What are the common perceptions surrounding the Leafs and their recent rebuilding efforts? Okay, let’s be more specific, what are the common perceptions surrounding the Leafs rebuilding efforts that can be repeated in polite company? Here are a few that I would propose:
- “The Maple Leafs tried to do a short cut because ownership and fans are impatient and Brian Burke believes that he is smarter than everybody else”
- “Draft Schmaft” ©1997 and 2010
- “Toronto always trades away their first round picks trying to land marquee players to feed their ego and then when they do retain draft picks they always screw it up”
- “They spent years buying their way out of their problems so that when that was taken away from them (via the salary cap) they were exposed for what they really were, a piss-poor run NHL team”
- “The Leafs couldn’t afford to stay in the bottom of the league and gather up draft picks like other teams, the fans are too demanding”
A Winding, Yet Circular Road
These are all approximations of the common refrains surrounding the Leafs recent rebuild. Some of them from Leafs fans, others from fans in the ROC (Rest of Canada). The Maple Leafs, since 2008, provide a very interesting, and not altogether easy, case study for a team trying to rebuild without doing many of the things that are typically associate with a rebuilding team.
If we are going to start with a forensic examination of the Maple Leafs’ rebuild, then there are a few significant dates to keep in mind. For our purposes we shall start with October 5th, 2005: the first game of the “New NHL” following the lockout. I’ll begin by looking at some of the moves that the Leafs made in the seasons prior to the lockout to get an idea of the type of team they were and the direction of management during this period.
From September 4th, 2002 to March 8th 2006 the Leafs, first under General Manager Pat Quinn then followed by John Ferguson Jr., the club made eighteen player trades. In all but three, the Leafs were either trading away a player or a draft pick in exchange for a roster-ready asset. The players that the Leafs acquired were Brad Leeb, Owen Nolan (ret. 2012), Phil Housley (ret. 2009), Doug Gilmour (ret. 2003), Glen Wesley (ret. 2008), Drake Berehowsky (ret. 2006), Ron Francis (ret. 2004), Brian Leetch (ret. 2006), Jeff O’Neill (ret. 2008), and Luke Richardson (ret. 2008), most of whom were on the proverbial back-nine of their NHL careers. The Leafs were an aging team filled to the brim with declining veterans more notable for past achievements than their current abilities to perform.
On the eve of the lockout the Leafs roster had only nine players on it under the age of 30 while ten of the active players had been born before 1970. The average age of the team was 31.7 years old. In those eighteen trades the Leafs sent away eleven draft picks, only one of which was in the first round, a 21st overall choice which was used to select Mark Stuart. So the price wasn’t an exorbitant nor obvious mortgaging of the future. However, the loss of eleven draft selections over the course of a four year period would come back to haunt the team, along with their traditionally poor drafting record.
Prior to the lockout the Leafs had made the playoffs twelve times in the previous fourteen years, and six consecutive years leading up to 2005. Since the lockout they have not made the post-season once. Coincidence? If you are not a conspiracy-theorist Leafs fan, then probably. Otherwise you are likely to just see this as a symptom of a larger problem: Blue and White Disease.
Directly preceding the lockout, the Leafs had gone two consecutive years without a first round pick. From those two draft years, center John Mitchell is currently the most accomplished NHL player with 222 games played and 71 points. Only three other players of the thirteen selected have played in the NHL: Robbie Earl managed 47 games, Jeremy Williams got into 32 games, while the franchise’s star goaltending prospect at the time, Justin Pogge, has played 7 games (all of them with the Leafs in the 2008-2009 season).
The Ownership group of the Toronto Maple Leafs has been a lightning rod for fans and media alike since the days of Harold Ballard in the 1980s. By 2005 the Leafs were owned by a collection of business interests including the Ontario Teacher’s Pension Plan and CTVGlobemedia, while Larry Tanenbaum held a position as non-executive chairman. In 2008 CTV sold half of its MLSE interests to Tanenbaum. This was the ownership situation when the Leafs entered their rebuilding efforts in 2008, split between a provincial pension fund, a media conglomerate, and the aforementioned Tanenbaum.
Ownership of the Leafs had been accused of meddling in the affairs of then-GM John Ferguson Jr. The team was said to be run by committee with more emphasis placed on financial returns than the quality of the product on the ice. It is difficult to either prove or disprove these assertions. However, anecdotal evidence would seem to suggest that there is a corporate lethargy and stubborn arrogance to the management structure that has prevented the Leafs from exploiting new opportunities and player resources that have been readily adopted by other NHL franchises. Stubborn arrogance and an unwillingness to adopt new methods? And this is before Brian Burke was on the scene?
