On Brian Burke and the USA Hockey Team

Image via Michael Dorausch and licensed under Creative Commons

 In case you missed it today, the USA Olympic Men’s Hockey Team of Future Gold Medal Winners was announced after the Winter Classic. The selection itself has minimal relevance for the Flames, given that no Calgary player was even remotely in consideration (really, like Chris Butler’s gonna go?), but as most readers here can imagine, Brian Burke played a fairly significant part in the selection process, and it’s an ugly reminder of how adherence to a philosophy other than "take the best players" can be a poor method for team selection.

Burke’s MO has been fairly consistent over the years: bigger, grittier, and- for lack of a better word- intenser. None of these are inherently bad, but at the exclusion of objectively better players, it becomes something of a drag. This is hardly a new subject of discussion here- Kent’s posted about it rather recently, in fact. Still, there was always a bit of hope that Burke was smarter than he let on— that when push came to shove, he’d go with the objectively better player. While the acquisition of Westgarth was an indicator that that may not be true, it was Scott Burnside’s article on the selection of the USA Olympic Men’s Hockey team that dashed all hopes of that.

Bobby Ryan is a consistent 30 goal scorer. Goal scoring is something that is a bit of an issue on this team. So choosing to leave him off the team for some perceived lack of emotional depth would be nonsensical, right? Not if you’re Brian Burke.

 

"I think we have to know what we’re taking with Bobby," says Burke, who had him in Anaheim when the Ducks won the Stanley Cup in 2007.

 "He’s a passive guy," Burke says. And over 82 games, yes, Saad and or Pacioretty might be more attractive than Ryan. But Ryan’s a game-breaker.

"He is not intense. That word is not in his vocabulary," Burke says. "It’s never going to be in his vocabulary. He can’t spell intense."

 

There’s certainly a debate to be had on whether Bobby Ryan is actually good enough for the team (his fancy stats are rather underwhelming), but the debate should hardly center around perceived emotional states.  In fact, let’s just repeat the most inane part of that statement.

"He is not intense. That word is not in his vocabulary," Burke says. "It’s never going to be in his vocabulary. He can’t spell intense."

There’s no critical analysis of skill here, at most it’s mentioned that he’s a bit of a slow skater, but that bit of knowledge is glossed over for Burke’s non-analysis (it’s mentioned at an earlier meeting that an unnamed person described Ryan’s skating as "sleepy", but that’s nearly as moronic as the intensity quote).

This is, unfortunately, a symptom of hockey culture— whether it’s American or Canadian. There’s a certain mysticism involved with picking the "right" players (read the entire section in the Burnside article on dreams— whether or not they were being hyperbolic, it’s utterly absurd), regardless of actual skill level. Burke’s argument against Keith Yandle is almost as bizarre as his screed against Bobby Ryan’s lack of intensity.

Dean Lombardi- who watches a lot of Yandle on the rival Coyotes- makes a strong argument for him: that his coaches are more worried about Yandle on the ice than almost any other Phoenix player, and that he’s the highest scoring American defenseman over the last four years. Burke’s response is making a quip about Lombardi making a romantic speech a la Gone With the Wind and implying that Lombardi is simply wrong in his analysis. Again, there’s no real analysis or discussion from Burke, just soundbites that back up his pre-formulated opinions.

This is the issue Burke is beginning to present. There’s nothing wrong with a general preference for larger or grittier players, and there’s nothing wrong with not liking Ryan or Yandle’s game. The issue that we’re left with is an insistence that worn platitudes about size or heart are more important than actual skill- that Burke’s gut on a player is more indicative of quality than stats or tape. And that’s not a good thing for the Flames going forward.

Of course, the most amazing takeaway from the Burnside article is that anyone still listens to Don Waddell.

    • the forgotten man

      Yeah, that should be a fireable offense right there, along with showing up at a major press conference impersonating Nick Nolte post-drug/alcohol/ hooker binge..

