How Burke May Help – Or Hinder – The Flames


Burke Tweeting
– pic via Wil Kwok


A lot of surprise at Brian Burke’s decision to join the Calgary Flames as president of hockey operations. He’d told people earlier in the summer that he wasn’t interested, only to change his mind. The one thing everyone who knows him said? Some version of "No way he is going without control." There are a lot of layers in Calgary, a lot of people who like to call the shots.

That’s from Elliotte Friedman’s most recent 30 thoughts column and it gives voice to the great unanswered question of the Brian Burke addition – just how is this all going to work? We can’t speak in specifics about the Flames front office culture or politics, but we can talk theoretically. More to the point, let’s look at how the Burke hire may improve or hamper the Calgary organization via generally understood social mechanisms.

Elliotte touches on the most pressing concern – that the Flames executive suite has a lot of "layers"; meaning a number of big hats with loud voices jostling to be heard. Burke joins Jay Feaster, John Weisbrod and Ken King at the top of the pyramid, to say nothing of the various "support staff" just below the apex including Craig Conroy, Chris Snow, Tod Button, etc.

Probably the worst outcome would be a confused authority structure and the ensuing chaos of a power struggle between King and Burke or Burke and Feaster (etc), which would no doubt result in the splintering of factions throughout the organization. The Flames are going to have their struggles on the ice over the next few seasons – the long journey to success will no doubt be lengthened by anarchy and squabbling amongst the execs and ownership. 

Beware of Groupthink

Ironically there is also the opposite threat. It’s an issue, I think, that is probably far more prevalent in many NHL front offices than is immediately obvious: the scourge of groupthink.

While we can easily reflect on the value of a well structured, unified front office working in unison, the unfortunate truth is that a rigidly hierarchical group of like-minded individuals can easily devolve into an insulated, credulous collective that is dumb to information and feedback.

To illustrate and contrast: In the first instance noted above, picture a collection of men randomly setting out in all directions, each yelling over the other to determine the way forward. In the second instance, picture, instead, an orderly single file lineup of guys wearing blindfolds, each stepping in perfect rhythm to the footsteps of the man in front of him, as they march off a cliff.

Groupthink is not merely the province of the stupid or obsequious. Roomfuls of highly intelligent individuals can fall prey to the seduction of a perfect, perpetual consensus that gives the illusion of infallibility or righteousness. Groupthink in organizations is especially insidious because it deters the flow of information from traveling upward. Meaning: negative feedback or data that falls outside of the leadership’s established orthodoxy tends to be punished, ignored or "lost". And unless the leadership is actually infallible, not heeding critical information is bad news.

I suspect this is what happened in Calgary under the iron fist of Darryl Sutter, particularly after he filled the organization with friends and family. It’s also something that could happen beneath Burke if he is handed the reins and is left free to completely re-make the org in his own image. As discussed in my previous post on the subject, Burke is charismatic, stubborn and not terribly interested in hearing about "new" ways of interpreting the game. As such, he’s the sort of man who could fashion another cult of personality in the front office through his combination of magnetic confidence, noteworthy experience and engaging candor. That is, a culture that would inoculate the decision makers from unpleasant critical feedback or unfamiliar analytical advances.

I suggest the last thing the rebuilding Flames need is a guy shouting about truculence at the media and a collection of empty hats behind him nodding in unison.

The Devil’s Advocate

Puck Daddy recently posted a video detailing the Boston Bruins’ decision to trade Tyler Seguin this summer. Surprisingly, many of the justifications for the move discussed by Boston’s suits seemed cliched and shallow (at least from an outsiders perspective). In response, Tyler Dellow noted:

I sometimes think that NHL teams would benefit greatly just from having a guy around in management who is willing to be the guy who says things that are awkward for other guys in the room.

I noted something similar on the value of a Devil’s advocate when Feaster was hired by the Flames:

Jay Feaster has stated explicitly in Calgary press conferences that he likes to encourage input from other decision-makers. He has also been self-deprecating and willing to admit past errors, which suggests he’s aware of his fallibility but willing to adapt.

