Shot of Sports Juice: Brian Burke and the Maple Leafs quest for the Stanley Cup

Back in mid-November, I took a look at the Toronto Maple Leafs who trail only the Edmonton Oilers in my heart and in the cause of my elevated blood pressure.  I evaluated the roster, looked at some of the moves that Brian Burke had made and observed that the team was still a mess.  The Leafs were a mess, but a mess that was getting more organized by the day.  With Burke’s two big trades last Sunday I thought I would check in again to see how things are shaping up.

Last Sunday, Burke made two trades that radically changed the look of the Leafs.  He sent Matt Stajan, Niklas Hagman, Jamal Meyers and Ian White to the Flames for Dion Phaneuf, Fredrik Sjostrom and 6’6” AHL defenseman Keith Aulie.  He then unloaded Vesa Toskala and Jason Blake to the Ducks for JS Giguere. 

The trades have me thinking back to an interview Burke gave George Strombolopogus on The Hour (sorry about the spelling George).  Strombo is a huge Habs fan and he was teasing Burke a bit.  He asked Burke the theoretical question of whether or not he could see the day he would have to fire head coach and good friend, Ron Wilson.  The response was something to the effect of, “Before we would ever fire out coach, I will ship a bunch of players out of here”.  Strombo then said, “Sure, but you can’t fire the team”.  Burke then said, “Watch”, which will followed by laughter throughout the studio.  Burkey never cracked a smile.

The whole interview is interesting with the bit I refer to above is just after the 9 minute mark.  The interview was in mid-November of last year.

Burke has been consistent in stating that he wants a team that is tough to play against and a team that will be built from the net out.  He wants quality goaltending, a great defense, 6 scoring forwards and 6 plumbers on lines 3 and 4.  He said in the Strombo piece that he tries to model his teams after the New York Islanders of the early 1980’s.  He wants a team that can play it fast, can play it tough or play it anywhere in-between. 

I found an interesting piece by Steve Simmons of the Toronto Sun who recalled what Burke did in Anaheim:

“Burke likes to say he builds from the blue line out. In Anaheim, he took over a team that had a defence of Niclas Havelid, Vitaly Vishnevsky, Sandis Ozolinsh, Ruslan Salei, Lance Ward and Keith Carney. When the Ducks won the Stanley Cup just two years later, they had Pronger, Scott Niedermayer, Francois Beachemin and Sean O’Donnell, Joe DiPenta and Kent Huskins on the back end. Burke not only had changed all six rearguards, but he rid himself of four European defencemen along the way.”

The keys were the signing of Niedermayer as a free agent, the acquisition of Beachemin in exchange for Sergei Federov from the Blue Jackets and the acquisition of Pronger from the Oilers.  Burke has a history of the big deal dating back to his finagling of the Sedin twins back when he was GM of the Canucks.  It is interesting to note in Anaheim that he let go the four European defensemen in favour of a North American group.

Looking at Toronto, Burke has very quickly moved to makeover his defense.   Out went White, Pavel Kubina, and Eric Stralman.  Burke has brought in Mike Komisarek, Beachemin and Phaneuf.   Garret Exelby and Jeff Finger are next on the chopping block with Thomas Kaberle to leave town in the offseason.   Kaberle and Finger are key to eliminate as they have a combined $8 million cap hit next year.   This would have the Leafs allocating $24 million of the roughly $58 million cap on their defense.  41% of your cap on defense is way too much as I noted last week over at lowonoil.com.  If I add Giguere and Gustavsson to the mix, the Leafs will have roughly 56% of their cap dollars on their back end.  Ideally Burke would get them down around $18-$19 million on defense ($26-$28 million including goaltenders), which should allow for further improvements up front.

Getting back to the trades on Sunday, I wanted to analyze what exactly Burke achieved.  With all due respect to Phaneuf, this year is over for the men in Blue and White.  Burke traded away his top three contributors from last year in Blake, White and Hagman.  He jettisoned about 1/3 of his offense from this season, leaving Phil Kessel and Alexei Ponikarovsky to score the goals.  Alexei is rumoured to be the next player out of town so Burke does not appear to be too bothered about the rest of this season.

So what exactly has Burke achieved?

– He got rid of Blake and his $3 million salary over the next two years.

– He got rid of Hagman and his $3 million salary over the next two years (personally I was sad to see Hagman go).