  • RexLibris

    Every time I read of BB’s way of thinking I am reminded of a interview with Guy Lefleur saw a while back. He mentioned how the Flyers were just a bunch or ‘Bullies’ and how the Canadiens showed how to win with skill, speed and finesse. (From ’76 to ’79)
    At times BB is accused of having the game pass him by. I dunno? Perhaps he looks at the Flyers, or some other intense, big, truculent team[s], and sees how they won 2 cups by being brutalist’s and forgets the 24 of the Canadiens.

  • Arik

    Wow talk about “cherry-picking” your examples. I don’t care if you love Burke or hate him but don’t select and manipulate certain quotes to support your argument without considering the entire article. There are no less than three quotes in the article in which Burke acknowledges Ryan’s skill!
    As for Yandle Burke says “he is carving teams right now”. The dream comment, when taken in context is not weird at all…if you hate Burke that is fine, just don’t manipulate his comments that is weak!

    • Arik

      Fun fact! Burke’s dream comment was made as a sarcastic retort to Poile’s, who made his seemingly in earnest. Both are remarkably dumb.

      Moreover, this wasn’t about Burke not acknowleding Ryan’s skill, it’s about the fact that he thinks a “lack of intensity” is somehow more telling about a player than the actual skill.

      Also as for Yandle, that compliment doesn’t take away from the moronic criticisms.

      • Arik

        They all felt if Ryan was not a top 6 player, he didn’t bring much else to the table and is a below avg skater. His lack of intensity comment was made to reinforce that Ryan doesn’t have the mental make up to be a checker/energy guy or penalty killer so unless he nailed down a scoring role, avoid him

          • Arik

            Justin,
            You pick the best team and that involves having guys who can play roles. Check out the most successful Canadian teams and you will find some interesting selections and some interesting omissions. Try 1984, 86, 91 Canada cup as well as 02, 10 Olympic team.
            Some guys just cannot play outside a top 6 role. You need a certain make up to be able to bring energy and positive results while only getting 6-10 minutes of ice. C’mon man, you know that from your playing days

          • Arik

            no you pick the best team by picking the best players.

            winning is based in skill and luck. you take more skill, you need less luck. doesn’t mean that a skilled team always wins but it decreases the amount you have to rely on luck.

          • Arik

            Maybe one day some group of general managers will pick on stats alone. Until then, I guess they will decide on a style/identity and pick the best players to fit into the making of a team. Take a look at some of the other hockey people in that article who ALL left Ryan off the team. Why put it all on Burke?

          • Canada went for a “players filling roles” style roster in 2006, and it ended up having guys like Kris Draper on the team.

            There’s nothing wrong with Kris Draper, but he’s not the guy you want on the ice when the other team is deploying an all star arsenal and you can’t match PvP. You take the best players. They put Draper on a line with Iginla and Mario. That is lunacy.

            This sort of “identity” is not bad, but the identity I’d want for my team is “well we took the best players”. They’re the best, does anyone understand how this sounds? The best is the best

          • jonahgo

            Look at Chicago. They put young, skilled guys in bottom six, checking roles last year (Frolik and Kruger), and that worked out pretty well for them. Just because the majority of GMs think that you need ‘grit’ above all else on your checking lines, doesn’t make it logically sound.

            The teams that reject the lazy, baseless assumptions of tradition are and will be the successful teams. This is why Chicago is the class of the NHL. This is why Toronto is not.

          • SmellOfVictory

            In fairness, Chicago still has a lot of guys who are strong checkers, and of decent size, playing in their top roles. Toews, Hossa, Sharp, Seabrook, and Hjalmarsson are all 6’1+ and playing in the top 6 or top 4 of the Hawks, as well as Saad. Outside of the dmen none of those guys exactly goes around running people through the boards, but they all have strong boardwork, and are excellent fore/backcheckers. It could be argued that they play a somewhat “gritty” game, even if it wouldn’t be considered a “truculent” game.

          • Arik

            I agree totally. It must be added though that it takes a variety of skills to be a great team. Ask Edmonton how it works out when you take a group of “same skilled” forwards.