Assurances to the media don’t necessarily guarantee the team won’t slip back into the old mode of organization however. There are ways the club can deter groupthink and continue to foster an environment where open communication and multiple perspectives though; primary amongst which is to purposefully foster conflict.

Agreement for the sake of agreement is avoided if the devil’s advocate is implemented properly. Premises and assumptions are challenged and the basis of each decision must be robustly defended in the face of (these) challenges. “Programming” conflict as a matter of organizational policy also ensures disagreement isn’t taken personally.

Ideally, the addition of Burke is the addition of a smart, measured voice of dissension. Either because Burke himself is positioned as the conscious interloper at team meetings, and/or because the club’s collection executives organizes themselves so that each guy’s strengths and weaknesses are aligned in complementary fashion. Meaning: discussion, incredulity and a conscious discomfort with enforced consensus are woven into the fabric of the Flames front office.

Calgary is going to need managerial competence, patience and more than a little luck to find their way out of the desert over the next few seasons. Here’s hoping the Burke hire means an organized yet adaptable front office, rather than a heterogeneous mix of antagonists or a homogenous assortment of yes men. 

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    • Parallex

      Why? Nonis was essentually Burke’s protege. When looking at what the Leafs have done this offseason I can’t think of a single thing that Nonis has done that Burke probably wouldn’t. That’s not to say that I’d take either one of them but I think we can safely assume that Nonis and Burke share a similer philosophy.

      • Scary Gary

        You’re right, Nonis was his protege and Burke would likely have a similar philosophy.

        It all depends on whether your Burke crystal ball tells you. Would Burke have given Bozak that money with a NTC? Would he have signed Clarkson for that term? For 2 million less and a shorter term they could have gotten MacAurthor (more 20 goals season than Clarkson). Would Burke have bought out Grabovski (arguably their best center)? Would Burke have traded for Bolland, basically a one year rental player? Would Burke have left Franson contract to this point? Would Burke have given Bernier 2.9 mil? I’m not sure if Burke would have done these things but I know Nonis did.

        • Grabovski “Arguably” their best centre? He was their third line centre last year, making 5.5 million. He had to go. Carlyle also hated him.

          Kadri had 44 pints is 48 games and was +15 last season. It’s not even close who was their best Centre.

  • Scary Gary

    I like the fact that both Feaster and Burke have mentioned that they want to spend the cap wisely, and get value for their contracts. Whether this was coming from the owners, King, or that maybe they have both learned from past mistakes… I’m hoping that this could be a sign that they will focus on building through the draft, which Feaster and Weisbrod have both done a decent job up to this point. However, I do expect Burke to start bringing in his own scouts, and other staff I’d be fine with that, as long as the focus doesn’t change.

  • Greg

    Another way it could help is if his first order of business is swinging a trade for Franson. This is exactly the type of situation Feaster was referring to last year when he talked about their cap space allowing them to take advantage of teams struggling with a lowered cap ceiling, no?

  • mattyc

    I watched that bruins clip last night, and then Moneyball was on TV last night, and I couldn’t help thinking about how much the movie nailed the around-the-table banter about why they should draft/trade someone.

    • ChinookArchYYC

      My thoughts exactly.

      “He’s got an ugly girlfriend . . . it means he has no confidence”

      Really enjoyed Moneyball, and I don’t even like baseball.

  • Scary Gary

    According to Burke’s comment, I think the Flames first 20-30 games this season will be some of the most important and interesting games to watch to watch in the coming years.

    I know I am probably reiterating some thoughts expressed in previous comments but In my opinion, Burke’s hiring clearly signals that the Flames want to fast-track their way to the playoffs. The key rebuilding blocks/decisions are gone/done (Iginla, Bouwmeester, Kippersoff). So the only thing left for management is to see what type of potential team the Flames are (bottom 5 or fringe playoff team) and then decide what type of strategy they want to pursue for the next few years.

