Front Office Material: Brian Burke

Brian Burke
Rank #45
Plus                 56
Minus             37
Value              +19
Managing Experience:
Hartford Whalers, 1992-1993
Vancouver Canucks, 1998-2004
Anaheim Ducks, 2005-2008
Toronto Maple Leafs, 2008-present
Northwest Division Title, 2003-2004
Pacific Division Title, 2006-2007
Playoff Appearances: 2001-2004, 2006-2008
Stanley Cup Finals Appearance: 2007
Stanley Cup Victory: 2007

My rating system can be likened to the stock market with regards to active GMs. Career value (like the stock market) can fluctuate according to how well or poorly a team performs. The only time a GM (or a head coach’s) value ever remains still is when their career is over.

Brian Burke’s stock has been falling ever since he took over as general manager of the Toronto Maple Leafs in 2008. Calculating his value retroactively, Burke’s career value was a solid +36 with an Average Seasonal Rating of 3.600 when he left the Anaheim Ducks to become GM of the Leafs. Today his career value is a shaky +19 with an ASR of 1.357 (he ranks 15th among active GMS between Jay Feaster and Paul Holmgren in career value and 17th between Bryan Murray and Don Maloney in ASR).

19 of Burke’s 37 minus points have been earned during his disastrous stint with the Leafs. During the 2000s Brian Burke was the fifth best GM of the decade (according to my rating system). Now in the 2010s he is the third worst GM in the NHL (behind Garth Snow of the Islanders and Scott Howson of the Columbus Blue Jackets).

Indeed Brian Burke is in danger of losing his blue-chip stock rating because if and when play ever resumes in the NHL and the Leafs endure a losing season where he earns at least five or more minus points then he will no longer rank among the top fifty NHL GMs of all time according to my calculations.

Brian Burke is an American who was born in Rhode Island and raised in Minnesota. Burke returned to his birthplace to attend Providence College where he played hockey as a low-scoring forward. Interestingly future New Jersey Devils GM Lou Lamoriello was the head coach of the hockey team and former Leafs head coach Ron Wilson was his teammate.

After college Burke played in the AHL with the Springfield Indians and the Maine Mariners (who were the Philadelphia Flyers minor-league affiliate). Burke was part of the 1977/78 Mariners team that won the 1978 Calder Cup.

On that championship note, Burke left hockey and attended Harvard Law School where he got his law degree in 1981. Burke worked as a player agent from 1981 to 1987.

He got his first front office job with the Vancouver Canucks, serving under Pat Quinn and working as Director of Hockey Operations. Burke got his first chance at the big-time when the hapless Hartford Whalers hired him to be their general manager; replacing Eddie Johnston. Unbeknownst to Burke, his arrival coincided with the beginning of the end of the Whalers stay in Connecticut. The team would inexorably crash and burn, ultimately leaving Hartford for warmer but still poorer climes in North Carolina. The Whalers finished a pathetic fifth place in Burke’s sole season there as GM.

Burke’s first taste of the managerial life was sour and he left Hartford to work in the NHL front office as Executive Vice President and Director of Hockey Operations under Commissioner Gary Bettman until 1998 when he returned to Vancouver to serve as GM for the Canucks, replacing Pat Quinn.

In only four years the Canucks had gone from Stanley Cup finalists to cellar dwellers. The team was in bad shape. Brian Burke began to rebuild. The Canucks had already received Todd Bertuzzi as part of the Trevor Linden trade. Burke showed his acumen by drafting skillfully, shrewdly. The Canucks finished last in his first season as GM but it was a blessing in disguise because Vancouver had the second and third picks in the first round of the 1999 Amateur Draft and used them to draft the Sedin Brothers: Daniel and Henrik. In the years to come more solid draft picks fell Vancouver’s way: Kevin Bieksa in 2001 and Ryan Kesler in 2003. All four men remain on the Canucks roster today.

The job of molding and harnessing these offensive talents fell to newly hired head coach Marc Crawford. Burke’s choice of hiring Crawford was an inspired one. Crawford ranks among the top fifty hockey coaches of all time and his passion for offensive hockey was tailor made for scoring talents like Bertuzzi and the Sedins. Indeed it was Marc Crawford who got Todd Bertuzzi operating on all thrusters; unleashing his untapped potential. Although the Canucks never reached the Stanley Cup finals they played competitive crowd-pleasing hockey, re-invigorating the love affair between the team and its fans. Still, the failure to win the Stanley Cup rankled and in 2004 the Canucks ownership refused to renew Brian Burke’s contract.

A year later Burke resurfaced with Anaheim, becoming its general manager. Burke had not lost his draft touch. In his first draft with the Ducks, Burke picked Bobby Ryan. In later drafts Matt Beleskey and Brandon McMillan were also selected. All of these men are still part of the Ducks roster today. To bolster the Ducks defence, Burke acquired veterans Scott Niedermayer and, later, Chris Pronger.

Significantly, Brian Burke put his stamp on the team when he refused to make a long-term contract offer to then Ducks head coach Mike Babcock (who had led Anaheim to the 2003 Stanley Cup finals). Babcock left the team and went on to greater glory with Detroit. To replace him, Burke picked the man who had coached Vancouver’s minor-league affiliate while Burke was GM there: Randy Carlyle. Carlyle became Anaheim’s greatest head coach, leading the Ducks to their sole Stanley Cup win in 2007 and in the process placing himself among the top fifty hockey coaches of all time (according to my rating system).

It was the pinnacle of Brian Burke’s managerial career and, in many ways, the start of the descent of his career. The Ducks failed to repeat in 2008 and early in the 2008/09 Season Burke resigned as Ducks GM and took his act to Toronto where his fortunes and those of the team have fallen sharply.

What worked before in Vancouver and Anaheim has not worked in Toronto. Of all his draft picks, only one Nazem Kadri is still playing for the Leafs. Of his trades only two: Phil Kessel (in 2009) and Dion Phaneuf in 2011 were boons for the Leafs. Throughout his reign as Leafs GM Brian Burke has never decisively solved the team’s appalling weakness in the goal-tending position. That failure lies at the heart of Toronto’s decline and fall. (Rumor has it that once the NHL lock-out ends Burke is set to acquire veteran net-minder Roberto Luongo from Vancouver).

Still, during the 2011/12 season the team started off beautifully, raising the hopes of its fans that the corner was turned but when the clock struck midnight the team reverted to its inconsistent ways and failed to make the playoffs altogether. Burke fired head coach Ron Wilson and replaced him with Randy Carlyle but one wonders whether Carlyle can staunch the bleeding and revive the team or should the Leafs ownership do as so many Leafs fans want it to do: wield the axe higher and fire Brian Burke instead?

(My next column will feature former Canucks and Leafs GM Pat Quinn.)

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