Lunch with Brian Burke and the winds of change
Trades are on the horizon. The status quo is not an option. Change is coming.
This is what Brian Burke tells me when we meet for lunch on Tuesday.
It's high noon and we are sitting inside e11even, the swish new bistro on York Street in Maple Leaf Square. The place is hopping merrily with a lunch crowd of Bay Street power brokers and MLSE suits.
But the mood at our table, as you might imagine, is far from festive.
This lunch date was booked last week, prior to the team's latest losing skid. Since the universe has a keen sense of irony, Burke arrives just as Coldplay's "Don't Panic" is playing. He shakes my hand and looks more than a little drained.
"How are you feeling?" I ask.
"Horseshit," he replies.
Burke is not sleeping these days, something I've heard from a few people. His team is not performing the way he expected. It's been a season full of, well, equine excrement.
And so on behalf of Leaf fans everywhere, your humble emissary starts asking questions.
What has gone wrong? What are the objectives of management at this point? What can we expect in the new year? Can this team turn things around without an intervention? Or to paraphrase Chris Martin, why should we not panic?
"I think this group has established to my satisfaction that we're not going to come out of this without some outside help," concedes Burke. "We're not looking at a coaching change. So we have to see if we can make a player personnel change.
"We're at a critical point of the schedule where most of the games are against Eastern conference teams. We need some regulation wins if we're going to get back in there. And we haven't seen the progress that we'd like to see. So we're looking to be active again as soon as we come out of the trade freeze."
Despite my begging, he refuses to get into specifics. But he is working the phones. He knows change is needed. He is searching for size and scoring punch.
"We need a big forward," Burke says, as a couple of suits stroll past and nod hello. "Everyone points to the center position. But I think if we had a Top 6 forward with size, center or wing, it would help us. Right now we're not getting to enough loose pucks in front of the net. We're not creating enough traffic in front of the net. So that to me is our biggest need."
But why is this team still struggling after it was blown-up?
"Without pointing a finger at any one player, we're not scoring goals like I thought we could," says Burke. "We're not keeping them out of our net like I thought we could. That's a bad combination.
"Special teams haven't been what we hoped they would. But I don't think it's a multi-system breakdown every night. I think we are playing 50 to 54 minutes of good hockey every night. But that's not good enough...
"I liked our game in Calgary except for three minutes. I liked our game in Vancouver except for four minutes. I liked our game (Monday night) except for the first two minutes."
Since he mentions special teams, I ask about the chants of "Fire Wilson" that continue to erupt inside Leafs Nation. Has the coach lost the room?
"We outshot our opponent by 2 to 1 (Monday)," says Burke. "We had the puck all night after the first two minutes. We outplayed them badly. We out-chanced them badly. It's clear the players have not quit on the coach. We are not even contemplating, considering or discussing a coaching change at this point.
There is a tendency in all markets, Burke adds, to blame the coach when a team is struggling. But that tendency is taken to the next level in Toronto. Wilson can also be his own worst enemy at times.
"I think Ron brushes some people the wrong way with his mannerisms when in fact he's a great guy and a great teacher and a great coach," says Burke. "But I think his mannerisms with the media – which, by the way, have been developed over a very frustrating period of time – have led some people to turn on Ron unfairly.
"That doesn't change my thinking. We are not looking at a coaching change."
So Burke is standing behind his coach. And he is looking to make some trades, sooner rather than later. In fact, there could be a number of trades. Does this mean he still believes the team can make the playoffs?
"The goal for the season was the playoffs, it is the playoffs," Burke says. "But we are rebuilding. It's not a classic rebuild. I don't think in a cap system, you have to finish last or dead last for four or five years...
"I think we've added assets that will enable us to compete without going through that cycle. Now, obviously, it hasn't borne fruit yet. So it's a rebuild in the sense that we are one of youngest teams in the league but it's not a classic rebuild where you try to finish bottom five and draft patiently."
This rebuilding model, he notes, has no precedent. There are no blueprints. What Burke is trying to do is remain competitive in the short-term while not sacrificing long-range planning.
"We're trying to do it on the fly. It's a totally different model than anyone else has followed. I still believe it will work. It's just not working right now."
But how do you rebuild without draft picks? Does he have any regrets?
"People say the Kessel deal cost more than we thought it would and it did. I didn't think we would finish 29th last year. We may have a low finish again this year. But I got the player I wanted and I still believe in him.
"You look at how well he has played in the last five games and what he can do without a true center with him. He's still generating offence and working hard making good defensive plays. So no regrets, other than our record."
Later on, as we're eating, I show him some of the comments you guys have left recently. And I ask if he has a message for us.
"The message is, 'I'm as frustrated as you are.' It's a work in progress. We're not there yet."
What about the fans who are leaving? What about the fans who are throwing waffles? What about the fans who say there is no light at the end of the tunnel Brian Burke is rebuilding?
"I think hockey fans in this market are very sophisticated," he says. "If that's what they've concluded, then I have to live with that. I'm not going to tell people how to think. But that's certainly not what I am hearing...
"I think people see a defence with an average age of 23. I think they see the goaltending prospects in the system. I think they do see a light at the end of the tunnel. And the tunnel does not run from here to Spain. It's a manageable wait."