    Although this may sound counterintuitive, I think if it is clear the Flames are a bottom 5 team (which would be my best guess) then I think this will be a very bad outcome as it will likely trigger Burke to begin start tinkering immediately with the team and trading assets/young players away. However, if it is clear the Flames are much better than Burke will stand pat (which would be ideal in my view)

    Either way, I just don’t believe management is patient enough to pursue two years of losing to increase their chances of getting Sam Reinhart and Connor McDavid. Hopefully, the Flames have a good push at the start of the year but ultimately unravel in the second half of the year due to poor goaltending, fatigue, inexperience and injuries, or whatever.

  • RedMan

    the Key is if Burke, Feaster and King agree to a signle vision and model. if hey do, their stubborness and smarts compliment each other. If howevef Burkes ultimate vision differs (i.e. prioritize grit/size/skill vs skill/grit/size) then his advice or devils advocate voice will always be subversive and devisive. agreeing on vision and mission is paramount… if this cant be done theyre doomed.

    • piscera.infada

      I hate to keep bringing this up, but has no one thought that part of the decision to hire Burke would have relied on a discussion about vision, plan, implementation, and chemistry? It sounds (by all accounts from management) that it was a reasonably lengthy process. I highly doubt Ken King woke up one morning, called Burke in his underwear with a sizable hangover and said “dude, I’m going to hire you, we’ll figure out the rest later, just name your price”.

      Granted, I understand there’s a difference in talking about something and actually putting it into practice. I’m just saying that no organization just makes this decision on a whim, hoping for the best.

      • Rockmorton65

        Don’t forget too, that Burke turned down the position, twice. The day he was hired, I heard an interview where he said what changed his mind, was he asked himself (and his family) – could he do the job and stay in the background? He said he could, and accepted the position. Sounded sincere to me.

      • RedMan

        of course, i have considere it- and actually believe that there WERE lengthy discussion, in fact i would be very surprised if there hadn’t been.

        BUT – people (like me) base fears on Burke’s LONG HELD BELIEFS regarding size and grit (NOT THAT I DON’T AGREE WITH VALUE OF SIZE AND GRIT – BUT RANKING OF IMPORTANCE AND COMMITMENT TO A MODEL), and actions like trading a rebuild for kessler in T.O. to fast track back into contention.

        It will take a lot of commitment and purposeful intention on the part of Burke to be true to a vision different to the one he inwardly feels is the best. Many men would not have the ability to make decisions based on criteria they are at dissonance with their internal narrative. Many will say they can, few will accomplish it.

        • piscera.infada

          It will take a lot of commitment and purposeful intention on the part of Burke to be true to a vision different to the one he inwardly feels is the best. Many men would not have the ability to make decisions based on criteria they are at dissonance with their internal narrative. Many will say they can, few will accomplish it.

          I agree with this paragraph. I’m certainly not one lauding the hiring of Burke as a franchise savior. That said, I feel it can work.

          My initial comment was not necessarily directed at you. I’m just tired of people acting like there was no thought amongst Feaster, King, Edwards, et al. as to whether this would work. As fans, sometimes we have to trust the powers that be (I know it’s difficult to do for many – especially with what’s gone on the last half-decade). Assuming stupidity and failure in my mind is not a pragmatic approach – especially considering what stage the team is at right now.

          I guess it comes down to the fact that I don’t believe Burke will come here and attempt to fast-track the rebuild. Everyone in the world knows it’s that time and it needs to happen, so I don’t see any possible way a sudden diversion from that plan can be sold to the fans (unless of course it involves bringing back the Lemieux’s and Gretzky’s of the world in their prime).

          That said, we can take up arms together if Burke tries another Kessel.

          • RedMan

            Seems we agree then – that expanding the decision making body to include a stronger decision making ‘team’ is wise.

