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 Brian Burkewith 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.

The case for Burke, as ably put by Sean from Down Goes Brown, is basically as follows:

  • Cliff Fletcher, although performing well in his current role as the interim GM, is not a viable option in the long term due to his age (I have observed elsewhere that Fletcher is so old, he once appeared on a game show where the grand prize was “fire”);
  • Burke is the best candidate that is now available, and there is an urgency to get started on a long-term rebuilding plan;
  • Burke’s strong personality and industry cachet will position him well to countermand the interfering tendencies of the non-hockey people who fill the boardrooms at MLSE.

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:

Desperate for cap space, he also waived Ilya Bryzgalov (think about this: Wade Belak was worth more) and dealt Andy McDonald (who provided much needed second line scoring, disciplined play and 14 points in 21 playoff games during the Ducks’ run to the Cup) to St. Louis for Doug Weight, who was a healthy scratch in the playoffs. MacDonald outscored Weight in the regular season 2:1.

Clearly, cap management has not been Burke’s strong suit to the point that the franchise’s top prospect remains in the AHL awaiting Anaheim to clear the salary space so he can play with the big club.

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:

  • David Poile:  Currently the GM of the Nashville Predators, Poile has a contract that expires at the end of this season.  He gets consideration, so the theory goes, because he’s been able to put together a team that has had some regular season successes with resources that amount to a stinky equipment bag and some used shinpad tape.  This is true, so far as it goes.  One ought not to ignore, however, Poile’s previous fifteen years as GM of the Washington Capitals – a period in which the Caps won seven playoff rounds.   Adding in four first-round exits by the Preds in Poile’s ten years in Nashville (and six did-not-qualifys) leaves Poile with seven playoff rounds won in 25 years.   I’m not bashing the guy – neither Washington nor Nashville, in Poile’s time with these teams, provided him with the resources to really take a run at excellence – but doesn’t the case for Poile boil down to an assertion that he’s got 25 years’ experience keeping teams alive in non-traditional hockey markets with little or no money and less talent?   In sum, although Poile gets points for no doubt learning a little bit about efficiently deploying dollars to build towards success in an expansion/rebuilding environment, he loses points for failing to actually translate that knowledge into any playoff success to speak of.  He might be the ideal candidate for a job with the Panthers, but he doesn’t seem to fit the bill for the Leafs’ job.
  • Darcy Regier: Currently the GM of the Buffalo Sabres, Regier’s contract is also up at the end of the year.  Another exec perenially hamstrung by low budgets, Regier’s Sabres missed a Stanley Cup in ’99 (his second year on the job) by the distance between Bill McCreary’s whistle and his mouth (on Brett Hull’s foot-in-the-crease winner).  In the grand scheme of things, Regier is probably entitled to take about as much credit for that run as Burke is for the Ducks’ Cup victory.  Since then, the Sabres (under Regier’s direction) have carved out a little niche for themselves at being the little team that could, frequently making spirited runs late into the post-season.  Regier, to his credit, has managed to find players that skate hard for one another and play an exciting team-first style of offence.  Somewhat troubling is the team’s history, on his watch, of getting into nasty and destabilizing negotiations with the team’s marquee players (see Peca, Michael, Hasek, Dominik and – to a certain degree – Vanek, Thomas who was almost lost to the Oilers on an offer sheet as a result of the Sabres’ refusal to negotiate contracts during the regular season).  Also troubling:  last year’s first to worst slide, following the departure of Chris Drury and Daniel Briere;  if resource issues were going to prevent the Sabres from re-signing these guys, Regier has to take some heat for either (a) not getting them the support they needed during the window of opportunity the Sabres had to win; or, in the alternative (b) realizing that the window wasn’t realistically open at all and disposing of those assets in a way that returned something to the Sabres for the future.  Regier seemed to me to hang on to goalie Martin Biron too long as well (having that talented a backup to Ryan Miller is a luxury the Sabres could not afford). More compelling:  although the Sabres’ draft record in the first round isn’t stellar over the last ten years , they have done an excellent job of stocking their own cupboards under Regier’s direction:  there are only six players who have played for the Sabres this year who were NOT drafted by the club.  Put him down as a maybe.
  • Doug Wilson:  According to mf37, Wilson’s contract allows him to receive offers from other teams during the upcoming summer months.  Wilson is an intriguing possibility;  his Sharks have consistently performed well in the regular season (finishing first or second) but have failed to advance to the big dance, losing middle round playoff series, first to  Calgary (’04) and Edmonton (’06) (both of which were the eventual Conference Champions) and then (more recently) to good teams from Detroit (’07) and Dallas (’08).   Wilson gets huge points for totally hosing the Bruins and getting Joe Thornton for Marco Sturm, Wayne Primeau and Brad Stuart.  Wilson’s draft credentials also seem relatively solid:  a fair number of the Sharks’ current players were drafted either while he was serving as GM or during his tenure as Director of Player Development with the team.  The only question mark I can think of is last year’s acquisition of unrestricted free agent Brian Campbell at the deadline:   the Sharks gave up Steve Bernier and their first-round pick in the ’08 draft for Campbell and the Sabres’ seventh rounder.   The Sharks didn’t win the Cup and Campbell didn’t re-sign;  he’s currently playing his trade in Chicago.  From the “that would be awkward” file, Wilson is of course the GM who fired present Leaf coach Ron Wilson from his previous post as coach of the Sharks.  This last reason alone wouldn’t be a good reason not to hire DW.   It seems to me, though, that there is substantial doubt about whether he will actually be available at the end of the coming season.  To begin with, it’s unlikely he’ll be fired or not re-hired, given the Sharks’ success over the last few years.  The only way that seems possible at all is if the Sharks absolutely flame out, Ottawa-style, from this point on in the season and miss the playoffs entirely under first year coach Todd McLellan.  Wilson, having gone off the board and hired McLellan, a coach with no previous NHL experience, would be vulnerable in that disaster scenario because he could be said to have chosen to hire the wrong coach at a time when the Sharks’ window of opportunity to win has to be considered open wide.  As of this writing, however, the Sharks are 17-3-1 and in first place in their division.  They have scored the most goals (80) and allowed the second fewest (49) of any team.  It seems unlikely that they are headed for such a festival of fail, so Wiilson isn’t going to be forced out.  The Leafs would have to hope that they could simply drive a dump truck full of money up to Wilson’s doorstep and smile sweetly, contract in hand.   They would also have to hope that the dump truck full of money would be enough to convince Wilson to leave a spot where he seems to have a decent chance to win a Cup in the near future – a place close to his family (he has a daughter at school in Southern Cal) – for a fistful of money and a nightmare rebuilding project.  It might be different if Wilson had historical ties to the Leaf organization, but somehow I just don’t see it happening.

