. Regarding Paul Holmgren (since I'm a Flyers fan who covers their ECHL affiliate in Trenton)

    The goalie carousel was more a product of ownership refusing to commit to drafting and developing a goalie and instead ordering Bobby Clarke/Paul Holmgren to find quick fixes through UFA's or trades.

    For instance, after Sergei Bobrovsky had a strong rookie regular season (.915 SV%) Bob was benched for Boucher in the playoffs after a rough start and because he was injured with several "dings and bruises"

    Lavi used the "hot hand" in the playoffs which is how we saw all of Bob-Boucher-Leighton vs Buffalo before Boston swept Philly in round 2

    Paul Holmgren wanted to go with Bobrovsky and a vet backup-ish starter (probably Jose Theodore or Evgeni Nabokov or Marty Turco, 2010 only) but in June 2010, ownership ordered that Holmgren give Leighton a contract and in 2011 ordered the trades of Richards and Carter and to sign Bryzgalov.

    It was also, Asst GM Barry Hanrahan who effed up the Pronger contract, Holmgren claimed he was acting on advice of Hanrahan, who said that Prongs wouldn't be 35+; that said, it's a given at this point Pronger will just Marc Savard'd onto LTIR from now until 2018.

    As for Slats: Sather used the MLB-Yankees business model pre-Salary Cap era, it failed, mainly because vets never produced. Thing is, currently, he deserves a lot of credit for developing strong players like Lundqvist, Dubinsky, Callahan, Staal, Del Zotto, Dan Girardi and Brian Boyle. He also grabbed one of the best backup goalies (and overall underrated goalies IMO) in Martin Biron...that's a nice turn around. Sure he overpaid Redden and Avery is a distraction...but Slats could be a lot worse.

  2. I_am_I11:56 pm

    Pass on Mike Gillis, what exactly has he done that has impressed you so much? Adding Malhotra and Ballard? Signing Luongo to a 99 year deal? The 'Nucks are pretty close to what he inherited in 2008.
    I'm not convinced that Lombardi is an upgrade on Burke. I think he's a push for me.

  3. Paul Steckley9:15 am

    Other than Ken Holland and his scouting staff, or Peter Chiarelli, I don't think I'd trade Burke for anyone else in the NHL. When you consider where this team started from after the utter fiasco that was the JFJ experiment, Burke has been masterful in his rebuild. He took a team with little talent and no prospects and has made them a young, fast, exciting team to watch. Has he been perfect, no. The Connelly signing has been a bust to say the least and goaltending remains a question mark, but when I think back just a few seasons ago to what this team looked like and compare them to now, I'm very pleased with the progress. Consider this: In the 2008-2009 season, in which Burke joined the team at the end of November, the team's leading scorer was Jason Blake with 57 points and Toskala was in net with a GAA of 3.26 and Save % of .891. Just over three years later, after 55 games played both Kessel and Lupul have already topped that mark in points and Reimer/Gustavsson both have GAAs of under 2.77 and Save % over .909. Burke didn't have much to work with when he arrived and he's been able to put together a competitive team that is very young and should develop over time.

    Poile's done an excellent job in Nashville assembling young talent but has never been able to push them to that next level. Shero lucked out winning the Crosby pick lottery, although he has done a good job assembling a team around him. Armstrong has put together a decent team in St. Louis but did trade for the very fragile Colaiacovo so that's a strike against him. McPhee hasn't solved Washington's goaltending mess and may have wasted Ovechkin's best years. Gillis inherited a good team, including the two franchise cornerstones that Burke put in place. Lombardi's done an okay job in LA but considering how bad they were for so long, and the fact that they kept their picks, I would have expected them to be much better than they are by now.

    Regarding your comment about Burke's scouts striking out at the draft more often than not, if you look at the number of players drafted every year and compare it to the number of impact players from each draft class, it's pretty clear that most scouting staffs strike out more than not. I don't think Burke's drafting record is much worse than anyone else's. Not as good as Holland's to be sure but then again who's is?

    One thing you didn't mention was that Burke probably has a better trade record than any other GM. The Lupul-Gardiner deal for Beauchemin has been a big win for the Leafs, as has the Franson-Lombardi for Lebda deal. The Phaneuf deal has also been a positive (and furthers your argument about Feaster's lack of vision). Brown and Steckel have been good components picked up for 5th and 4th round picks respectively.

  4. Anonymous9:51 am

    I'd trade Stoke for an old sandwich.

