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.

Maple Leafs Twenty Questions: Funsize Edition

All-time world champion non sequitur (in that, in addition to being unrelated to the topic, it “follows” nothing):  My Dad, who seems to be working hard to secure a position as worldwide press agent for HiR:tb, tells me that there’s an army of people out there reading the blog and enjoying what I write.  That’s terrific to hear – and I’d love it, if you’re one of those folks, if you’d leave a comment on the site so I can prove to my wife that all this time spent tippy-tapping away on the keyboard is worthwhile in somebody’s opinion.

PPP has sought some help answering a series of five questions directed his way by certain mischievous Oiler fans. Here are the five questions, with my proposed answers.

1. What is the consensus amongst Leaf fans about the Sundin situation?

Divided. Those who advocate staying the course worry that Sundin’s return would provide little benefit (as far as team success) and delay or derail entirely the development of young forwards gobbling up prime minutes in important situations. Those who don’t see the team obtaining a top five draft pick anyway want him back to teach the youngsters the way. Those who are cannibals think he looks delicious.

2. What is the worst deal in the past 5 years that the Leafs have done? What has been the best?

The worst on-ice deal has to be Red Light Raycroft. Colorado Avalanche fans (both of them) are by now learning that with “Razor” (cough) in net, the “scoring area” now includes all four corners of the rink, most washrooms on the mezzanine level of the arena, and a substantial portion of the state of Colorado. There are no guarantees that Tuuka Rask (who the Leafs traded to get Raycrap) will ever be Martin Brodeur v. 2.0, but that deal perfectly symbolizes the ineptness of the JFJ management regime: JFJ evidently failed to foresee that Ed Belfour would age, because he failed to have a suitable successor ready to take over from within the organization; he then badly overpaid for Raycrap (both by way of trade and by way of mammoth contract), a goalie whose “talent” he over-estimated; to fix his own mistakes in that regard, the Leafs were then required to trade for Vesa Toskala. The best deal may well be Cliff’s most recent Risebrough: a 2nd-rounder for Mikhail Grabovski.

3. How does it feel knowing that the last Stanley Cup that the Leafs won was when there were 6 teams in the league?

How did it feel when Chris Pronger and his wife basically hocked a loogie on the statue of Gretz out front of the Rexall Place/Skyreach Centre/Edmonton Coliseum/Northlands Coliseum? How did it feel when Roli the Goalie got steamrollered in Game 1 of the ‘06 Final, following which the Oil coughed up a three-goal lead and went on to lose the series in 7 games? That’s gotta hurt. Anyway, take those feelings, transplant them on a fan base that actually keeps coming to the games when the team doesn’t have a freakish run of success, and you get the idea. Laugh it up out there, Oiler fans – at least our team never lost the Cup to a bunch of itinerant hillbillies.

4. Rumor has it that Cliff Fletcher is 612 years old. Is this a concern for Leafs fans?

It is true that Cliff Fletcher is so old, he was once a contestant on a game show where the big prize was “fire”. Nevertheless, the front office is one place where the “wily veteran with a track record of success” is much preferred over the “promising but unproven talent”: see the entry in Failopedia for “Ferguson, John Jr.”. By the way, hope that Steve Tambellini thing works out for you guys. Really.

5. Do you hold out hope for Brian Burke coming to town?

I personally want Brian Burke to come town about as much as Kevin Lowe would like to carpool with the guy. Burke’s record – both as it relates to the draft and his ability to assemble a well-rounded team (or even one NHL calibre starting goalie) is doubtful, as I’m sure the seven time Stanley Cup Champion Vancouver Canucks would agree. His record with the Ducks raises questions about his ability to manage the cap, though Niedermayer and Selanne have to bear some of the blame for that. It would, however, be fun to watch Burkie berate the local mittenstringers like a drill sergeant with PMS on a daily basis. Put me down for “meh.”

I’ll Have the Egg Salad…and a Penalty Killing Scheme, Please.

Cliff Fletcher apparently met with the media fletcher_cliff_getty_260today to give a horrible season by a bad team the uncomfortable (but not overly time-consuming) eulogy it needed. Wisely preferring not to point fingers at under-achieving players (which might lead to some uncomfortable moments among the pallbearers while interring the corpse), Fletcher further stipulated that the future of Leaf coach Paul Maurice is up to the incoming General Manager. According to the Globe and Mail’s account of Fletcher’s remarks, Fletcher appears to have quite appropriately assumed the hushed tones and comforting countenance of a caring and compassionate funeral director. He offered re-assurance for Leaf fans that time heals all wounds, and that the Leafs are going to a better place.

“The message is simple,” says the interim general manager. “The team is going to get better.

“It’s going to be a team starting next October that the fans are going to get excited about and be able to become proud about again.”

HiR:tb sources deep inside Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment confirm that the “there, there, it will get better in time” theme underlying Fletcher’s remarks to the media was selected after several board meetings characterized by boisterous debate between opposing management camps; in the end, the board decided this approach would be superior to the “don’t worry, the 2007-2008 Maple Leafs went to live on a farm” message that reportedly tested very well in focus-groups composed largely of six-year olds, hardcore Tie Domi fans from Woodbridge, and CBC budget planning executives.

In the “No Shit Sherlock” Department, please note that Fletcher isn’t saying that the turnaround will come quickly:

“Back when I was in Calgary and we looked up the road at the Edmonton Oilers . . . I had lunch with a rancher one day,” Fletcher recalled. “I said, ‘Boy, we’ve got to straighten this thing out in a hurry.’

“He said, ‘Cliff, the corral is full of horses but you can only bring one into the barn at a time.’

Couched as it is in folksy wisdom terms involving things like barns, horses and corrals, this observation must indisputably be both pithy and truthful. As compelling as all agricultural reasoning may be, however, I think that it would have been better for Uncle Cliff to quote Robert Duvall’s character (Officer Bob Hodges) from the film Colors, which would have had the obvious advantage of referring to bulls and fornication instead of barns and horses (which are, no doubt, a rather “girly” animal). Perhaps it’s just a matter of personal preference, but I think that this reference, delivered with the appropriate amount of non-Michael Jackson-like crotch grabbing would have a salutary effect upon Fletcher’s overall machismo and might well intimidate other general managers and scare them into making a stupid trade with the Leafs, such as Andrew Raycroft for – well, anybody.

The real news in this article, however, concerns neither the public grieving for a stillborn season, nor the relative merits of colourful rural parables. Rather, the incredible news in this item concerns the nature of an NHL general manager’s job duties: to run a team based upon the received wisdom of sandwich-gobbling cowboys. All these years, I thought that general managers were executives who functioned much like management in other business organizations: setting goals, objectives and priorities, evaluating personnel, devoting scarce institutional resources towards certain needs and doing things like, well, managing (generally) their organization’s attempts to achieve an objective. I guess I just sort of assumed that the decisions the manager made would be based upon his own assessment of the correct organizational response to the particular challenges faced at any given point in time. It would appear, however, that the evidence runs much to the contrary: if the Calgarian renaissance in question was indeed sparked by an aphorism-spouting farmer, the key to success does not come from within, but is instead received as a fait accompli from without.