March 12, 2012

Leafs' woes fall on underachieving players, not GM Burke

By Ty Anderson

Let's not kid ourselves here: Brian Burke (Providence, R.I.) inherited a mess when he took over as the 13th general manager in Toronto Maple Leafs history. 

Leafs general manager Brian Burke looks on from the press box. (Getty)

Taking over for the interim Cliff Fletcher, Burke was handed an aging, identity-less, and just plain terrible Toronto roster along with a barren prospect pool. But hope was there as Burke, who had brought the Vancouver Canucks back to NHL relevancy and helped build a 2007 Cup winner during his tenure with the Anaheim Ducks, was everything the Maple Leafs needed. He aimed to cut ties with the dead weight the organization was bloated with, energize the farm system with fresh blood, and finally bring the Maple Leafs back to the playoffs for the first time since 2004.

Yet, here we are, and the Leafs are in the same ole' mess they've been in for years now. As the 69th game of the Leafs' season (another loss) drew to a close on Sunday at the Verizon Center, Toronto finds themselves eight points out of a playoff spot with just 13 games left in their season and fours teams in front of them when it comes to jostling for the coveted eighth seed in the East. 

Seemingly setting the Maple Leafs up for their seventh straight season without a trip to the playoffs, there's been plenty of blame to go around when it comes to the woes of Toronto. Is it the coaching? Well that was the obvious 'fix,’ as Ron Wilson's (Riverside, R.I.) firing two weeks ago opened the door for Randy Carlyle, but how about the GM? Should Brian Burke be held accountable and responsible for the Leafs' struggles in his third full year with the club and could he be the next to go? Better yet, should he be the next to go? 

"That’s up to ownership," an agitated Burke said during a radio interview with Newstalk 1010 (Toronto) when asked if he felt that he could be the next to go given the struggles. "But I wish you’d told me that off the air before you were going to take a little swing on the way out."

Scrutinized for his inactivity at the trading deadline, it seems that Burke's moves (or lack of) are magnified with each playoff-damning loss. However, the reality is that not everything is his fault.

Yes, the Leafs have had trouble drafting as of late, especially when it comes to their last first round pick as Nazem Kadri has failed to translate his skill-set into NHL success. And speaking of first round picks, Burke will forever be labeled the sucker in a deal that saw him obtain malcontent Boston winger Phil Kessel for what would become Tyler Seguin (2nd overall in 2010), Jared Knight (32nd overall in 2010), and promising defenseman Dougie Hamilton (9th overall in 2011). Would Burke have done that trade had he known that the 2010-11 Leafs would finish with the second overall pick in 2010 and ninth in 2011? Absolutely not. But that's what makes Burke, in a word, Burke. He'll take chances, and he's sure to invest trust in his players, be it with the assets he's parting with to obtain them or the dollars used to sign 'em.  

Phil Kessel has reached the 30-goal mark in each of his three seasons in Toronto. (Getty)

It's those same qualities that made him stand pat at the deadline, staying out of the world of otherworldly prices for average players and bad contracts, and leave the slump-busting to his players – a group that's collectively failed their general manager. 

Burke is not the one that's tallied just three goals and four assists in the last 28 games. That'd be Tim Connolly, who's earned his way down to bottom-six minutes in the first year of a contract that pays him 9.5 million dollars over the next two years. He's also not a winger that's on pace for eight goals this year after a 30-goal campaign last year, which would be the fewest goal total in his career by a whopping seven tallies. That honor instead belongs to the 25-year-old Nikolai Kulemin.

Burke isn’t the puck-moving defenseman that's racked up a mere three points and minus-11 rating in 18 games since signing an extension that comes with a 3.875 million dollar cap-hit beginning next year. That'd be John-Michael Liles, a blue-liner that began his tenure in Toronto with 16 points in his first 25 games.

It's Toronto's players -- whether they're from the U.S, Russia, Ontario, or the Moon -- that have failed their fans through almost 70 games this year.

At the end of the day, the Maple Leafs were never slated to be a dominant force this year, and it was pretty much 100 percent known that they'd have to grind through the rigors of the stretch run if sniffing a playoff spot was even the least bit possible. They simply have not answered the bell.  

"I've never had a team fall off a cliff like this. I've had dips. I've had slumps. I've had rough patches," Burke said last week prior to Toronto's meeting with the Bruins, a the first of four-straight losses for the Leafs. "But this is akin to an 18-wheeler going right off a cliff."

That is something that should ultimately fall on the players.

"We have other players that can step up and they have to step up," Toronto defensemen Carl Gunnarsson said last week. "That's the way it is."

Sunday brought little relief to the club, as the team dropped their 10th game in their last 11, a 2-0 shutout loss against the eighth-seeded Washington Capitals. Now without a goal in their last two games for just the third time in the team's near 95-year history, these are dire times for the Maple Leafs. 

And the harsh reality? There just seems to be no relief in sight for a club that's itching -- strike that, crying -- for a playoff berth. Now below .500 for the first time this year with a tame 30-31-8 record, the Leafs have plummeted back down to Earth -- and into the depths of hell. It’s a predicament that no acquisition, especially one that captains a Columbus club on the way to the worst record in the league, could fix. 

But hey, what’s the good news for fans of a club that'll likely end the year as the only team in the league still without a playoff appearance since the end of the lockout? At this rate, Burke (under contract for another year), will have a top five pick to work with in Pittsburgh come June. 

Ty Anderson can be reached at feedback@hockeyjournal.com. Follow him on Twitter at @_TyAnderson.