Monday, December 1, 2008

The Maple Leafs Can Have Him: Hype vs. Reality in the Case of Brian Burke


Brian Burke was the General Manager of the Vancouver Canucks for six years. In all that time, the Canucks won one - one - playoff series.

One playoff series in six years? How did that happen?

Well, I'm sure Brian Burke would say it happened because he didn't have the necessary autonomy from ownership to develop the Canucks into Stanley Cup contenders. But you can bet your booties that no one from Orca Bay Entertainment (which owned the Canucks at the time) told Burke to stick with hapless goalie Dan Cloutier year after year after year. Yet he did. Why? A man-crush? No one that I know can imagine why. There's an old saying in rock n' roll: a good band with a mediocre drummer is a mediocre band; a good band with a great drummer is a great band. With a few notable exceptions, it is the same with hockey teams and their goalies, and why neither Burke nor Crawford (the coach) could ever get that about Cloutier is unfathomable. A hundred injuries, a hundred chokings under pressure, a hundred bad goals...and bad goals at the worst times, too: in the 2002 playoff quarterfinals, when the Canucks were up two games to none against Detroit, Cloutier in the third game let in a fifty foot shot from Niklas Lidstrom, and that was the turning point. The Red Wings got pumped and won the next four games, and blew the Canucks out.

And this whole business about thirty win seasons with Cloutier - it was all nonsense. What matters in evaluating goalies is save percentages, not wins per se. After all, if you have a fantastically prolific scoring line like the Canucks did during those years (Naslund-Bertuzzi-Morrison), you can let in four goals and still win. Mere wins just don't tell you all that much about your goalie...And in terms of save percentage, Cloutier's was always near the worst of any starting goalie in the NHL. His playoff save percentage was even worse - I remember checking once during the 2003 season, and it was in the mid-eights!

And while this was all going on, year after year of choking in the playoffs, Burke strutted around town undaunted, popping off as though he were the greatest hockey genius since Toe Blake. But it's just a lot of talk, a lot of attitude, a lot of soundbites and bluster.

Ah, you say, but what about the Cup? Well, Burke deserves credit for bringing in Niedermayer and sending prima donna Fedorov to Columbus...but the bottom line is that the Anaheim Ducks were pretty much in place when Burke arrived. Kevin Lowe (who, by the way, knows about winning Stanley Cups - he's won six of them) only said what everyone already knows (no wonder Burke got so mad - the truth hurts). It's like Marc Crawford's much-vaunted Cup with the Avalanche in 1996: his team featured Adam Foote, Sandis Ozholinsh, and Uwe Krupp on defence, Joe Sakic, Peter Forsberg, Owen Nolan, Adam Deadmarsh, and (loathsome cheap-shot-artist) Claude Lemieux as forwards, Chris Simon for toughness, and Patrick Roy in net. I'm sorry, but that team could have won the Cup with my eight year old daughter coaching it. A good measure for a coach is if he can replace a team's coach and elevate its performance without major personnel changes over a period of time. Crawford had that chance with the LA Kings after being fired from Vancouver, and did jack squat. And since LA fired him, he's been doing TV commentary. That's the guy Brian Burke left in place for six disappointing seasons as the coach of the Canucks. Again - why?

The GM career of Brian Burke reminds me of the career of Richard Dawkins as a public intellectual or Daniel Dennett as a philosopher; all they do is shout the loudest. In terms of actual contributions, they are no better than many others, and in many ways, far worse (Dawkin's "The God Delusion" is probably the most ridiculous book I have read in the last ten years; Dennett's entire career has spent trying to convince people they're not actually conscious).

Anyway, I'm getting off track here. All I'm saying is, I will be the first to congratulate Burke on success in Toronto. Hell, that team has been so bad for so long, that if he can turn them into a Cup-contending franchise for any length of time, then he should be considered a very good hockey man. And actually, it is hard to see any real downside to the Toronto job for Burke: if he can't make steady progress, he can always blame it on the decisions of his predecessors (traded away draft picks, poor prospects and scouting, etc.). But even getting the Maple Leafs to the point where they consistently make the playoffs would make Burke look like a genius, so starved is the franchise for consistent success.

Anyway, the point is, everywhere Burke's been, even when he worked in the NHL head office, his performance has been very average at best (the only extraordinary aspect of his performance has been his unusually invincible ego). I just do not see anything in his last ten years as a GM that should make Maple Leafs honcho Richard Peddie view Burke as "the one guy in the world who can save us!!!". He got lucky with Anaheim. Other than that, what? Mediocrity (yawn), year after year. I just don't get it.

My advice to the Maple Leafs: prepare to enjoy Burke's Cowardly Lion schtick ("I'm as tough as nails! Our teams needs to be BIGGER and STRONGER! We need hitting! We need smashing! We need to beat these people up! I make no apologies! We'll rip 'em to pieces - send 'em to Kingdom Come!"), because if the past is any guide, that's about all you'll be getting: it will take more than Brian Burke (or Burke plus his Man Friday Dave Nonis, now evidently trying to move from Anaheim to where Master now works) to make the Maple Leafs into a consistent Stanley Cup contender.

Of course, I could be wrong. For the sake of a once great franchise, I hope so.

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