            I don’t know whether Ryan should be on the team or not. I do think that management is smart to consider the kind of team that wins these tournament. I don’t think that you go down the nhl scoring list and select your top twelve scorers and ice them at forward. Clearly there are more factors than that. There is no question that scoring goals is a huge part of team success though…

          • smith

            Perhaps reread my comment. I suggested that the Oilers had too many “same skilled” players. This is quite different from having too many skilled guys. The key part here is the word same. I am suggesting that a team needs players with a variety of skills. I want all of my players to be highly skilled but I do not want them to all be skilled in the same area.

            I appreciate that you don’t subscribe to this notion and believe that it is a poor exemplar by your “HaHA What” response. Nonetheless I am pleased that my post brought some laughter to your day.

            And yes, in response to your question, I have looked at their roster. I am sorry that my post left this in doubt.

    • Arik

      I couldn’t agree more. Seems to me that Burke put together a pretty decent team in 2010. Before the Olympics he was crucified for many of his choices. Going to bat for a 26 year old defenseman who has a history of strong international and playoff performance,as well as nhl playoff performance and who has been a captain for the USA more than once does not seem moronic in anyway either from a performance standpoint or loyalty standpoint. In the end, he didn’t make it this time anyway

  • Arik

    Burke being trashed and it is not even me. Just wait we will get to see Lowe and his role on Canada’s team, hopefully he will keep his mouth shut. I remember a quote that could apply to both men; “better to remain silent and thought a fool, than to speak up and remove all doubt.”

    I’m really not concerned with Burke’s role on team USA as I am in the direction he is taking the Flames. I was disappointed to see Granlund sent down without getting a chance to play.

  • BurningSensation

    Oshie and Stastny over Bobby Ryan?

    Honestly, this mystifies me. I get that there are concerns with Ryan’s skating on the big ice (I have similar concerns about Tavares), but that only explains taking Oshie, because Stastny is definitely not a better skater than Ryan.

    Well, the Brian Burke era is now on for the Flames.

    C’thullu help us all.

  • I am not sure about the “taking the best player” argument. Unless you are speaking about the best overall players and not just goals. I am actually surprised, especially with Justin, about looking at his goals as the main reason he should be there. Btw, I think that he should be on the team.

  • RexLibris

    Hockey Canada left off Poirier and Nurse. Decided Paterson and Fucale would be good tournament goalies for the WJCs.

    Burke wanted to take J. Johnson ahead of Ryan in ’05.

    There are dozens of numbskull decisions made by hockey executives in any nation’s development program every time a selection process is carried out.

    What I find interesting about Burke’s comments and the Burnside article as it relates to the Flames is that Burke ended up listening to his scouts in Anaheim (who have a pretty impressive draft record).

    Another item that stands out for me is that it reinforces the narrative that Burke will look past skill if it isn’t accompanied by various other characteristics that have not been statistically proven to impact productivity.

    As well, there is the perception from the article that Burke is an abrasive personality within the selection group, and this raises questions about his eventual hire for the GM position and that individual’s executive autonomy in that role.

    Either way, lots of grist for the Flames fan’s anxiety mill.

    • I don’t understand how guys like Burke keep getting jobs. He just seems so universally disliked from those who deal with him. Maybe it is just a perception that comes across to the media and thus that is what we see. Maybe he is a great guy behind the scene but I just don’t see it.

      Whenever you throw people under the bus like he does, how do you gain trust?

      • RexLibris

        Burke never throws his employers under the bus. Colleagues perhaps, players once in awhile.

        He gets jobs because he is perceived as a winner. He’s won once with a team that many outsiders credit as being a roster principally built by his successor and then gifted with one of the best defensemen in the game at the time on account of a working relationship with the other GM and that organization’s very narrow list of asset needs.*

        Feaster won once with a team that frankly lucked out one year. He was hired on reputation, a reputation that was built partially on the false perceptions of his peers when he won Executive of the Year in 2004. (The Sporting News)

        I think that in the business world people can confuse being abrasive or aggressive with being effective. Confidence is seen as an asset even when there is no basis for it.

        Burke is also something of a management brand. People will buy brands regardless of their actual quality so long as their is the belief and the perception that they are.

