Folks, enjoy your Sunday with a great guest post by frequent commenter Maimster!
With all of the discussions about Brian Burke over the past few months (and in particular since he fired Jay Feaster), I wanted to answer a basic question – Has Brian Burke proven to be a good general manager? My long term goal is to look at Burke’s complete record, analyzing his moves and performance not only in retrospect, but also in the moment to try and determine his motivation and mindset over the years.
However, that will take me a while. So, I thought I’d start with Burke’s most successful work – the building of the 2006-07 Anaheim Ducks into a Stanley Cup winner
Let’s dive in.

What Did Burke Inherit?

Burke was hired by Anaheim in July 2005, which was right before the draft that year (due to the lost 2004-05 season). The roster and previous draft picks Burke inherited was more than solid, even though they were coming off a disappointing 2003-04 season in which they missed the playoffs after a Stanley Cup Final appearance the year before. Players on the 2003-04 roster included (sorted by age):
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  • Over 30s – Sergei Fedorov, Sandis Ozolinsh, Steve Rucchin
  • Mid-Late 20s – JS Giguere, Petr Sykora, Ruslan Salei, Sammy Pahlsson, Rob Niedermeyer, Andy McDonald
  • Early 20s – Joffrey Lupul, Chris Kunitz, Vitaly Vishnevski, Ilya Bryzgalov
The 34 year old Fedorov was the leading scorer in 03-04 but the roster had some pretty good young players, solid pros near their prime and two solid goaltenders. On top of that, there were some (soon to be) great players already drafted in Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry. Other former draft picks in the organization included Drew Miller, Ladislav Smid and Shane O’Brien. Dustin Penner was an undrafted free agent signed in 2004. All in all, a pretty formidable set of building blocks – without going through the depth charts of every organization coming out of the lockout, I’d be willing to speculate this would be top five in the league.
And then, Anaheim “won” the second pick in the draft; the order was set by a partially weighted free-for-all lottery that gave every team in the league a shot at Sidney Crosby (not just the team that finished last in 2003-04 – oh wait, that was the Pittsburgh Penguins). As an aside, how lucky was Pittsburgh to lose the draft lottery in 2004 to Washington? They lost out on Alex Ovechkin but got Evgeni Malkin as a consolation prize and were granted one more ping pong ball in the Crosby draft (three instead of two, so that one extra shot was worth a lot). Those Flames fans looking to follow the Pittsburgh rebuilding plan – lightning rarely strikes twice like that!
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Back to Burke and the Ducks – getting the second pick would normally be great but must have felt like a letdown to Burke considering the Ducks had as good odds as anyone at Sid. Picking Bobby Ryan, though Burke has recently said he wished he hadn’t, was not a bad move. There were a few pretty good players picked later in the draft – Marc Staal, James Neal, Paul Stastny, Kris Letang, Jack Johnson, goalies Carey Price and Jonathan Quick – but the only skater I’d say has had a definitively better career has been Anze Kopitar. Drafting Ryan is a plus for Burke; you may think his recent comments that he should have picked Jack Johnson should diminish the praise he gets for the Ryan pick, but without having all of the context those comments need to paint a full picture, I’ll stick with evaluating the actual pick.
Of course, on the evaluation flip side…with their next pick (#31) Anaheim picked a big defenseman Brendan Mikkelson. Since he played a good chuck of his 131 career NHL games in Calgary and you’ve all forgotten about him already, safe to say this was not a successful pick.
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How Was the 2006-07 Stanley Cup Team Built?

So Burke started with a pretty full deck, but obviously there were some moves made to take the group he found and build a team that Randy Carlyle could coach to a pretty resounding Stanley Cup win two years later. So let’s look at those moves. Note, not every single move Burke made is noted (sorry if you were waiting for in-depth analysis on the Joe Rullier for Colby Genoway deal):
Free Agents Signings – 2005
  • Teemu Selanne. The most beloved player in team history, it’s easy to forget he was coming off a terrible 03-04 season in Colorado and hadn’t been near a point a game player for a few years. So while signing Selanne is a plus for Burke (he had two 90 point seasons coming out of the lockout), the fact that he wanted to come back to Anaheim and signed for only 1 year (and $1M) made this a pretty low-risk call for Burke.
  • Scott Niedermeyer. Continuing that theme, another great player Burke was smart enough to bring in but another player where the odds were stacked in Burke’s favor. Niedermeyer wanted to play with his brother and was impressed enough by Anaheim’s talent to think he had a chance to win there, and he took less than he could have received by staying in New Jersey to come to Anaheim. Again, credit Burke for making it enticing enough for him to come but the horseshoes were falling well for Burke.
