Brian Burke: Is You Is Or Is You Isn’t?
As much as I hate the suits at MLSE with the white hot burning heat of a thousand suns, I can’t quarrel too much with their deliberate pace on this hiring decision to date. It’s a tough decision, and one that will have far-reaching consequences for the future of the organization. The reason that I despise the current board is, of course, its abject failure to avoid meddling with the affairs of the hockey team over the last few years, coupled with its failure to install a chief executive with sufficient vision and experience to plan for success in the post-lockout environment. That having been said, it would appear that the board has, since the firing of John Ferguson Jr., made the right decision: to correct its mistake in that regard and hire a top-quality chief executive to whom control over the hockey operations will be ceded. In other words, MLSE has decided that maybe they ought not to do this job themselves. I congratulate them for making the right call at this critical first step of the decision-making process; it is so obviously the right decision, it’s kind of like congratulating your kid for deciding (for the third day this week!) not to eat a jar of paste while at school, but it’s important to celebrate even modest successes with those who have intellectual challenges and to positively re-inforce behaviour we want to encourage. So yay, MLSE!
Step two of the hiring process was to find the right person to replace John Ferguson Jr. Apparently unable to locate a person with the right credentials on a permanent basis last spring, the club turned to Cliff Fletcher and asked him to act as steward of the club’s fortunes during the initial stages of the rebuilding process. In doing so, the Leafs successfully managed to put one foot in front of the other. (Again, yay!) Fletcher has, it must be said, acquitted himself quite well since his appointment: he made a deal on draft day that got the Leafs into position to pick up Luke Schenn; he signed Niklas Hagman and Jeff Finger; for every questionable acquisition (Ryan Hollweg), there has been a great pickup (I’m looking at you, Mikhail Grabovski); for every Jamal Mayers, a Mike Van Ryn. It is too early to say whether these players, and others (such as recently acquired Lee Stempniak ) constitute the necessary pieces of the puzzle, though it is unlikely that they form the core of a Cup winning team. To get there, some of these assets will have to be moved elsewhere, and fresh talent added to the basic building blocks at a later date. At this stage, as we’ve been told by team officials, it’s not about wins and losses: it’s about changing a culture of entitlement that had settled over the dressing room – a debilitating malaise that somehow begun interfering with the players’ performance. At step two, Cliff Fletcher earns the MLSE another passing grade.
So much for sticking a warm body in the chair to answer the phones for the short term. What of step three, making the decision to hire the person who will be general manager of this team in the long term? It would appear that the organization’s focus has been on Brian Burke in that regard for some time; reports emerged yesterday that it’s essentially a done deal.
So what of Brian Burke? Assuming the reports to be true, how did MLSE do at this final stage of the decision-making process? It seems to me that the answer to that question is inextricably linked to one’s assessment of the other candidates that were available for the job.
Sean also points out that the oft-repeated knock against Burke – that his one Cup win came with a team built by Bryan Murray – ignores the fact that Burke did add some significant pieces (Pronger, Niedermayer, Beauchemin) to that team, reminding us that success always has many fathers.
Meanwhile, mf37 of Bitter Leaf Fan fame puts the case for the nays. That argument turns out to be more of a case for the “not quite yets.” He points out that Burke is far from infallible, having had what the British education system calls a “deferred success” (something you and I would recognize as a “failure”) at the draft table in his years with both the Canucks and Ducks. He also describes Burke’s struggles adapting to the salary cap constraints under which all NHL clubs now operate as follows:
He points out that there are other established hockey management professionals who will be available at the end of this season, including David Poile of the Predators, Darcy Regier of the Sabres, and Doug Wilson of the Sharks. These other options suggest to the naysayers that it would be best for the Leafs not to act hastily; to explore the possibility of hiring these others before hitching our wagon to Burke’s train.
