Guest Post: The undeniable genius of Brian Burke
Memo To Leafs Nation: Stop Living In The Eternal Present
BY JIMMY "OSTRICH LOVER" TANNER
Burke is an idiot!
Wilson is a fool!
I read a lot of hockey articles on the Internet – probably too many – and that is all I ever seem to hear. I don't like to admit it publicly but I often comment on these articles under the moniker "Ostrich Lover" and I too am often – make that always – called an idiot for my optimistic outlook on the job Brian Burke is doing to rebuild the Leafs.
True, the Leafs appear well on their way to making it a minimum of eight calendar years before the next playoff game will be played in Toronto. In the seven years so far, the Leafs have not managed to get a single Top 3 draft selection and have spent most of this time hovering above the lottery and below the playoffs. This is causing a lot fan angst and understandably so.
I think, however, Burke is taking the heat, not for what he has failed to do, but for Toronto's 43 years and counting without a Stanley Cup.
Burke does not deserve to be fired, or in my opinion, even criticized. It is my contention that he should be praised. The Leafs boast a core group of young players that should excite fans in this city. We now have an opportunity to watch this core group grow as individuals and blossom into a team that will be competitive for years.
So to properly assess this team, you must forget the past, leave four decades of baggage at the door and simply look forward. Instead of the Leafs, let's pretend we are gathered here to discuss the Thrashers or Blue Jackets. Let's imagine this same team, same trades and same management group – just without 43 years of abject failure.
Such an objective examination of this Leafs team reveals a lot of young talent and at least a half dozen players with superstar potential.
Let's look at Burke with an open mind and maybe I can convince you he is actually doing a stellar job. This is going to require you to put aside your groupthink mentality, your preconceived notions and your disappointment in the past.
Let's see if we can get away from the Achilles' heel of hockey coverage, which is an impulse to live in the eternal present. This impulse is exactly what prevents us from seeing the Leafs as a future contender.
Living in the eternal present is also why fans and writers seem to forget the most important thing about players such as Phil Kessel and Dion Phaneuf: These are kids with a lot of upside potential, not veterans in the twilight of their careers.
Keep an open mind and let's see if Burke is in fact the saviour we thought he was going to be – as four other people and I still believe.
Let's get started.
First, at no time in recent memory, have the Leafs ever possessed such a core group of young players with such high ceilings: Phil Kessel, Luke Schenn, Dion Phaneuf, Keith Aulie, Jussi Rynnas, Jonas Gustavsson, James Reimer, Nazem Kadri, Carl Gunnarsson, Nikolai Kulemin, Mikhail Grabovski, Kris Versteeg and Tyler Bozak.
We, the fans, have a chance to watch some of these guys mature before our eyes as they hopefully become stars. I think a lot of fans either don't know or they forget that the prime of a professional athlete begins around the age of 27. Bozak, for example, is following a similar career trajectory as Martin St Louis – fast, defensively responsible, smallish, creative and undrafted.
The presence of Kessel, Kadri, Phaneuf, Schenn – and some of the best goaltending prospects in hockey – should be enough reason for optimism and if we were really talking about the Blue Jackets and not the Leafs, it certainly would be.
The major criticism of Burke begins and ends with the Phil Kessel trade, which has been debated to the point of insanity. I wish I could avoid talking about it. I really do. But if the popularity of the movie Transformers taught us anything, it is this: Just because a majority believes something does not make it true.
Did Burke overpay for Kessel? No. Was this a bad trade? No.
1. Kessel is 23 years old and has better stats than Alexander Semin, Daniel Sedin, Pavel Datsyuk or Henrik Zetterberg had at the same age.
2. There is not a legitimate scout or commentator who does not think Kessel could potentially score 50 goals with a true playmaking center. Kessel may also be the most exciting skill player I have seen on the Leafs since I started watching in the 80s – this includes both Jamie Macoun and his formidable mustache.
3. Playing with Bozak and Matt Stajan, and while coming off a major injury, Kessel scored at nearly a 40-goal pace last season.
4. Kessel was the 5th overall selection in 2006 – a very deep draft (look it up). The two first round picks traded for him were in relatively weak draft years. Draft picks might not work out – but Kessel already has. People say he is not a franchise player – but he might be. Remember: Daniel Sedin wasn't a franchise player at 23, either.
The system he and Ron Wilson implemented is designed to let the players learn and perfect it so that when the finished team – Burke himself says we are yet to see it – takes to the ice, it will play a high-octane, hard-forechecking game. Burke has sacrificed some wins in the eternal present for winning in the future. But he is also not boring us with defensive hockey while we wait, something else worthy of praise.
Faced with giving Boston another high pick this season – and under non-stop pressure from all corners of Leafs Nation – Burke could have blinked and traded the blank cheque that is Luke Schenn to just about any team in hockey for just about anything he wanted (within reason). That he has refused to make this deal, or other similarly hasty moves, shows incredible courage and commitment to his vision.
In conclusion, Burke is an extremely intelligent man. He has repeatedly resisted the urge to panic. He obviously sees something in his roster the fans and media – with their wagging fingers and groupthink mentality – have missed.
His actions thus far are not consistent with a man who only wants to squeak into the playoffs, an oft repeated and incorrect accusation. His actions do not reflect those of a man who has "sacrificed the future."
Burke entered this season with a young and inexperienced team. He has a plan and a strategy. He has faith in the young core of players he has already assembled. And he has faith he can add the finishing pieces to finally bring an end to the 43 years and counting.
In short: Brian Burke believes in what he is doing. Given his track record, you should too.
This piece was pre-approved by hoofheartz. A Leafs Fan Blogs welcomes story pitches and ideas for guest posts. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
MAIN PHOTO: RICK MADONIK/TORONTO STAR