    For a BLT, in fact.

    What's that? You won't give up the bacon?

    Ok. An LT will do just fine.

    - Not Norm

  5. Matt - Thanks for that response. It's funny, as a Leafs fan I always presume we're the only franchise that has to deal with a meddling owner. It's not something I associate with other teams.

    Still not buying it on Sather though. Even if his team goes deep (and I have my doubts) he routinely makes more mistakes than good decisions. Brad Richards being the latest in a long line of overpays.

  6. I_am_I - Gillis has done great contract work, kept a talented core together, moved out the old, brought in some solid players and routinely found cheap, fill-in talent to spackle over holes. He's been a very good GM.

  7. Paul If you look at Burke's draft record relative to other GMs, it's not good. I have some old posts on it.

    Every GM has their warts and Burke's not without his (look at his goalies over the years. OUCH).

    We'll have to agree to disagree on this one. Like the work Burke's done, but I think other GMs could have accomplished it too.

    1. Paul Steckley11:37 am

      A guy that drafts the Sedin twins, Kesler, and Bobby Ryan can't be all bad. I'm not saying it's a strength of his, just that he might not be as bad as your perception.

      We will have to agree to disagree on Burke. I don't think other GMs make the Lupul deal.

  8. anonymous What about a MLT, where the mutton is nice and lean and the tomato is ripe?

    1. Sergei Puckizin2:09 pm

      Billy Crystal, FTW.

  9. Anonymous10:23 am

    I think you underestimate Tallon or overestimate Burke.
    Tallon did the following:
    1. He acquired a premier defender (Campbell) for garbage
    2. He signed a capable NHL goalie
    3. He acquired Versteeg cheaply and signed decent UFA
    4. He ditched expensive/questionable contracts due to budget considers

    Compare that to Burke
    1. He acquired a premier defender (Phaneuf) for cheap
    2. He is still struggling with goaltending but acquired Giggy
    3. He acquired Kessel expensively and added talent.
    4. He acquired expensive/questionable contracts with no budget considerations

    Even if you compare Kessel to Versteeg.
    Kessel cost 2 first and a 2nd.
    Versteeg cost 2nd and 3rd.

    Do the math, do you prefer Kessel + 3rd or Versteeg and 2 firsts.

    In the first three I think Tallon out traded Burke (Campbell was cheaper then Phaneuf, his goaltending move was better then Burke and Versteeg was much cheaper then Kessel).

    Tallon one year rebuild mirrors Burke rebuild but has a much more difficult challenge as he can't absorb risky contracts like Lupul and Lombardi, in fact, he needs to deal them like Boothe because of budget issues. That is how Burke succeeds - he can take absorb bad contracts and acquire assets. I'm not sure that makes him a good GM - spendign $$$ is the team competitive advantage - and he uses. Poille, Tallon, Phoenix ice as competitive teams as Burke without being able to match spending - that needs to enter into your thinking.

    Also, one thing that has struck me about Chia is that when he traded his first round picks, the team was competitive in the playoff ensuring the loss of that first round pick was not that deterimental and provided a good risk/reward turnoff. Burke on the other, made a poor risk/reward gamble in trading a 2 firsts and a second and depending on an unproven goalie (he inherited) with no backup.

    Even Colorado who traded for Valrymov, got a capable backup NHL goalie to ensure that trade had a better chance of being breakeven at least rather then depending on him soley. Poor risk/reward management tarnishes Burke's record. And his best moves are a result of using $$$ a luxury most GM don't have.

    1. Paul Steckley11:50 am

      Tallon accomplished some good things in Florida, and assembled a Cup winner in Chicago before he left, but there is no denying that the Booth deal was a bad one as far as on-ice talent is concerned, and no GM should make the kind of mistakes he made with his qualifying offers in Chicago. I'm not crazy about his history with contracts either. The Campbell and Huet signings were both bad, and Chicago subsequently had to send Huet to Europe to bury his contract. If it wasn't for the fact that Florida had to get up to the cap floor, Chicago would likely have had to bury Campbell's contract too.

    2. Tallon's "one year rebuild" is not a rebuild at all. The young assets he has are assets that were there in the system before he arrived. He signed a bunch of second and third liners to play 1st and second line minutes. His team is regressing to what everyone expected of them and they're likely to finish out the year in 9th or 10th and be no further along next year.