Dawning of a New Age
Following the lockout the Leafs appeared to have moderated their approach in trading away draft picks for older players. Only twice since the 2005-2006 season have they dealt away 1st round picks in exchange for a player or players, though both times were disasters in their own respect. The first was a deal in 2007 that sent Vesa Toskala and Mark Bell to Toronto in exchange for a 1st round pick (Lars Eller), a 2nd round pick (Aaron Palushaj) and a 2009 4th round pick (Craig Smith) to San Jose. Bell would eventually leave the NHL following issues with substance abuse and a DUI while Vesa Toskala would become a Youtube sensation. This trade would end up being John Ferguson Jr’s last as Leafs GM.
Enter Brian Burke.
November 29th, 2008. The Toronto Maple Leafs’ rebuild can be directly tied to the time in office of General Manager Brian Burke. His hiring marked a hopeful new beginning for the team and in his introductory press conference he stated that he would rebuild the team by unconventional means, publicly eschewing the route that had been taken by Chicago, Pittsburgh, and Washington.
Burke began his tenure with the assertion that he was going to rebuild the Leafs while maintaining a competitive team on the ice and challenging for the playoffs. He stated that he would accomplish these seemingly mutually-exclusive goals by pursuing free agents, both those in the NHL and undrafted players in Europe and the college ranks, and by trading for immediate team needs. Burke deliberately stated that he was not interested in, and would not pursue, a draft-and-develop approach to rebuilding the team. Specifically that he did not subscribe to a five-year rebuilding plan that would see the team finish at the bottom of the standings (don’t laugh yet, we aren’t at the punchline!) but instead would be aggressive and mine untapped veins of hockey talent in order to add talent while still trying to win immediately.
To that end Burke brought in Tyler Bozak, Christian Hanson and Jonas Gustavsson, all undrafted and highly touted free agents playing in either the college ranks or overseas. Four years later, Bozak has seemingly hit a career plateau as an average to below-average second line center better suited to a third line role amassing 106 points in 192 games. Gustavsson appears to be one poor season away from returning to Europe. Hanson has settled into a career in the AHL, currently with the Washington Capitals’ farm team. During his brief NHL career, 42 games, Hanson managed only 9 points.
Interestingly, Burke has seemed to veer away from the undrafted college free agent ranks of late. Despite an attempt to sign Fabian Brunnstrom when he came over from Europe, there haven’t been as many high-profile college free agents in the Leafs’ sights since that initial foray.
Among Burke’s first order of business, as is often the case of incoming GMs, was to untangle the knot that Ferguson had left in his wake. Burke began by sending away some veteran players in Hall Gill, Wade Belak, and Chad Kilger, netting a 2nd, a 3rd and two 5th round draft picks in return. After a quick purge, Burke went back on a buying binge. He traded up at the draft to take Luke Schenn 5th overall, sending away three draft picks: a 1st round pick (7th overall) and 3rd round pick in that year (2008) and a 2nd round pick in 2009. Later, he traded for Mikhail Grabovski, Ryan Hollweg, Mike Van Ryn, Lee Stempniak, and Brad May all within the first calendar year of his tenure.
The Kessel Deal
The second time the Leafs traded 1st round picks following the lockout was in the Phil Kessel deal that would result in the Bruins drafting a first-line center, a power-forward winger, and a top-pairing defensive prospect; Burke handed Boston enough talent to restock a championship team on the fly. When Brian Burke’s time is over in Toronto, it will most likely be this one deal that will dominate his legacy.
While Kessel has become a focal point for the team, alongside captain Dion Phaneuf, to date he has not proven to be the talent necessary to single-handedly raise the team to the level needed for a playoff position. Kessel has finished 69th, 36th, and 6th, respectively, in the scoring race in his first three seasons with the Leafs. Yet in his best year, this past season where he finished with 82 points, the Leafs fell lower than they had in 2011, finishing 26th overall in the league.
That said, if there is an area of strength in Brian Burke’s time with the Leafs it is that he has made some (the Kessel deal notwithstanding) astonishingly good trades. The first one being the Phaneuf trade when he was able to acquire two defensemen in Phaneuf and Keith Aulie (and don’t forget Fredrik Sjostrom!) for what amounted to a collection of NHL spare parts in Jamal Mayers, Ian White, Matt Stajan and Niklas Hagman. While Sjostrom is long gone, Aulie was later dealt to Tampa Bay for Carter Ashton while Phaneuf became captain of the Leafs.
