Brian Burke era Post-Mortem
So here I was, mid-rehearsal with a reggae band in West Africa when I decide to take a
five-minute ass-break and grab an espresso. A cryptic message by a Leaf fan appears on a Facebook Leaf chat. I request clarification. Seconds later, a link to a TSN article announcing the firing of Brian Burke appears on my screen. What?? Seriously??
Burke’s record in Toronto is not a particularly flattering one, but the timing of his dismissal as President and General Manager is what really sends me for a loop. With several of Burke’s best assets either emerging, or about to emerge, you have to wonder what the deciding factor was in making January the 9th the day Burke’s ticket was punched.
Chairman (and author of last year’s open letter of apology to Leaf fans) Tom Anselmi claims the new ownership group concluded that the need for a change of “leadership voice” and “leadership style” was the ultimate factor in dropping the hammer on Burke’s tenure. He also concedes that the losing record certainly influenced their decision, but overall, they simply felt the front office needed a facelift of sorts; like a front door in need of a fresh coat of paint, or new wallpaper in the family room.
Who’s buying that one? The question remains: Why was today the day Burke was shown the door? Burke was told this morning not to get on the plane that was to take him to the board of governors meeting in New York, and was subsequently relieved of his position. Dave Nonis, Senior Vice President and Director of Hockey Operations, was announced as the 14th General Manager of the Leafs this afternoon, succeeding Brian Burke for a second time in his executive career. With Leafs camp set to open in a few short days, you have to wonder how this affects the players Burke personally brought in and championed, and also what might have transpired in the last few days between Burke and the ownership group to make them hit the panic button.
And let’s not kid ourselves; this was absolutely a kneejerk reaction. The same decision could have been reached last September just as easily, with the exact same result. Nonis could have replaced Burke just as easily four months ago.
It could be argued that Nonis was the real engine driving the Burke management machine and Burke was simply the figurehead. If that’s the case, swinging your sword at the neck of a two-headed monster still leaves you with a now-wounded beast and its minions, running the show. Nonis and Burke conferred very regularly on numerous if not all decisions, but there is a sense that they disagreed on some aspects and decisions. That said, they both preach a tough brand of hockey and endorse current coach, Randy Carlyle. Burke remains as a senior advisor to the team, and while that’s certainly another perplexing element to this fiasco, you have to think he won’t be there too long. Burke is a wanted man, to be sure. In Leafland, one has to question what happens with certain Burke-acquired players, namely Kessel? Do they run and scatter, or soldier on, hoping that the same bloodied sword doesn’t find their own necks before too long?
Like many of you, I have to wonder what really happened behind closed doors. Was it all down to the Luongo situation? Was it something else? If it was simply down to wins and losses, why wasn’t anyone else given their pink slips? Mr. Anselmi assures us that the ownership group believes in the direction the club is trending in, that they respect that this is a process, and that there would be no wholesale changes in player personnel. So, once again, WHY NOW??
It would be impossible for any Leafs official to comment on the Luongo affair, by virtue of the fact that the player is under contract to another team. So, there’s no way that this one gets answered.
Dave Nonis was the guy that replaced Burke in Vancouver, and one of his first orders of business was to get Luongo in a Canucks jersey.
Could it be that Vancouver GM Mike Gillis and Burke simply couldn’t get a deal done, and the only way for the two sides to come to terms was with Nonis at the helm? I don’t know if I like the optics of that one, but it holds some water. It has been suggested that Gillis would not entertain any offer that did not include Jake Gardiner. It has been further suggested that Burke refused to surrender the assets demanded by Gillis, and the board had finally run out of patience, demanding a deal be done in time for training camp. Others have speculated that it was the ownership group that did not want to part with young assets, and preferred to stay the ‘draft high’ course. Perhaps Burke’s “two hands on the steering wheel” approach simply didn’t fly with the current ownership conglomerate.
If there is any key difference between Burke’s and Nonis’ managerial styles, it would be, according to Nonis, patience. Burke has precious little, and Nonis prefers the “slow-and-steady-wins-the-race” approach. Well, there’s that, and the fact that Nonis is nowhere near as brash or outspoken. Still, there was nothing particularly pressing about today that made a Burke firing necessary this morning.
Despite all the bluster and posturing, Burke has succeeded in installing a legitimate hockey brain trust capable of effective sports management affairs. He also plugged in a number of very good pieces whose collective impact may not be realized until long after the dust settles with respect to the Burke era. That was the case with Vancouver. Ryan Kesler, a Burke pick, ultimately proved to be a very, very good acquisition, and many would argue that Kesler has exceeded projected expectations. Years from now, as Nonis openly opined, Burke’s contribution will speak for itself.
And so it goes; an era once filled with hope and renewed faith, which transitioned into doubt, frustration, and then anger, has ended in shock and dismay as much as it has in relief and joy, for the man’s detractors.
Burke was just one of three Toronto General Managers to fail to qualify for playoff hockey. He was certainly among the most opinionated, and outspoken.
Still, none of this speaks to the intriguing timing of the decision. Did it really take the board until approximately 9 AM of January 9th to gather the stones to pull the trigger?
Nonis will have to hit the ground running and, in his words, make quick decisions on player personnel and the overall makeup of the group, however, wholesale changes are not anticipated. In short, don’t hold your breath waiting for Nonis to blow up a team he had a hand in engineering over the last 4 years.
It won’t surprise to see Burke return to NHL head office in some capacity or another. Matter of fact, if Fuhrer Bettman is given similar treatment, it would come as less of a shock than today’s news if Brian Burke succeeds the current commissioner before the soon to be ratified new C.B.A. expires.
When you’re done shaking your own head in disbelief, hit me back with your thoughts on today’s announcement.
Owen Durkin @ODurkin