      Burke "absorbing" bad contracts is a bit of a myth. Lombardi is on the team. His salary is against the cap, he didn't absorb and bury him in the minors. Is Lombardi overpaid? Yes, but would any other GM have made that move? Absolutely. The difference is Burke was able to do it. That makes him the winner.

      You can't discount Burke's moves because the Leafs have money. The point is he takes on contracts that are sometimes a bit overpaid in order to acquire good assets and dump bad ones. These so called poor risk/reward moves you mention are non-existent. Which ones are you talking about? Finger was a disaster, but not Burke.

      The only "bad" contract that Burke ever awarded was for Mike Komisarek, but had Komi not been annihilated by Lucic, he would be far less of a let down than he is considered today. You probably think the Connolly deal was "bad risk/reward gambling" but that's an absurd notion. Connolly is a good defensive center, and at his best he did a great job centering lupul/kessel, and in the worst case, he's only got one year remaining and will be an attractive option for teams looking to make a push in the offseason or at the next TDL.

      Burke signed Gunnarsson to a stellar RFA deal. He signed Bozak to a great deal. He traded a "free" second-round pick for, and then re-signed Liles to a great deal. He acquired Lupul and Gardiner for Beauchemin, who he had signed to a great deal. He traded a bag of bones for a very good defensive prospect and a fast, responsible, serviceable 3rd line center. He traded Stajan, Hagman, and Mayers for an all-star defenseman, and a young, potential shut-down, big-body, stay at home defenseman. He traded a horrible Jason Blake contract for an expiring Giguere. He turned Kaberle into Colborne, a 1st rounder pick, and a player who is an upgrade on Kaberle.

      Burke turned a Toskala, Gerber, and an empty goalie prospect pool into Reimer, Gustavsson, and a top-end prospect pool of Rynnas, Owuya, Scrivens, and Sparks.

      If you ask me if I'd rather be Florida or Toronto now, and over the next 5 years, I would 100% choose Toronto. I'll take Phaneuf over Campbell please and thank you. And yes, I'll take Kessel + 3rd over Versteeg + two 1sts, considering if that Kessel trade doesn't happen, it's unlikely the Kaberle trade happens, which means we have Seguin, Versteeg, Hamilton, Kaberle instead of Kessel, Colborne, Percy, and Liles. It remains to be seen what Hamilton and Percy will be, but it was clearly not working for Versteeg in Toronto.

      Point being, Burke has dominated on the trade front since coming to Toronto, and is signing of FAs with the exception of Komisarek has been stellar. He's also acquired a ton of young prospects/players (Again: Kessel, Gardiner, Colborne, Aulie, Rynnas, Owuya, Gustavsson, Franson, Macarthur, Phaneuf, Versteeg are players who were under 25 when acquired by Burke outside of the draft, not to mention Lupul, Liles, Lombardi as older players) in exchange for old and/or declining/mediocre players (Lebda, Hagman, Stajan, Mayers, Kaberle, Beauchemin), and the only young players/assets leaving being Stalberg, Versteeg, a 2nd, Seguin, Dougie Hamilton). I'll call that winning.

    3. Also, the Varlamov for their first rounder was widely regarded as, and still is and should be regarded as, an absolutely HORRIBLE trade. That is piss-poor asset management. Colorado is going nowhere this season, and surrendered a top 10 (possibly top 5) pick for a backup goalie. How you can possibly consider that to be anything but a complete disaster is somewhat incomprehensible.

    4. And one last thing that a lot of people don't take into account is the team of assistant GMs that Burke has assembled.

      Burke has brought in Dave Nonis, Rick Dudley, Dave Poulin, and kept Cliff Fletcher on as a consultant.

      Those are 3 very capable GMs that believe in Burke who could have done the job on other teams on their own.

  10. Anonymous2:44 pm

    Some of your facts are off.
    Reimer was a JFJ prospect. Just like Kulemin, Gunnar etc. And Grabbo - that was Fletcher. In fact Burke traded away plenty of prospects and people pine of his empty cupboard was.
    Also Lebda was a Burke acquisition.

    Vlarmov is not looking good - much like Toskala does not look good. BUT at least the Avs didn't leave the trade dependent on an inexperience goalie like Burke. They got themselves a decent backup in Giguere. Who was Toskalol backup? Burke made some poor risk management choices that is the point.

    Burke assembled 4 other GM to his management staff - why doesn't the team seem to get 4x the value from them?

    I'm not saying Burke is a disaster rather I'm saying his rebuild is overrated (not like Phaneuf overrated) just hot air overrated.