Pre-Season Trades (player(s) received listed first) – 2005
  • Todd Fedoruk from Philly for 2nd round pick – A lot to give up for a not-so-great player, but Fedoruk did have truculence! Didn’t stick around long enough to win the Cup. Verdict: Probably a loss.
  • Travis Moen from Chicago for Mikael Holmqvist – Very good trade, and a good example of where Burke’s trading for size and grit was a plus. Note, however, Moen is a solid player with over 50 career NHL goals. Trading for guys like Moen for 4th line roles can be a winning strategy (when there’s already a solid top 6 in place). Certainly better than trading for Kevin Westgarth types…
  • Trevor Gillies from Rangers for Steve Rucchin – …or trading for Trevor Gillies types. Rucchin had only one decent season after this trade and he may have been blocking better players on the depth chart, but this is a textbook example of giving away a dime for a nickel because the nickel is bigger.
  • Bruno St. Jacques from Carolina for Craig Adams – Worked out well for Carolina in their cup winning 05-06 season. Not a good trade for Burke.
In Season Trades 2005-06
  • Francois Beauchemin and Tyler Wright from Columbus for Sergei Fedorov – A gutsy trade early in the season, although Burke admitted it was a largely salary-cap driven move (and this would be a recurring theme in these post-lockout years). Turned out pretty well for Anaheim, all things considered – they had some forward depth, Fedorov was in the back nine of his career, and Beauchemin was an important player for the Ducks championship team. Burke deserves a lot of credit for doing so well with his back to the wall. Note, Fedorov wasn’t the last European player Burke traded away, burnishing his reputation as a fan of North American style hockey.
  • Maxim Kondratiev from Rangers for Petr Sykora and 4th round pick – Another salary dump, it seems. Sykora was a UFA-to-be at the end of the season and it’s not clear if he requested a trade or was moved to make salary or roster room. It was not a good trade strictly in a hockey sense, but it’s probably not fair to judge it that way.
Trade Deadline 2006
  • 3rd round pick from Rangers for Sandis Ozolinsh – Pick didn’t amount to anything but a reasonable return for a surplus defenceman near end of his career. Chris Butler, anyone? No?
  • 2nd round pick and Brett Skinner from Vancouver for Keith Carney – Pick didn’t amount to anything (notice a theme!) but a more than reasonable return for a surplus defenceman near the end of his career, especially when Anaheim was in a position (fringe contender) that usually brings guys like this is rather than trades them.
  • Jeff Friesen from Washington for 2nd round pick – More typical trade deadline move for a contender and worked as well as most of them do. Friesen was helpful in 2006 playoffs but pretty much at the end of his career (and yes, he still managed to play 70+ games with the Flames the next year!). The 2nd round pick Burke gave away was lower than the one he got for Carney, so good use of assets all around.
  • Sean O’Donnell from Phoenix for Joel Perrault – Another good trade, O’Donnell was a better player than Carney (and probably Ozolinsh too at that point) so the net result of the deadline deals was an improved blue line.
The 2005-06 Ducks ended up with 98 points and in the playoffs were good enough to spoil the anticipated Flames-Oilers Western Conference semi-final (for those of you who’ve chosen to forget one of the Flames more painful first round exits, good for you) but not good enough to beat those hated Oilers in the Western Final. A very good year and while Burke inherited some great talent, he acquired some fantastic pieces (particularly Niedermeyer, Selanne, Beauchemin). Interestingly, the team’s best player that year may have been Andy McDonald and the 5’8” forward was one of the smallest players in the NHL. I’m just saying…
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Now, let’s look at the moves Burke made to push the Ducks over the top for the 2006-07 season, starting with the summer of 2006.
Draft 2006 – Had nothing to do with the 06-07 team, obviously, but it should be mentioned. Not a great draft for Burke and the Ducks. They went big in the first round (6’3”, 215lb Mark Mitera, 19th overall) and that was a fail. They went smaller in the second round (Bryce Swan, 38th overall) and that was also a fail. Burke did draft Matt Beleskey in the 4th round which was a nice find, but overall this was pretty poor.
Summer 2006
Burke and the Ducks had a very quiet free agent season. They didn’t sign their first until a couple of weeks past the July 1 start and lost Ruslan Salei early in the process. Of course, that didn’t mean Burke was sitting by doing nothing early in July. Rather, he was working on a rather significant trade…
  • Chris Pronger from Edmonton for Joffrey Lupul, Ladislav Smid, two 1st round picks (one of which became Jordan Eberle) and a 2nd round pick – Well, this is the trade to which many point when saying Burke is a great GM who brought a Stanley Cup to Anaheim and I’m not going to rain on that parade. There’s no question Burke again found himself in a fortunate position (shades of Niedermeyer). He had a player out there who was top five at his position who happened to be known as one of the best leaders in the league and with whom he had a history (since he originally drafted Pronger). That player also had what seemed to be a large amount of leverage regarding which would be his next team and had his eye on Anaheim for a number of reasons. Finally, Anaheim had a passel of prospects and young players to deal. Burke made a great deal and deserves full credit for acquiring Pronger; I’m just saying that even though pocket aces don’t guarantee a winning hand, they sure give you an advantage.
