I met Brian Burke at a sports law and management conference in November 2008, just days before he took over the reins as General Manager of the Toronto Maple Leafs. I talk about that conference a lot because it truly was one of the most interesting experiences of my life. He’s always been someone I’ve admired in the hockey world, because of his take-no-prisoners attitude and his ability to shake things up when needed, and it was a thrill to meet him. This past Sunday he proved again why he is one of the most respected executives in hockey.
Following a crushing 5-3 loss to Vancouver on Saturday night (a game in which the Leafs led 3-0 at one point), Mr. Burke drastically changed his locker room. The heart of this change came with the acquisition of defenceman Dion Phaneuf from the Calgary Flames. He also acquired forward Fredrik Sjostrom and prospect Keith Aulie in the trade and shipped out four regulars from the Leafs lineup: forwards Matt Stajan, Jamal Mayers, Nicklas Hagman, and defenceman Ian White. Phaneuf is a ferocious hitter with a big shot who seemed to have lost his way in Calgary. He has the potential to be one of the top defencemen in the league and the trade to Toronto may shake him up a bit. The Leafs lost a lot of offence in the deal by trading Stajan and Hagman, but it is something they will attempt to address in the offseason. Trading Ian White had to be difficult too, as he was in the midst of his best pro season to date.
As good as that trade was for the Leafs, Mr. Burke was not finished. He also traded goaltender Vesa Toskala and forward Jason Blake to the Anaheim Ducks (which he coincidentally managed before coming to Toronto) for goaltender Jean-Sebastian Giguere. This trade got rid of two big contracts for the Leafs while bringing in a Stanley Cup and Conn Smythe Trophy winning goaltender. Although he has struggled lately, Giguere will serve as a mentor to Jonas Gustavsson for the time being.
These two trades likely won’t help the Leafs enough to make the playoffs this season, but Mr. Burke seems to have set his team up well for the future. When he was hired a little over 14 months ago, some fans may have thought that his impact would be immediate. He comes with a fairly impressive resume after all. However, most followers of the game knew it would take time to turn the team around. There were not a lot of top quality prospects in the minors and the team had not made the playoffs since 2004. But with the trade for Phil Kessel last summer along with these trades, the Leafs seem to be going in the right direction for the first time in a long time. Brian Burke will be someone to watch in the next few weeks and months. You never know what he’s going to do next.