            You say:
            “I guess it comes down to the fact that I don’t believe Burke will come here and attempt to fast-track the rebuild. Everyone in the world knows it’s that time and it needs to happen…”

            This is the part that worries me – the ownership were very slow to recognize this, and as recently as last year(or was it this spring? definitely even after Iggy was traded) were giving marching orders to “WIN NOW” Even when they were definitely “rebuilding” Ken King was very hesitant to use words like “rebuild”

            this makes me suspicious of ownership.

            To be honest, i am reserving judgement on the Burke hiring – wait and see. I think growing the org. is the right move, and will wait to see if Burke was the right choice.

            My bigger worries stem from some of the won now culture that has come from above KK

          • piscera.infada

            I’ve just always taken the infamous “mandate” statement to be rhetorical. I agree, it made me nervous at the time, but the organization has done little to actually reflect it since it was made (be it free agency or the draft). Again, it’s debatable (and I can live with that), but I’m more of the mind that it was a “we aren’t tanking for the sake of tanking” statement.

          • The mandate statement was in no way rhetorical, and the evidence supports that statement. Never in any way, shape or form has the ownership of this team wanted a rebuild or thought it was a good idea. Infact just looking at the last year, they were still in go for it mode, the sign and trade for Wideman, signing Hudler, bringing in guys like Begin and McCarthy to camp, trading for McGratton(though that probably helped with tanking), the previous years Cammelleri deal, bringing in Joey Mac, and biggest of all the Ryan O’Reily deal(the kid is worth dealing for, but it shows the team doesn’t have the patience to use the first round pick on a kid and wait for him to develop) and so on. This is a team and ownership who has failed to see that so many of its players were past their prime and couldn’t carry the load and the team should have rebuilt a while ago, and then the fans were pissed off we got magic beans in return for the teams best players, it’s what you get when the players are best their best before dates. In fact if we stared this process a year or two years ago, the players/picks we would have got back could have probably made for a much shorter rebuild than what we are likely in store for.

            If Burke was brought in SOLELY for the purpse they said of providing a guiding hand, than it’s fine. But he’s not, he’s Feasters replacement and the Flames Twitter confirmed that, Burke said(and it’s on Twitter) “If Jay and I have an agreement, we’ll talk about it till we come to a consensus”. Which means Burke has final say and will not approve deals unless HE wants them to happen.

            The biggest problem is, Burke is not here to rebuild this team, and as I have mentioned before and explained to you, in the interviews with Feaster, he says Burke can shave years off this rebuild. Why does management think so? Because even in Toronto without having two high first round picks he still managed to get that lame duck team into the playoffs. And that is all this team cares about, making it back to the playoffs as fast as possible. And if Burke could do it in Toronto, he can probably do it faster here with more starting assests than he probably had in Toronto.

          • piscera.infada

            No one’s going to argue for a minute that this rebuild shouldn’t have started a year or two earlier. NO ONE.

            The rest of your argument here is baseless and laced with assumptions. So no, I don’t care at all for your explanations.

  • Scary Gary

    There are pros & cons of any management structure, but you have to pick one & have the right people that will skew to the pros of the structure. I think Burke had to really think about this & the fact that Feaster has already set up this system & is a GM who is humble & willing to work within a consensus environment, Burke realized that he wouldn’t be in a p%*@ing match with a strong minded GM. I really do anticipate that this group of management are more than capable to work within this structure at this point of the rebuild. It’ll become interesting once expectation rears its head as the team becomes relevant again.

  • supra steve

    Funny to hear Cam Neely saying that after 3 years in the league they should be seeing more out of Segan. The same Cam Neely who put up three OK years with VAN before being dealt (as a disapointment) to BOS where he became the beast we all remember. Funny.

  • RedMan

    I don’t think there is any danger of groupthink now that Burke is involved. Don’t be fooled by all the niceties at the introductory press conference. Burke is now in charge of operational hockey decisions. Feaster reports to Burke, Weisbrod to Feaster, etc.

    The good news is it looks like King is out of the way on operational hockey decisions and Feaster has a much needed babysitter. There may be discussions on trades, etc. but Burke will retain final say.