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?

Conclusion:

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).

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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.

11 comments to Brian Burke: Is You Is Or Is You Isn’t?

  • geezer

    Excellent analysis of the big names. But who provided them with the input they needed to get their reputation? I think it is ok to hire a big name exec who is decisive and well respected and who has made some good decisions in the past but to go forward you need to provide him with the right staff to provide the needed background info.
    Sure – hire Burke but why not also raid the Sabres, Sharks, Wings, Devils (dare I say Hawks?) for the support staff that made the GM’s look so good?
    Hockey is a team game on the ice and in the front office too!

  • Exactly why I’m saying that Burkie’s ego can’t get in the way and he needs to be raiding the Sabres, Sharks and Wings to get some help evaluating talent and running the draft.

    Take a look at the Sabres’ roster, in particular – the number of homegrown players there is phenomenal; the Sharks too. Detroit gets a mention because they manage to find guys like Zetterberg WAY down deep in the draft.

  • Great post.

    I think it comes down to this: even if you think there are better candidates than Burke, a 100% chance of landing Brian Burke right now beats out a 50/50 (or whatever else) chance at Poile or McPhee in six months.

  • @DGB:

    Agreed. To forego Burkie now, you have to believe that the other candidate is demonstrably better and likely available. It’s kind of like the decision process my family went through when we first bought a home computer; true, the Commodore 64 wasn’t likely to be the be-all and end-all of personal computing technology, but waiting for the “best” machine to appear wasn’t an option – we’d still be waiting to this day. So there you have it Brian Burke = Commodore 64, adjusted for awesomeness inflation to 1983 levels.

