by PuckStopsHere on 01/13/13 at 03:00 PM ET
The biggest hockey related news since the end of the lockout has been the news that the Toronto Maple Leafs are changing general managers. Brian Burke has been fired and replaced on an interim basis by Dave Nonis. Burke was the Leafs GM for most of four seasons. During that time the Leafs failed to qualify for the playoffs. Given the state of the team when Burke took over, that result probably isn't a big surprise.
The biggest surprise by the announcement is timing. It would have been logical for a team to replace their general manager after the 2011/12 season concluded last spring and not at the conclusion of the lockout a little over a week before the season begins. There is plenty of speculation as to what happened. It appears that the bureaucrats working on behalf of the new ownership in Rogers and Bell did not like Burke and were involved in a power struggle that is not in the best interest of a hockey team. It is a poor decision because of its poor timing if for no other reason.
This situation was predictable. In the summer of 2008 I criticized the Maple Leafs for not finding a new general manager when they had the opportunity. At that time David Johnson argued (correctly) that they had decided upon Brian Burke as their next general manager - even though he was employed in Anaheim. They were waiting until he came available. I argued that although Burke may seem like their man now this wait would not be useful. A new Toronto GM, be it Burke or anyone else, would be thrown into a tough situation in Toronto with a bad team that is years from contention and an impatient media and fan base who would want him thrown out if the team took years to contend. Waiting for Burke just slowed down a coherent plan and Burke would be no more successful than any other available candidate.
I was partially wrong in that I did not expect that by November of that year the Toronto Maple Leafs would introduce Burke as their new GM. Thus the interim period before Burke came in was shorter than I expected but the result was the same. Toronto gave up on Burke before he had a chance to turn the franchise around.
I think the Leafs are a team that has a shot at the playoffs this season. If they can acquire strong goaltending it is more likely and there is no reason to imagine that they won't find goaltending before long. James Reimer and Ben Scrivens are not top level goaltending except perhaps at the AHL level. One of the strongest criticisms of Burke was that he had not (yet) solved this problem. I think the word yet was the key word in that statement. The other strong criticism is that Burke traded for Phil Kessel, the sixth highest scorer in the NHL last season. While he gave up a big piece of the future to do so, criticizing somebody for acquiring the sixth highest scorer in the league is quite a stretch. There is no coherent hockey reason to fire Brian Burke at this point.
His replacement Dave Nonis has worked with Burke for many years. They both worked with the NHL when Burke was the vice president and director of hockey operations. Burke brought Nonis to Vancouver and when Burke was fired as GM of the Canucks, Nonis took over in the position. Burke again brought Nonis to Toronto to work with him and for a second time Nonis takes over for Burke when Burke was fired.
Replacing Burke with Nonis is probably not a big change to the way Toronto is going to be run. They have similar philosophies toward building a hockey team. Burke is a more visible front man who likes to speak to the media (but his comments are often full of bluster and lacking substance) and Nonis will be less visible. The types of moves taken by the team will likely be similar. The biggest criticism is timing. If there was a coherent reason for the change, the right time was 6 or 7 months ago when Nonis would have had time to build the team in his image. Right now he takes over a Burke team with no time to make many significant changes. Likely that will reflect well on Dave Nonis because Toronto appears to be a team on the rise and Nonis will get credit for that rise regardless of how much credit is due to Brian Burke.
A move like this shows us why the Toronto Maple Leafs have been a bottom-feeder for so long. Any team where ownership power struggles can affect hockey decisions will not become a top team. Toronto is a situation where the media demands action even when no logical action is available. Toronto gets criticized for not signing every big name player that comes available. Toronto gets criticized for trading for their top scorer. The criticism is unreasonable and relentless. In order to succeed, Toronto ownership must be strong enough to sit on the sidelines and do nothing while they let hockey people make hockey decisions. Anything else dooms the team to failure.
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