  • ChinookArchYYC

    The message that keeps ringing in my ears was the sentiment that came out of the Flames after Darryl Sutter was fired. “No more one man shows”.

    The new role for Burke definitely signals one thing. King at least does not trust Feaster with guiding the Flames out of the wilderness. On the other hand, I wonder if Burke’s hiring is about defending against Group Think?

  • Bikeit

    There sure are alot of lawyers in the room now that can think along the same path. Maybe they need an arts major in the room to question their group think.

    I like burke but i was really dissapointed with him at the televised draft lottery last year. He was scowling the whole time and quite unprofessional. If one of his players had acted like that he would have given them a lashing. Hopefully Burke will not be like this in Calgay even if he is having a bad day.

  • Jeff Lebowski

    I would think such scenarios (too many cooks) were discussed ad nauseum by the Flames. I don’t think organizations want to bring chaos in.

    The narratives about Feaster and the Flames (being dumb – ROR, being stubborn and meddling – Edwards) are things I don’t pay attention to. Those narratives are mostly generated by superficial thinking, lack of information.

    Feaster is a bright man (honours law at one of the best law schools in US – Georgetown). That’s his strength – he thinks through issues with a depth and breadth tuned from his education and experience.

    Burke is also a bright guy (Harvard Law). However, if they discussed issues publicly the way they do in Flames offices it would alienate large swaths of the fan base (applies in any city). The details are too foreign.

    Instead you use colloquialisms and cliche. Burke mentioned enough on his radio interview about talking plainly.

    It’s like the president of the US. You can’t sound too smart to the voters despite the fact you are dealing with complex and technical issues. Voters don’t comprehend (they weren’t taught to).

    In the case of Feaster and Burke people take their public comments and appropriate intellect. This is wrong.

    Both of these guys have been trained to gather facts, consider evidence, comprehend problems and then solve them (and defend their conclusions) using reasoning.

    Players play while executives make decisions. Get the best people who do those things.

    It’s easy to highlight errors. Every human makes them. However it’s better to look at errors in totality of every play a player makes or every decision an executive makes.

    Again my only concern is with the prospects. Hands off Gaudreau and the skilled hockey sense guys.

    On a different note, is Dave Staples’ scoring chance data available to look at?

    I’m with him. Corsi is not refined.

    I’d like to see scoring chances treated and recorded similar to counting stats (not just had Flames had 7 scoring chances- In those 7 chances here’s who was on the ice, created them, took the shot, started with a great breakout etc) with different points given for:

    -just being on the ice for an offensive scoring chance
    -highest points for scoring goal but also points (decreasing) for shots on net in scoring area, shots attempted in scoring area
    -instead of 2 assists, three assists (capture smart breakout passes from d)

    So if a team scores:
    shooter gets 4 points
    3 passers each get 3 points

    If shoots but no goal
    Shooter 3 points
    3 passers each get 2 points

    If work a chance but other team blocks shot or miss the net
    Shooter 2 points
    3 passers 1 point

    Even if you don’t touch the puck but are on the ice for scoring chance you get some credit (1/2 pt?). You could go to the net, cause a screen or occupy an opponent that allows team mates to generate chance.

    Scoring chance area broadly defined by area (posts out to circles) but also context and player density.
    Meaning a shot from the area known as the point can come off the result of sustained pressure and cycle plays where the density of players will be highest in the broadly defined scoring chance area OR a guy could shoot a puck with hardly anyone in front to screen or tip just like a throw away play or a waster shot.

    And need to figure out a defending scoring chances point system. When in defensive zone you need to recognize and reward good defense of scoring area and willingness (positioning. At same time you have to subtract points for missed assignments.

    I’d also look at goalie SV% in that context (SV% against scoring chance shots).

    At end you have two raw scores. Scoring chances created and scoring chances defended. Combine for two way play.

    Requires video. Is Bergeron a great two guy because he wins face offs and gets points or does he also pick up his check and physically or tactically (how does he move without the puck in the defensive or neutral zone) negate scoring chances? How many points does player A on Flames get vs player B on Vancouver.