Essentially mf37’s argument, though cogent, is incomplete. It basically amounts to an assertion that the Leafs ought to wait because something better than a Burke-o-Matic™ may soon be available. What isn’t included in his argument, however, is any discussion of the relative merits of Burke’s supposed rivals for the job.
So let’s take a look:
What of any other candidates? One name that came to my mind is Washington Capitals GM George McPhee; he’s been through a teardown/rebuild project once already in Washington, and with the help of a fellow by the name of Ovechkin, he seems to be moving in the right direction. I don’t know anything at all about his contract status. It struck me that McPhee has already been through some of the issues currently afflicting the Leafs, though not in anything like the media fishbowl that the Leafs operate within. Of course the Caps haven’t won a lot of playoff series in the recent past, and they do compete in the perenially undercompetitive Southeast Division, so any success they’ve had has come a bit easier than, say, that of the Sharks (see above). Another worry is the fact that he’d take the risks involved in the Alex Ovechkin deal, as James Mirtle has very capably pointed out.
Are there any other alternatives? According to James Mirtle, the Leafs “tried” to talk to Ken Holland and Jim Rutherford too¹. That sounds to me like their attempts were rebuffed; in any event, I have to assume that if Holland were realistically available, he would have the job already. How could he not? As much as it pains me to say, the Red Wings have been a model organization since the late 80s; their stick-boys are probably eminently qualified to teach a class on responsible hockey management. As for Jim Rutherford, as much as the childhood Spitfire fan in me would love to give Jimmy a shot at running the show, as has been pointed out by Sean, the Leafs have already been down the road of one-shot wonders from Carolina (hmmm…Paul Maurice had a Spitfire connection too, come to think of it).
That’s it, I think, for proven hockey folk. The only other option for the Leafs, it seems to me – and it’s a choice that I haven’t seen discussed very much, if at all – is to go off the board entirely and hire a proven general manager from another sport: someone who has experience negotiating contracts and dealing with a salary cap and the marketing/promotional end of the business, but who would delegate hockey decisions to an underling. That option likely isn’t politically very viable – there would be a real risk of a riot at 40 Bay, I’d say, if a non-hockey type took over the post – and ultimately begs the question anyway: who’s going to make the hockey decisions?
At the end of the day, then, the decision to hire Brian Burke comes down to this: a judgement by MLSE that he is likely better than David Poile or Darcy Regier, two guys who may be available at the end of the year. I would suggest that it says little about MLSE’s estimation of Doug Wilson or Ken Holland’s worth or suitability for the job, and much more about the practical reality that they are not candidates because they’re not available. As stated above, I don’t find Poile’s credentials that compelling, with all due respect to the man. Although Regier’s draft work in particular is interesting, I can’t say that MLSE is obviously wrong in making the choice that they have.
Those are the facts, folks. It seems to me that – unless you disagree and feel that either Poile or Regier is a demonstrably superior choice, to the extent that would justify putting off the decision until after the trade deadline – then I think you’re forced to admit that this decision is the right one for the Toronto Maple Leafs. There are no guarantees that Burke will bring a Stanley Cup to Toronto. That doesn’t mean, though, that hiring him is the wrong decision. In fact, it has to be seen as the right one, for now.
As an aside, I am hopeful as a fan of the team that Burke’s ego won’t prevent him from reaching out to fill out the hockey department at MLSE with some folks who can help him in those areas with which he has stuggled (cough the draft cough). It’s probably not realistic to think that he could manage to lure someone like Regier to jump on board in a subordinate role, but – if I were in charge – no expense would be spared to hire away folks from the Sabres’ (and Sharks’ and Wings’) scouting and talent evaluation system. In the new NHL, you can’t spend your way to success by putting more dollars into hockey players than the next guy, but you can spend more than him on all of the activities that help identify, select and train new talent (as well as on things designed to make the players you have in the organization healthier, more focussed and more productive).
¹ Mirtle says that the Leafs “tried” to talk to Doug Wilson too; I take this as supportive of my conclusions about Wilson’s likely unavailability.
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