Today Matt Stajan is the only remaining Flame from that deal, his presence being somewhat begrudging as were it not for the size and burdensome clauses on his contract he would likely have been dealt away or demoted already.
The second considerable trade that Burke managed to negotiate which, in hindsight, looks like highway robbery, is the deal that sent Francois Beauchemin to Anaheim for Jake Gardiner, Joffrey Lupul, and a conditional 4th round pick in 2013. Gardiner is becoming a highly coveted defensive prospect while Lupul had a renaissance season last year. Beauchemin, on the other hand, has slowly declined into a second-pairing, or lower, defensive defenseman.
Other moves of Burke’s that deserve consideration are his trade of Tomas Kaberle to Boston for Joe Colborne, a 1st round pick (used to select Rickard Rakell), and a 2012 conditional 2nd round pick, as well as the trade of Brett Lebda and Robert Slaney to Nashville for Cody Franson and Matthew Lombardi.
Who Wouldn’t Want to Play for the Leafs?
One part of Burke’s rebuilding-fast-track plan was to lure high-profile free agents to Toronto. To date this hasn’t worked out to his advantage. Originally banking on using Toronto’s vaunted reputation as “Canada’s Team” in order to attract talented players, he has not yet met with success for a number of
excuses reasons. According to Burke, some free agents have chosen other teams based on money (Kovalchuk), term (Richards), local familiarity (Sedins), or a desire to join what is considered a stronger team (Hossa).
It hasn’t been for lack of trying, and Burke has been vocal in his criticism of some of these contracts, most recently with the Brad Richards signing in New York, saying that he had no interest in signing a player to a contract that would see him paid into the very twilight of his career.
Weighing the talent that he has added through trade versus free agency, the former is a clear winner. By trade Burke has acquired Dion Phaneuf, Jake Gardiner, Carter Ashton, Joffrey Lupul, John-Michael Liles, and Cody Franson. As free agents the Leafs have signed Colby Armstrong, Brett Lebda, Clarke MacArthur and Tim Connolly amongst a few others. Further to that point, even when acquiring draft picks by trade during his tenure with the Leafs, the June selection process hasn’t yielded the same promising results for Burke and the Leafs that an exchange of players has.
Has Burke made things better?
Burke has eschewed the conventional wisdom on rebuilding an NHL franchise. He hasn’t prioritized the draft or shied away from trying to sign free agents. For all of Burke’s stated bluster, the most significant pieces that he has added to the Leafs organization by way of rebuilding the team have been through trade. Burke’s strengths have always been in acquiring players by these means, even at the draft, as in 1993 when he traded up to select Chris Pronger in Hartford, or to acquire the draft picks for both Henrik and Daniel Sedin. A more recent example is when he traded up to 5th overall in order to select Luke Schenn (although that one didn’t work out quite as well).
His team is heading in the wrong direction, if one could say they were headed in any direction at all. In fact, in spite of his statements that he would not build a team through the draft by finishing at the bottom of the standings year after year, that is in fact where his team has ended up. Unfortunately, in exchange for a single, high-caliber but one-dimensional player, Burke sent away what would become two players who would have compensated the organization for that failure.
The team is now at the end of that same process, but without a significant portion of the reward for the journey. If one were to attempt to forecast the Leafs 2012-2013 season, would anything higher than 10th in the Eastern conference be a reasonable expectation? With so many pending unrestricted free agents is it not also reasonable to conclude that at least some of them won’t finish the season in Toronto? Is there any reason to seriously expect that the team will improve to the point of finishing in eighth place or higher in the Eastern conference next year? And would a first-round exit be enough to convince MLSE to retain Burke as GM?
At the same time Burke has managed to acquire some decent talent at key positions for the Leafs future in Joe Colborne, Cody Franson, and Jake Gardiner. Keeping this talent, along with the addition of the players available at the draft positions forfeited in the Kessel deal could have seen the Leafs as one of the more well-stocked teams in the Eastern conference.
The team cannot be said to realistically be any closer to their ultimate goal of winning a Stanley Cup now than they were on November 28th, 2008. The only area of improvement is the addition of some prospect depth within the organization.
Are we there yet?
In the four years Brian Burke has been managing the team, with the stated intent every season of being competitive and making the playoffs, they have finished with 81, 74, 85, and 80 points, respectively. The goal differential for a club that Burke was supposedly building from the back end out has been -43, -53, -33, and -33.The team that was supposed to play with truculence and tenacity has tallied a steadily declining 1113, 1071, 985, and 824 penalty minutes over the last four seasons.