  • Free Agent signings – Shawn Thornton, Travis Green, Ian Moran – Thornton was a decent pickup for depth and grit (yes, I just wrote it) and again fits what we think of the type of player Burke covets. Certainly more talented than McGratten or Westgarth, but ultimately he’s still a fourth line type. The other guys were pretty much filler.
  • Karl Stewart and a 2nd round pick from Atlanta for Vitaly Vishnevski – Likely a cap trade, and a dump of a defenseman after getting Pronger. Double V had a couple of good years left and in a vacuum I wouldn’t really like this trade (I’d rather have had Vishnevski than even a 23-year old Shane O’Brien although Tampa clearly disagreed – see later trades) but it wasn’t a bad trade overall considering Pronger/Niedermeyer/Beauchemin were soaking up 60% of the available minutes. Second round picks (especially Thrasher second round picks) have value.
In Season – 2006/07
  • 2007 4th round pick from Philadelphia for Todd Fedoruk – Traded Fedoruk away a year after acquiring him and lost two rounds in the draft in the process. Overall, not a great line on the resume.
  • George Parros from Colorado for a 2nd round pick (which eventually became TJ Galiardi) and a 3rd round pick – What you think of this trade says a lot more about you than it does about Burke. You can guess where I stand (and I live in SoCal and think a lot of Parros as a person). Two high picks? For George Parros? Burke certainly made sure the team had their designated face-puncher (since he’d just traded Fedoruk) but honestly this team was loaded with pretty tough guys anyway – pretty much every regular had 50+ penalty minutes (including Teemu Selanne with 82!). Well, whatever, it’s a tired argument.
  • Chris Durno, Sebastien Caron, Matt Keith from Chicago for PA Parenteau and Bruno St. Jacques – Not sure if this was done to get a third goalie (Caron) or a big dude (Durno or Keith), but Burke gave away a future very solid but smallish player (Parenteau) at the age of 23 for chaff. Not a good trade and it should make Flames fans nervous (Backlund, Baertschi, etc). Had no effect on the 2007 Ducks.
  • Richard Jackman from Florida for 6th round pick – Jackman was a depth defensemen who played only a third of the eventual playoff games, but he was decent return for a 6th round pick.
  • Mark Hartigan, Joe Motzko from Columbus for Zenon Konopka and Curtis Glencross – Hmmm. Seems to be a lot like the Parenteau trade. Burke’s generally not on the side of the trade getting the decent young player. Defensible considering his team was a Cup favorite, but this trade had no effect on the 2007 Ducks either.
Trade Deadline 2007
  • Gerald Coleman and a 1st round pick from Tampa Bay for Shane O’Brien and a 3rd round pick – Well, O’Brien is still in the league all these years later (and Flames fans weep once more) so he’s not nothing, but getting a 1st round pick for him was a really good move by Burke. Let’s hope Burke hasn’t lost that skill of acquiring 1st round picks at the deadline for average players.
  • Brad May from Colorado for Michael Wall – Another non-surprising Burke move. Just in case the Ducks weren’t big and tough enough. Again, I’m not being critical of this move, you can make moves like this when you’ve got Getzlaf/Perry/Selanne/Kunitz/Penner/McDonald/Pronger/Niedermeyer level talent on your team. Again, just to be clear, the Flames do not have that level talent on the team.
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And that’s it. Sprinkle in a good coach for this team and these times (and Randy Carlyle was also a Burke hire) and you’ve got a Stanley Cup winner. Looking at the big picture, Burke took a good base and smartly added some excellent players (particularly Pronger, Selanne and Niedermeyer) and deserves credit for getting this team past the level of good to the peak of the NHL. It’s a pretty common occurrence for more than one GM building a team from scratch to a championship (Chicago is a good example) so there’s usually enough credit to go around. Burke is a larger than life figure so he certainly vacuumed up his share of credit. Does this make him a great GM? Well, they kept playing hockey the next year so it’s worth checking out the rest of Burke’s time in Anaheim.

The Rest of Burke’s Anaheim Tenure

The Ducks followed up their Stanley Cup win with two seasons that ended no later than the second round of the playoffs and then they missed the playoffs entirely in the third season post-Cup (after Burke was long gone to Toronto). Considering they still had most of the same (young) stars in place, what happened to cause this decline?