        Think back to when Yzerman was looking for work as a GM. He hadn’t spent any time as an actual GM but had worked under Ken Holland and Jim Nill, and was widely believed to be the next great hockey executive. His reputation as a player and association with the Red Wings influenced many peoples’ perceptions of his unproven abilities.

        I don’t specifically know how Burke gets GM jobs, but it seems to me that it echoes the psychology of “if it walks like a duck (read: winner) and it quacks like a duck, it must be a duck”. The opposite side of this train of thought, though, leads to this: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zrzMhU_4m-g

        *The Oilers targeted Joffrey Lupul specifically in that trade in part to bring in a scoring winger but also to help salve the municipal pride after Pronger’s departure.

    • Burnward

      Depends on what stats are valued Rex. Nowhere have I seen. 50/50 battle stats being taken yet I know of coaches and teams who take them. No stats on offense generated through work in the kill zone or offense defeated in that zone yet there are teams who take those.

    • Burnward

      I’m sure you would never make a decision others would deem as a “numbskull” move.

      Everyone views the game differently. Burke has his vision and a solid track record behind him. Let’s just see what he actually does.

      • RexLibris

        Never!

        Ha, seriously though, of course I do. Everyone does. But were I in charge of selecting a National Olympic Team I might have prepared more compelling arguments for my decisions that those offered by Burke.

        On another note, quantifying Best Player – thank you.

        This is a massive annoyance for me. The standard Best Player Available cliches that get thrown around every draft year drive me nuts. Who determines which is the best player? What is the criteria? Fans who simply say “oh, we should just take the best player available” are intellectually checking out of the conversation.

        The term “Best” is already somewhat subjective when assessing talent and incredibly so when discussing potential.

        • Resolute

          Exactly. Define BPA. Should Kovalev have been on every Russian entry the last 20 years? Based on talent, yes. But if you don’t display that talent consistently or there’s a chance you won’t display it all, then why take take that player?

          If BB knows Ryan and thinks he lacks drive/heart, whatever…how would that not come into play? Sure, you can say you can’t quanitfy heart, but anyone on this forum who had to pick a team that was to be built around short term success and personally knew a player that you thought was lazy or dispassionate wouldn’t put that player on the team either.

          People who were so willing to be patient with Feaster and even defended him over something as horrific as the ROR debacle seem to have already made up their minds on a guy who has a better track record than Feaster and is yet to pull any real moves for the Flames.

          Makes me think that the criticism is being centered solely around personal ideologies than anything of substance.

          I too wish we could just transplant Detroit’s management group over to Calgary, but that’s not going to happen. Lets see what moves Burke makes for the Flames, including his GM hire, before convicting him. He’s not the sole decision-maker on Team USA anyways, so frankly, I could care less what that team does.

  • FlamesRule

    Looks to me that the FN writers have taken a NY resolution to bash Burke for no legitimate reason.

    I’d rather have him running the show right now over pretty much anyone else. He’s outlined his vision, taking charge and will have a positive impact on the future – that’s leadership the Flames organization has lacked for years. I’m glad to be seeing it!

  • ChinookArchYYC

    Funny thing about cognitive dissonance, Brian Burke is in good company. It’s uncomfortable when one’s personal, strongly held beliefs are challenged.

    I’ve often wondered how much group-think happens here at FN, but the adamant responses on both sides of this debate illustrates how varied the perspective are of the game is here.

    Nice to see.

  • RexLibris

    2006 Olympic team was sunk by its defence, not the forwards. Pronger was hurt and was less mobile than Phaneuf with an ego pull.

    Poirier appears to have been chosen because of a lack of discipline. Sutter benched McDavid for taking penalties less egregious than several of those taken by Poirier in the Subway Series. Nurse can’t skate as well as the others on defence that were.

    Choosing Jack Johnson over Bobby Ryan would have been stupid. I fear for the Flames if that is how BB thinks.

