The Toronto Maple Leafs have shown few signs of improvement under GM Brian Burke, making this summer the most important of his tenure.
Of all the current general managers in the National Hockey League, none is more entertaining to me than Brian Burke of the Toronto Maple Leafs.
He’s brash, outspoken, doesn’t suffer fools gladly, and wears his heart on his sleeve. He means what he says, especially regarding the players on his team. What you see from Burke is pretty much what you get.
Burke also isn’t shy about taking on his critics in the media, which probably came as a surprise to some of the Toronto pundits who praised his hiring by the Leafs, only to experience a Burkian broadside over something they wrote or said about the team he didn’t like.
He has his critics, but there’s no denying he’s had varying degrees of success as a general manager, particularly in his previous stops in Vancouver and Anaheim.
In a sports league nearly devoid of genuinely entertaining personalities, Burke shines out as a rare exception.
As entertaining as Burke is, however, and despite his prior success, the only entertainment the Maple Leafs have provided while he’s been their GM is fodder for hockey fans who enjoy successfully tormenting “Leafs Nation” over the club’s lengthy playoff and even lengthier Stanley Cup drought.
Burke did set himself up for this. Upon his hiring, he was heralded as practically a saviour for the Maple Leafs, the one man – nay, the sole one! – with the attitude to thrive in the fishbowl existence of a Leafs GM. He blunted stated his intentions were to build the Leafs from the net out, to bring “truculence” to the lineup, and promised to turn the Leafs into a contender without resorting to a roster rebuild.
Three and a half years later, the Leafs are a better team offensively, rising from 26th overall in goals-per-game in 2009-10 to 10th last season, but still aren’t a playoff club.
The reason is obvious: their goaltending and defensive play, to be blunt, sucked.
Since 2009-10, the Leafs have regularly ranked among the worst of the league in goals-against and penalty-killing, while their shots-against/per game average over the same period went from 13th fewest to seventh most.
The results is a team which can score, but struggles to keep the puck out of its own net.
Burke now finds himself facing what most Toronto pundits and bloggers agree is his most important summer, not just as Leafs general manager, but of his entire management career.
Leafs Nation has run out of patience with Burke, with the consensus being if he fails to make the right moves this summer to turn the Maple Leafs into a playoff team next spring, he’ll be joining the ranks of unemployed NHL executives.
Burke’s biggest issue is his lack of a quality starting goaltender, which explains his rumored interest in Vancouver Canucks netminder Roberto Luongo.
The problem for Burke is trying to pry away a goalie carrying a contract he detests away from a team whose GM he is rumored to despise.
Unfortunately for Burke, Luongo seems his only viable option. This summer’s UFA market lacks goaltending stars, and there’s little else available on the trade market. Canucks GM Mike Gillis knows this, and will try to squeeze Burke to give up assets he’d prefer to retain to land Luongo.
Burke boldly proclaims if he can’t find a goaltending upgrade, he’s prepared to return next season with a tandem of youngsters James Reimer and Ben Scrivens, pointing out how well Reimer played prior to suffering an early season whiplash injury.
Perhaps Reimer can regain his promising form, and maybe Scrivens can turn into a quality NHL netminder, but it’s a helluva gamble banking on this pair of inexperienced youngsters to carry the Leafs to its first playoff appearance in nine years.
Maybe over the course of the upcoming season (provided it’s not lost to another lockout), Burke’s chances of improving his goaltending could improve. Provided, of course, a decent goalie becomes available in time to ensure the Leafs don’t miss the playoffs again.
At this point, Burke’s options appear limited.
He can make do with a lack of depth at center if need be. A full season with Randy Carlyle as head could should improve the defense and reduce those shots-against totals.
If Burke can’t improve the goaltending, however, it won’t matter how many goals Phil Kessel, Joffrey Lupul, Mikhail Grabovski and the recently-acquired James van Riemsdyk scores.
It won’t matter how much the defense corps improves its performance in its own end.
It won’t matter how much Nazem Kadri, Tyler Bozak, Joe Colbourne or Jake Gardiner improve.
Another season of lousy goaltending, and the Leafs will once again be on the outside looking in come playoff time.
The only question then will be if Burke will still be in the general manager’s chair at that point.