The Toronto Maple Leafs shocked the hockey world on January 9, 2013, by firing team president and general manager Brian Burke, replacing him with assistant GM Dave Nonis, Burke’s long-time right-hand man.
This isn’t the first time Nonis has taken over from Burke as a general manager, as the same thing happened in 2004 with the Vancouver Canucks, though those circumstances weren’t as dramatic as those which took place on Wednesday. Nonis looked as shocked during the press conference announcing his hiring as everyone else by the swift turn of events.
Burke won’t be completely gone from the Maple Leafs, being retained as a “senior adviser” to Nonis, though what that would entail – and for how long – remains to be seen.
The timing of the announcement – just hours before the NHL was to officially announce the passage by unanimous vote of the Board of Governors of the new CBA – couldn’t have been worse.
Media consensus suggested Burke’s retention as an adviser was to buy his silence over the reasons behind his firing. The loquacious Burke never met a microphone or TV camera he didn’t like (even if at times he snarled and growled at them),and the new ownership possibly wanted to prevent this becoming any more of a distraction than it already was.
Burke also has one more year remaining on his contract beyond this season, so perhaps MLSE didn’t want to be paying him for nothing.
The question among the hockey punditry over this move wasn’t so much “why” as “why now?”
Why wasn’t this move made at the end of last season, in which the Leafs missed the playoffs for the seventh straight season, four of those under Burke’s watch? Why not last summer or fall? Why did this happen less than a week after the end of the NHL lockout, and just over a week before the start of a shortened season?
This dates back to when the Leafs were purchased last August by media communications giants Rogers and Bell Canada, taking over joint ownership of the club.
In the fallout from Burke’s firing, it was revealed the new ownership reportedly weren’t keen on his bellicose, dictatorial ways, preferring a more low-key, corporate management style. In the latter, Nonis is perfectly suited for that role, He also has years of NHL management experience and would maintain some measure of familiarity among the Leafs front office.
Other factors likely played a part. Media whispers in Toronto about Burke’s personal life also arose over the past couple of years, creating what “Puck Daddy” Greg Wyshynski considered a “toxic” atmosphere. He also had to soldier on in his job following the tragic death of his son, Brendan, in a car accident almost three years ago.
Burke’s involvement in NHL CBA negotiations last fall also probably factored in why the new ownership waited until now to replace him.
Finally, it appears Burke’s reluctance to acquire veteran goaltender Roberto Luongo from the Vancouver Canucks (a move many in the front office – including Nonis – were reportedly eager to make) was the last straw.
Regardless of how the new ownership felt about Burke’s personality, his record as the Leafs GM also played a key role in his downfall.
When Burke joined the Leafs midway through the 2008-09 season, he vowed to turn the moribund club into a truculent Stanley Cup contender, comparable to the one he built with the 2007 Cup champion Anaheim Ducks. Unfortunately, Burke failed to deliver as promised.
The reviews on Burke’s trades and free agent acquisitions were mixed, with a fair share of successes (Dion Phaneuf,
Mikhail Grabovski, Joffrey Lupul) and failures (Francois Beauchemin, Mike Komisarek, Tim Connolly).
No move, however, stands out more than his shipping two first round draft picks to the Boston Bruins in exchange for forward Phil Kessel in September 2009.
Kessel quickly became the Maple Leafs top scorer, improving in each of his three seasons in Toronto, but his media shyness and inability to lift the Leafs into playoff contention made him a whipping boy at times for the club’s poor performance throughout Burke’s tenure as GM.
Meanwhile, one of those picks Burke gave up to Boston became center Tyler Seguin, a rising young star who helped the Bruins win the 2011 Stanley Cup. The Bruins used the other pick to select defenseman Dougie Hamilton, considered among their most promising prospects.
No matter how well Kessel plays, the Leafs faithful feel their team would’ve been better off had Burke not given up those picks to get him.
Add in the increasing dismay from the denizens of “Leafs Nation” over the direction of the club, and the rationale behind Burke’s firing become clearer.
It’s doubtful Burke’s firing means hockey fans have seen the last of him in the NHL once his contract with the Leafs expires. He previously worked for the NHL as its disciplinarian, thinks highly of commissioner Gary Bettman, and could wind up working for the league again in some capacity.
It’s also possible he could be hired by another club as a general manager, though his inability to rebuild the Leafs into a playoff club tarnished his reputation
So, what direction will Nonis take the Maple Leafs? Does he maintain Burke’s game plan, or take the club in a different direction? Does he start a significant overhaul, or tweak the roster Burke left him?
Will he pursue Roberto Luongo, the goalie he brought from Florida to Vancouver in 2006? Does he look elsewhere to address his goaltending, or does he stick with youngsters James Reimer and Ben Scrivens?
The new owners of MLSE may have wanted to reduce the drama surrounding the Leafs GM role, but Burke’s sudden ouster and the questions it raises – for him, for Nonis, and the Leafs – ensures it will continue for some time yet.