  • Skuehler

    I sure hope one of the editors at FN circles the date where Brian Burke meets the same tenure mark that Feaster achieved. By BB’s own impatient expectations, the organization should be much further along the rebuild at every stage throughout the org. He has more experience, blusters harder and has more authority so the results/expectations should be higher. I for one don’t see it happening. I don’t think sustained success comes from reactively swinging for the fences under the guidance of a larger than life leader. Hope I’m wrong.

    I think we’re heading south for a while yet and there will be significant casualties along the way. The opportunity and resources are there to build a great team but we could get stuck trying too hard to be a good team.

  • Derzie

    The scary part is that there re really and truly people on this site thinking Brian Burke has a clue what he is doing. Really? Do you watch hockey? Are the Leafs the team you want? The 90s Ducks? I’m flabbergasted. I see a smart comment and then half are trashes. Oh my.

    • smith

      Agreed completely. This is the guy who wants 2 or more dedicated face punchers on the team. Is there any other team in the league that has two dedicated face punchers?

      I am scared he will get a collection of goons for the bottom six (while chasing out any skill), spend money on iffy free agents, find a good goalie and fight for a bottom playoff spot with the good drafting the flames have done in the last three years and their available cap room. Completely wasting a few years of pain for all of us fans.

    • Resolute

      What Toronto has become scares the hell out of me. And while you said 90s Ducks, I think you meant 90s Canucks, but most of his tenure with Vancouver was also in the 2000s.

      I’ve always felt that Burke is one of the most overrated general managers in hockey. He did acquire some of Vancouver’s current core, but his legacy has been built on taking advantage of his predecessor’s work in Anaheim while being fortunate enough to step into the job there right as Scott Niedermayer decided playing with his brother was more important than the larger contract New Jersey offered and Teemu Selanne decided that the grass isn’t always greener and returned to where he was comfortable. Even with the Pronger acquisition. Burke was incredibly lucky in Anaheim and succeeded due to a perfect storm of opportunity that not even Rick Bowness would have screwed up.

      Burke may be a better option than Feaster, but he is still not a guy I really want managing this team. And he will be managing this team. We’re heading right down the Oilers route of employing puppet GMs who do their master’s bidding. Decisions and comments like those Burke made with respect to Ryan does not instill the slightest bit of confidence.

  • smith

    “”He is not intense. That word is not in his vocabulary,” Burke says. “It’s never going to be in his vocabulary. He can’t spell intense.”

    Is Burke a psychologist or something?

  • gingersnapchat

    I read the ESPN article, and this is nothing but out-of-context click bait. He’s not saying there’s no place for skill on his team, he’s saying there’s no place for a slow player who can’t defend on a team that already has Kane, Parise, Kessel, etc. Never mind that everyone else on the committee, including the GMs from 4 of the last 5 cup winners, came to the same conclusion. Here’s some of his other quotes on Ryan:

    “”He’s been there,” Burke points out. Yes, he was just OK in Vancouver, “but he won’t be intimidated,””

    “If he’s not going to be put in a role in which he can score an important goal, use his skills as a sniper, he shouldn’t go, Burke says.”

    “Pacioretty and Saad are both better 60-minute players, Burke says, “But neither can do what Bobby can do.””

    “As for Ryan, Burke goes back to Lombardi’s earlier point about ignoring the top American scorer at his position and what kind of dangers there are in leaving Ryan off the squad.”

    And just for fun, here’s some quotes to back up the narrative that he’s always plotting to be in charge and impose his rule:

    “Not present … the GM of the 2010 team, Brian Burke, who sits out the initial meeting, later telling ESPN.com that he purposefully avoided it because he wanted this to be Poile’s meeting”

    “If the group were to decide, it would be Wheeler and Saad, although Burke brings up the point that the coaches really like Oshie … Given that, Burke would vote Wheeler and Oshie”

    As to his comments on Yandle, do you honestly believe that the only contribution he made to the discussion was a joke? ESPN published an article for entertainment, not a transcript.