The Leafs have, at the end of this season, seven pending unrestricted free agents, all forwards, with Phil Kessel, the franchise keystone and Burke’s crown jewel, set to become an unrestricted free agent at the end of the following season, 2013-2014. The prospect pool for the Leafs has improved significantly over the time that Brian Burke took over, albeit through somewhat non-traditional means – and it could probably be stronger still absent the Kessel deal. Some of the Leafs most highly-rated prospects, with the exception of Nazem Kadri, have come to the club through trade, which is both a compliment to Burke’s ability to trade and a damning statement of the organization’s ability to identify and procure talent at the amateur level.
The past four years have been an era of wasted effort and expenditure for the franchise. I would call it a lost generation, but the Leafs are the only NHL team that uses dendrochronology to measure the time between championships. Burke’s decision to trade for Phil Kessel was borne partly out of a desire to immediately improve his roster and to avoid the long and painful process of losing that often accompanies a rebuilding effort. Had Burke not made that one move in trading for Phil Kessel, the Leafs would today have a potential franchise forward in Tyler Seguin and perhaps a promising and coveted defensive prospect in Doug Hamilton. Stubborn impatience denied the Leafs those talents, and will likely make the Brian Burke era one more in a continuing trend of lost years for Toronto fans.
So let’s look again at our initial statements to see if anything has been altered upon review.
The Maple Leafs tried to do a short cut because ownership and fans are impatient and Brian Burke believes that he is smarter than everybody else” – Hard to argue this point. The franchise has been famously impatient about the success that it feels is a birthright and Burke’s general disdain for criticism and his recent comments on advanced statistics have certainly cemented this view in the public opinion.
“Draft Schmaft” – The Leafs have had middling success at the draft table. Nowhere near as successful as teams like Montreal or Boston but certainly better than the Oilers and Flames have been over the last decade. The fault lies in two parts: a failure to recognize amateur talent at the draft, and a failure to properly prioritize draft picks and the need to develop internally replacement players. In addition, the Leafs draft record could be considered to be falsely inflated as several of their drafted players have gone on to success within other organizations (see Boyes, Brad).
“Toronto always trades away their first round picks trying to land marquee players to feed their ego and then when they do retain draft picks they always screw it up” – Kind of a repetition of above, but to add to the subject, of the teams I have and will examine in this series, the Leafs since 1995 have missed the most 1st round draft picks (six), in 1996, ’97, ’03, ’04, and ’07. They had to trade to get back in to the first round in 2011. The most significant player the Leafs have selected in the first round in that same timeframe was Nik Antropov in 1997.
“They spent years buying their way out of problems so that when that was taken away from them via the salary cap they were exposed for what they really were, a piss-poor run NHL team” – While it is difficult to gather payroll information for the team prior to the lockout, it was well known that the Maple Leafs were consistently among the highest-salaried rosters in the league alongside the Rangers, Devils, Capitals and Red Wings. While it cannot necessarily be proven that the institution of the salary cap has hamstrung the organization’s ability to compete, the coincidental evidence is certainly enough to lend credibility to that conclusion.
“The Leafs couldn’t afford to stay in the bottom of the league and gather up draft picks like other teams, the fans are too demanding” – There is nothing to suggest that the team is being run on anything less than a full-scale NHL budget. The ownership group is wealthy and well-funded, and with the net worth of the franchise at just over half-a-billion dollars, it would seem reasonable to conclude that the team could afford to weather an avowed turn of fortunes. Also, they suck anyway, so why not just be honest about it. It isn’t like the fans have anything else to watch.
The Leafs have been a misguided organization for several generations now, often looking covetously at the fortune and talent of other teams without taking note of how those teams were assembled. They are a marketing, and arguably still a cultural, behemoth in Canada, yet management and ownership appears to have failed to realize that this does not translate automatically into a more successful product.
Brian Burke was brought in as a management version of all the previous free agents who had not brought success to the team. Burke was given a large degree of autonomy by ownership, and yet he seemed to fall prey to many of the same faults that had dogged the organization prior to his arrival. He has made some poor decisions that were spurred by this flawed logic and an eagerness to reach the end result that has, to date, failed. When the first five years of Brian Burke’s time in Toronto have come to a close, the team may find itself in more or less the same position from which it began in 2009.
For Further reading: Leafs Abomination by Dave Feschuk and Michael Grange.