– He dumped Stajan and Toskala, both UFAs at the end of this year.  Neither player seems overly appreciated by management.

– He has a #1 goalie in Jiggy and future #1 goalie (maybe) in the Monster.

– He has a top 4 defense of Phaneuf, Komisarek, Beauchemin and Schenn.  Two tough offensive minded players and two solid defensive blueliners.

– He has a valuable trade chip in Kaberle and a tough contract in Finger left to deal with on defense.

– He has Kessel and Mikhail Grabovski under contract next year as part of his group of 6 offensive forwards.

– He has Colton Orr, Sjostrom and Jay Rosehill under contract next year as part of his group of 6 plumbers.

– He has Tyler Bozak and Viktor Stalberg under contract to fill two forward positions next year.

– He has Nikolai Kulemin, John Mitchell and Christian Hanson as RFAs to either bring back or let go in exchange for draft picks.

– He has about $14 million in cap space available which could reach $22 million if he can get rid of Kaberle and Finger.  I think Finger will get buried in the minors if he can’t be traded.  If one team in the NHL could afford to eat a contract, it would be the Leafs.

I think the above paints a pretty good picture of where the Leafs are at and where they are going to go.  Burke is going to spend $1-$2 million on the Monster next year, $3-$4 million on his last two defensemen (perhaps including Aullie), $4-$5 million on his three remaining plumbers leaving him $11-$14 million to spend on 2-4 top end offensive players.  I will assume either Bozak or Stalburg makes the jump next year giving him $11-$14 million for three players.  That will buy the services of an elite player in the $6-$7 million a year range plus a couple of guys at $2.5-$3.5 million each a year.

Oh and I forgot to mention the best part of all of the above.  Brian Burke has both the skills and attractive market to make this happen.  While Oiler fans pine for a top player to willingly come to Edmonton to play, almost every player wants the challenge of playing in Toronto and bringing a Cup to the city.

Time will of course allow us to judge the wisdom of bringing in Giguere and Phaneuf to Toronto.  For today, the two trades clearly illustrate that Burke has a vision for his team and he is hell bent on bringing it to fruition.  He is going to quickly assemble a team that he believes has a chance to win the Stanley Cup.  For Maple Leaf fans across Canada, this is sweet music to our ears.

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4 Comments

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4 responses to “Shot of Sports Juice: Brian Burke and the Maple Leafs quest for the Stanley Cup

  1. Jay

    Hey Jonathan, great article! I read somewhere that Burke tried to package Jeff Finger in the deal with Anaheim, but they wouldn’t take him which isn’t too surprising.

    Over at a Thrashers blog, someone the other day joked about having to pay a ‘loser premium’ to sign UFAs now that Kovalchuk’s gone. Edmonton clearly is already in that situation.

    I’ve heard that Burke will likely also move Ponikarovsky since he’s a UFA this summer. He’s hoping to get a 2nd round pick for him which sounds like it might be attainable.

    These moves leave Toronto heavy on the back end as you note while being really thin up front. For now, allowing goals against has been Toronto’s biggest problem this season. These moves should help to plug the hole.

    I would expect to see more moves made still as Burke’s let it be known that the Leafs are still open for business.

    • Thanks Jay. Personally I think it would be a miracle to move Finger, much as it would be a miracle for the Oilers to move some of their guys. Maybe the Oil can ask Burke to assist on moving Horcoff?

      • Jay

        Hey Jonathan,

        That’s the problem lately. With all of these rumors floating around of about the Oilers trying to trade players like Staios, Moreau, Nilsson, Horcoff, and the now injured Souray, it would take a miracle for them to unload any of these players. Even if they did, the return would be ugly bordering on brutal.

  2. Oh I forgot about a reader question from Donny: Would Phaneuf still have been traded if he had made the Olympic team?

    I would have to guess no to that one. The caveat of course is that if Phaneuf made the team that means he is a completely different player to the one we see out there today. He would have 10 more goals this season and be a factor on the defensive end. I would guess that Phaneuf was Canada’s #10 or #11 defenseman after Green, Reghr, and Bouwmeester. Bfian Campbell probably fits in after Dion.

    The fact of the matter is that Dion is a bit of a liability defensively and has lost a bit of his confidence on the offensive end. He finds his mojo and plays like he did two years ago and the Leaf fans will laugh at the Flames just as they did after the dust settled on the Gilmour trade.

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