    I’m just trying to set the rules for evaluation of this decision now, to make it tougher for the revisionists to carp and moan later if, Wendel forbid, the Cup doesn’t come home on BB’s watch.

  • Nice write-up and thanks for the links.

    I should clarify that I only included the other GM names in my posts and not a more thorough analysis as I knew if I didn’t name names I would get 16 comments saying nothing more than: “who would you hire, then?”

    As for your write-ups, Regier deserves far more credit for his drafting and development record:(Vanek, Pommenville, Afinogenov, Campbell, Tallinder, Paetsch, Stafford, Roy, Gaustad, Miller, Kotalik, Peters, Kalinin – compared to Burke and JFJ it’s freakin’ sparkling).

    It should also be acknowledged that if weren’t for horrific injuries on the back end the Sabres likely would have been in the Cup finals against Edmonton. (They were so banged up, I think Jim Schonfield was their 7th defenceman in the final game of the series against the Canes). That would be two cup finals in 10 years for Mr. Regier. Not bad for a team that went bankrupt, had its owner indicted and has had to deal with some pretty heavy budget restraints.

    In the end, I agree with DGB – a 100% shot at Burke is better than a 50% shot at another GM; however, it must be noted that Burke has had one, maybe two good drafts in over a decade and, to me, that’s a very troubling very disturbing trend, especially as the Leafs try to re-tool into a serious contender.

  • @mf37:

    I know your post wasn’t intended to include an analysis of the other candidates’ names, and I 100% agree with your assessment of Regier’s draft/development record. Outstanding.

    As for Burkie’s record in the draft, I agree this is a major area of concern. One possibility that occurred to me this morning is hiring dudes from Hockey Canada; Burke and the Leafs should actively recruit some of the folk whose job it has been to scout the juniors and fill out our World Juniors and Under-18 squads. That’s exactly the talent we need to assess, and right now. There’s a guy named Al Murray (ex-Kings scout) who signed a two-year deal with them in August ’07 to become Hockey Canada’s Head Amateur Scout. We need to either sign that guy up or get a burlap bag of oh, say “man” size and work up our appetites for mischief…

  • That’s a great point and this is where I wish the media and insiders would leverage their access and provide more insight into the scouts, scouting departments and the scouting processs.

    Gare Joyce’s book (Future Greats..) was an amazing read and it’s such a shame there isn’t more of that insight out there.

    If the Hockey News is ever going to be relevant again, this is a vein that they should be mining.

  • Agreed. It’s easier to write the stories about an individual. A story centred around the concept “JFJ is a jerk” is going to sell way more papers than a careful study of the reasons for a particular organization’s continued success (or failure) at identifying fresh new talent, because the latter story – while more insightful – is going to read like a treatise on organizational theory. Although the latter story would actually help the average guy sitting in a bar bitching about his favourite team over a couple of bowls of loudmouth soup understand, it isn’t going to give him any glib ad hominems to toss around the barroom.

    I will confess to succumbing to that temptation by times, but I’m not a professional writer.

  • I’d just like to point out that Burke’s drafting record isn’t really relevant, since Fletcher has traded away all our picks in the next few drafts.

  • With Burke allegedly being announced as the next GM on Saturday, I foresee Fletcher trading the 2009 and 2010 1st, 3rd and 5th round picks for a pile of 26 year old impending UFAs. Leaving Burke with just the 6th and 7th round picks in 2009 and 2010 to play with.

  • @mf37: Yeah, then Fletch turns to Burkie, dusting his palms-like, and says, “There. Fix that, Mr. Smartypants” and wanders off in search of the 4:30 earlybird dinner special.

    @DGB:
    …Burke’s drafting record isn’t really relevant, since Fletcher has traded away all our picks..
    True, provided you assume that assets like Kaberle, Toskala and Antropov are all going to finish up the season here in T.O. I always kind of assumed that at least some of these names (and I’m really hoping NOT Kaberle) get converted into draft picks at the deadline. Because these trades are more likely to involve playoff teams, they’re not likely to be lottery-region picks. These could be tough selections, especially since this year’s draft class is not thought to be especially deep (at least as compared to last year’s). All the more reason to have someone around who knows the talent pool intimately, when it comes time to pick.