How long does Brian Burke have?

On Nation Radio with Allan Mitchell Saturday, I was asked a question that I’ve thought about but admittedly haven’t committed to text.

This is one that everybody can think about: How long does Brian Burke have under the new regime?

Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment is going through a re-structuring. Tom Anselmi took over as Chief Operating Officer, and MLSE as a whole has been bought by Rogers and Bell Canada over the summer. Thus far, management of the individual teams under MLSE has not changed.

But how long will it take? In this Kevin McGran article from earlier this summer, a University of Ottawa professor of sport marketing named Norm O’Reilly is quoted as saying that the new owners “all have that vested interest in the teams being more successful.”

Meanwhile, a professor at the Rotman School of Business at the University of Toronto suggested that “the deal bought Burke another year.”

That makes generally enough sense, and new ownership groups tend to not enact sweeping changes to team management in their first seasons. Rogers bought the Toronto Blue Jays in 2000 and eventually hired their guy, touted J.P. Ricciardi, in 2001.

My own belief isn’t necessarily that the Leafs have to make the playoffs for Burke to be retained as general manager, but he’s been here for a while and you have to think the clock is ticking. There needs to be some form of progress, in strong development from the prospects, a trade that turns an anchor into assets or what have you.

You have to think that if Brian Burke is again pictured head in hands at the lottery table at the end of the next season, he won’t have the chance to select Nathan MacKinnon. I don’t pin the Leafs’ problems solely on Burke. It’s not like he came in and had to stop both the War in Iraq and prevent a second Great Depression, but the cupboard was left absolutely bare at the end of the second Cliff Fletcher era.

The 2008 squad, in the game right before Burke took over, featured names such as Andre Deveaux, Jeff Finger, Niklas Hagman and Ryan Hollweg. I think the current lineup, particularly the bottom six, features more names recognizable by hockey fans. The prospect core was underwhelming, Luke Schenn was rushed into the NHL. Just think that it hasn’t been since 1998 that the team has had a #1 pick make a key impact for the Leafs (Nik Antropov) in an NHL career.

That said, Burke has always been a GM of smaller franchises. He started in Hartford, managed Vancouver when the dollar was poor, and then went to Anaheim. After the 2004-05 lockout, Burke was asked about his thoughts on the salary cap affecting how he manages his teams:

“If in fact there’s a cap, this may come as news to some general managers, but it’s not news to me. I’ve had a cap for the last six years I’ve been a manager … it’s called a budget. 

“And the fact that now some guys are going to have a budget, that may be radical or revolutionary to them, but it’s not to me.”

He has failed to turn the Leafs’ significant financial muscle into added strengths for the team. Well, not so much “failed” as “appeared unwilling”. To me, more than trading futures for Phil Kessel or not securing a centreman for the same, or a goaltender, that is Burke’s primary drawback in Toronto. This is the biggest revenue team in the National Hockey League, but you wouldn’t know it if the fans in the lower bowl weren’t eating sushi.

There’s a sizeable front office and scouting staff, but that has yet to translate into a creative way of drafting players, signing free agents or acquiring talent. It’s still a hockey-sterile environment.

If the team doesn’t make the playoffs next season, there would have to be some real tangible evidence of progress going forward, or Rogers-Bell may subscribe to some new thinking in the front office. But Burke needs to get a handle on whatever it is he’s trying to do. He fired Ron Wilson a couple of months after extending him. Not to read too much into it, but you still hope there is some semblance of a plan, and this isn’t a collection of random moves in an attempt to save face going forward.

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  • Bill Veeck once wrote that when he took over a team, he had four years to turn it around and produce something. Granted that was a different time and a different sport, but there’s some universal logic to that statement: if the person in charge comes in, promises success and can’t deliver in four years, it’s not that likely they’re going to deliver at all.

    Burke’s been around since around the start of the 2008-09 season. This season, if they actually play one, is his forth year. If he still can’t put together a team that can contend past the All-Star break, he’s never going to. If he can’t deliver, this should be his last year.

    • I couldn’t agree more, the entire time reading this article I kept thinking to myself that he had four years to turn this ship around. I am just wondering if they do clear Burke out does that mean his entire rank of Assistant GM’s goes with him.