First and foremost, there weren’t a lot of reinforcements coming onto the roster as a result of the drafts or free agency. Bobby Ryan was a previous high draft pick that injected some youth, but he struggled to gain traction in Anaheim until 2008-09 – whether this was because of Randy Carlyle or Burke is open to debate. Beyond Ryan, there weren’t any picks from Burke’s first couple of drafts that were in danger of breaking through. And Burke’s draft record improved only marginally over the next two drafts:
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  • 2007 – Another couple of big guys in the first two rounds, Logan MacMillan (#19) and Eric Tangradi (#42). Tangradi is still knocking around but is a fringe player and MacMillan was a bust.
  • 2008 – Jake Gardiner (#17), nice pick, even if he isn’t a Carlyle type of player. The three second rounders Burke picked (Nicolas Deschamps at #35, Eric O’Dell at #39 and Justin Schultz at #43) provided nothing to the Ducks, although of course Schultz turned out to be a good pick that just refused to sign (so he could sign for more money to provide some offense and 20 awful defensive minutes a night for the Oilers).
  • Burke did like to make draft day deals to accumulate picks, like in 2007 when he turned #16 into #19/#42 or in 2008 when the #12 pick was flipped for an eventual three pick haul (#17, #35, #39). Perhaps he was trying to recapture the moment of his first big draft day trade, when he dealt Sergei Makarov and the #6 to San Jose way back when for the #2 pick which he used on Chris Pronger. In any event, all the extra picks were wasted.
Burke also didn’t get a lot of help from the free agent market. He generally went after veterans like Mathieu Schneider and Todd Bertuzzi in 2007 and Brendan Morrison in 2008. None of these guys lasted more than a year on the roster.
In related news, the Ducks always seemed to have cap issues. Schneider was waived and eventually traded (for Ken Klee) to clear cap room for Pronger. Burke made some cap related deals like Andy McDonald to St. Louis for Doug Weight (not a great trade) and Sean O’Donnell to Los Angeles for conditional draft picks. In Burke’s defense, the cap was new and caused a lot of teams troubles in the year after the lockout (and in fact still does). I won’t pretend I’ve taken the time to analyze his cap related skills over his time in Anaheim (and later in Toronto), but it was certainly a recurring theme.
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The last and probably biggest reason for the decline of the Ducks was the defensive side of the equation (including, of course, the goaltending). The 2007-08 Ducks gave up approximately the same number of goals as the Cup winning team, but the next two years the goals against increased nearly a half goal a game and the Ducks went from being +50 in goal differential to pretty much dead even for and against. Again, though, this isn’t necessarily a knock on Burke and in fact he handled the goaltending situation reasonably well. He signed Jonas Hiller from Europe after the 2007 season (which looks like a great move in retrospect) and thought enough of him as a backup to JS Giguere that he waived Ilya Bryzgalov early in the 2007-08 season. Sure, he should have tried to get something in return for Bryz but that’s tougher to do early in a season and having Hiller instead of Bryzgalov hasn’t really hurt the Ducks, in the short or long term.
A more likely culprit is that the defense core for the Ducks was getting a bit old, with no great talent coming up behind. It’s impossible to know if that would have changed had Burke stayed. Perhaps Jake Gardiner would still be in Anaheim. Perhaps Burke makes some other trades. By the end of Burke’s tenure, though, there were a couple of old stars on the back end and not much else, and it took a few years for new GM Bob Murray to build up a back end with some youth (and cagey veterans like Tony Lydman).
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Summary

I started this exercise to try to answer a question I posed in comments on Flames Nation a few weeks back – what makes a good general manager. Many fans think Brian Burke is the second coming (“he won a Cup in Anaheim”) and many think he is a dinosaur who was once right-time-right-place. I was pretty sure the answer lay much more in the grey area and after looking at just one of Burke’s previous stops (by most measures, the most successful one), the answer is more grey than I imagined. I’m pretty sure that you could read this summation of Burke’s time in Anaheim and confirm whatever opinion you brought into the experience.
Personally, I don’t think Burke is at the top echelon of the modern general manager (although admittedly, I really don’t know what that group looks like) and I really don’t know all that goes into the role of general manager or, more to the point, president of hockey operations. Everyone knows that their own job is more complicated than it looks from the outside, and I suspect when taking into account the requirements of financial management, player management and the fierce competitive market in which they operate, a hockey general manager’s job is more complicated than most. I tend to think Burke has more layers than the gruff, truculent exterior he conveys to the public and the media and he knows all decisions aren’t black and white either.
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I guess I need to find time to write the detailed summaries of Burke’s times in Hartford, Vancouver and Toronto too. Maybe that’ll shed more light on how he truly thinks. In the meantime, this year’s Flames present quite the canvas for Burke – let’s hope he puts together something I’d be happy to hang on my wall.