  • the forgotten man

    Long, long time Flames Fan…remember my dad and grandfather taking me to my first Flames games back in 1981 seeing Guy Chouinard pot a nice goal and Kevin LaVallee roofing a slapshot into the upper deck of the Corral. The 80s were fun, great hockey as a Flames Fan…obviously the Club has felt adrift since the early 90s. Some can be blamed on the economics of the Game, but my general sense over the years is that the Club has lacked focus in a bigger context. Even when the economics sucked for free agency, you would think the Club would have doubled down on its commitment to Scouting to compensate for the prior? Instead, the 90s and 2000s produced some of the worst drafting of the entire league. There has been a revolving door of GMs and coaches, each bringing their unique outlook on the a Game, but no sense of continuity…one always gets the impression that the Club’s Strategic Plan is hashed out every few years on the back of a cocktail napkin. This brings me to Arik’s article regarding Burke. I am sure Burke will produce, in the short term, a competitive club, but I have my reservations on the longevity and sustainability of his approach to the a Club. Essentially already having suffered for some 25 years to date cheering for the Flames, I am always looking long ball, hence I am content to suck/indirectly tank for a couple more seasons to put the Club in the best position to pick up 3-4 more legit prospects. With some exciting young talent that one can typically underpay til UFA status, the Flames can then overpay for some veteran free agents to round out the Club and push for a Cup. Winning Cups is all about timing and aligning your resources for that 3-4 season window most Clubs have before reloading…I would rather hear Burke preaching this to the choir than grit chart/truculence. Burke strikes me as rushed, when really what is needed is patience. He strikes me as a talker, when what the club needs is a deliberate listener…wasn’t Fletcher’s nickname the ‘Silver Fox’? He wasn’t Burkean bellicose or prone to kabuki/zany Feasterisms…quiet, deliberate with his words and a composed demeanour.

    • jonahgo

      Amen. I would also credit coach Badger Bob Johnson who also was quite vocal but always in a positive, upbeat manner and about the team, not himself (or his hair). He wasn’t insecure nor did he feel the need to impress everyone with his superior intelligence/vocabulary (truculence indeed). A true gentleman who knew his craft – it is a shame that they don’t seem to make them like that anymore.

      • jonahgo

        I’d love to return to those days. Of course, it actually took Cliff a long time to find any real success. Frankly, nowadays, he would’ve been fired from the Flames org years before they ever moved to Calgary and that’s part of the problem. There’s no long term patience anymore. You either start producing within 2 or 3 years or you’re gone, regardless of what you inherited.

        • jonahgo

          Spot on. Remember Fletcher also had to deal with the success of the Oilers for most of those years so our lack of success was even more difficult to stomach.

  • Personally I don’t put much stock in the public statements of GM’s or selection committees. Most of the time they seem like manipulations of the media or challenges to players – especially from Burke. He’s become the Don King of the NHL, but if he’s going to get results then he can be as dramatic as he likes.

    Having said that, the Yandle decision boggles my mind. He seems like a clear cut, no-brainer, absolute lock to make the team, and to defend the omission by attacking Lombardi’s praise is just more media manipulation – without any reason or logic.

  • RexLibris

    Ohhhh well considering Brian (the goof) Burke can’t just say you weren’t picked but have to carve a guy well that just is the beginning of leading a classless shit head and a d.esperate U.S.A. squad that should and could be better to move on with a yesteryear hump. Good on u Burke us Canadians ehhhhhhh are proud of your lack of hockey sense hey Booby Ryan when u are ready to become a Canadian we here are ready after all Brett hull couldn’t make our team so he became an American. After all Brian Bitch Burke is a crass asshole

  • RexLibris

    If it were me picking Id leave Ryan off… but for different reasons… for this tourney speed and skating should be looked at above all else for the forwards.

  • RexLibris

    What a classless way to handle a situation. It’s obvious Burke is making this a personal attack for his firing in Anaheim. Ryan is the second leading US goal scorer in the NHL in the last three years. The 2010 Olympic game could have gone either way. Ryan was a key part of that team. In Canada, we hold our hockey management to a higher standard. Good Luck Team USA in the Olympics, in spite of Burke!
    What has he won anyway. He took someone else’s work in Anaheim to a cup. The team he built was in Vancover. What have they won?