    You would also have to consider coaching tactics, so not to penalize players for doing exactly what they were instructed and also penalize coaches for not figuring out opponent attack tactics (like how Kevin McCartney details. Plays that start (puck is dropped) in the scoring area illustrate coaching’s influence.

    Teams intentions are to take high probability shots. In fact you could play a fantastic defensive being outshot in total but allowing only perimeter, low probability shots (the shots you want opponents to take) and look good winning.

    In essence combine counting stats with corsi but in a narrowly defined space ‘scoring chance’.

    As Staples pointed out here:

    There is a dilution factor. This kind of scoring chance data best captures hockey sense IMO.

    I apologize if this has already been asked and answered.

  • icedawg_42

    The only thing that frightens me is the attitude of “I’ve been doing this for x years, and I know better” – I share Kent’s trepidation about being stubborn and old fashioned, closed minded and not open to new theories and methods.

  • Off topic, but saw this tidbit from Bob McKenzie on Twitter today:

    Bob McKenzie ‏@TSNBobMcKenzie

    Expect EDM to be on lookout for a heavyweight fighter. Currently without that element but GM MacTavish and HC Eakins believe it’s required.


  • If you are an owner and Feaster/King show brought you ROR fiasco and the Iginla to Boston (NO Pitt) and a guy like Burke is available you grab him. Push KIng up and over and have a smart guy to challenge Feaster. Don’t be surprised before season end though (old habits die hard) and Burke has a presser announcing that Jay is a great guy but is moving out, over, down, waterboy whatever….

  • mayhemsince1977

    I’m still not sold on Burke being a good fit. My experience in watching Burke’s moves through the years kind of makes me think of Mr. Sutter. Old school values. He seems typical when it comes to filling the front office with friends and family. Ron Wilson is available!

    The other concern I have is that Burke seems to prefer the veteran that he has experience with before youth and skill. Burke has never really been a rebuild guy. He didn’t have the patience with the Leafs.

    I’ve been having this recurring dream where Burke trades Backlund, Glencross, and the first overall pick in the MacDavid draft for Kessel.

    • I know your getting a bunch of trashes, but you make a good point, Burke is agressive, sometimes to a fault, sometimes it works out great. Look at when he was in Vancouver, he wasn’t patient with his draft pick and made some slick moves to move up and grab BOTH Sedins, that move worked out great.

      Burke goes to Anaheim, and goes on to make to the pronger trade, wanting to make an immediate impact, and that trade works out.

      Burke goes to Toronto and goes on to make the Kessel trade in short order. If Kessel resigns in Toronto, IMO it’s a really good trade, if he walks, ugh, that is a bad bad bad trade.

      Thats a pattern, he goes to a place and wants to make his mark. Whether it works out like the Sedins or Pronger deals, or whether he misjudged the current state of his team(Toronto), he’s going to do those things. But does Burke decide to make a splash here? Does he tell Feaster to make the big deal, speed up the rebuild? The comments made in the press conference certainly seem to think so, Feaster said he can “take years off a rebuild”. And we know that Edwards/King want playoffs, they given their guys marching orders to that effect, even though the team was seen by MANY pundits as being terrible and in no way a stanley cup challenger.

      Again, are the people in charge making an assessment of where the team is and thinks that bringing on Brian Burke will have this team back in the playoffs in a minimum 2 or 3 years? Is it even possible?

  • Michael

    It was quite clear from the press conference that Burke is the man in charge, and he hardly has the personality to allow ‘conflicts’ to linger.

    As long as the Flames get off to a good start, Feaster is likely safe for now.
    Should (or once) the Flames run into problems things will start to get interesting. At that point the Feaster/Burke relationship will get tested, and we will see how Burkes’s vision compares to Feasters. Feaster is taking some risks this seasons, no established starter, no established top six center, and a weak RW. Things could get interesting in a hurry….