End of season interview with Brian Burke
Brian Burke does not sugarcoat his words when asked about the season.
"It's a failure," he says, as we sit inside a circular booth at e11even, the MLSE-owned bistro on York Street. "You don't make the playoffs, it's a failure. There can be no debate in our sport about that.
"There are a lot of positives. But, overall, it's a failure. The season is a failure."
He pronounces "failure" with such staccato force, my first follow-up is: "So what went wrong?
"You have to win games in months that end with 'r,'" he says. "You can't just win games in months that end with a 'y.' October, November, December – those are critical months for us and we did not produce."
The two biggest "culprits," to use his word, were special teams and goaltending.
"But I think the goaltending, obviously, once that solidified, we've had a marvelous record. But our special teams need to improve."
As of today, the Leafs power play is operating at 16.2 per cent, which ranks 21st in the league. Penalty killing, meanwhile, is 77.9 per cent, which ranks 27th.
Why are special teams still so anemic when the roster was revamped over the past two seasons? Could the problem, at least in part, be related to strategic deficiencies?
There is a pause and a familiar scowl.
"I think the easiest thing to do when your special teams struggle is point to the coaches," says Burke. "That's what everyone says, 'Oh, it's coaching.' And yet the Pittsburgh Penguins have not had a Top 5 power play – not even Top 10, I think – in the last two years. So it can't be just personnel. It can't be just coaching. It's a blend."
He shakes his head and glances out the window behind me.
"This has gone beyond discussion. We've got to sort out our special teams. We've got to be better, there's no two ways about it. If our special teams had operated at a better efficiency rate, we'd be in the playoffs."
Okay. Forget the past. What is the plan for this summer? What "missing pieces," a cryptic term that gets tossed around almost daily, sit high atop his list?
"We intend to be active in free agency and we intend to explore trades."
Meaning what, specifically?
"We need to upgrade at center and we need some size," Burke says. "Size. I'd like to have more bite. I think Mike Brown delivered everything we asked him to. I think Colby Armstrong was exactly what we thought we were getting.
"But I think we need some more bite."
With the exception of Joffrey Lupul and Nikolai Kulemin, Burke says, the Top 6 is too small. In fact: "Even our Bottom 6 is small to play the way I like to play."
Leaving truculence aside, I return to the center position and ask if he regrets not getting a top-line player to feed Phil Kessel.
"Do I regret not getting a center? I haven't been offered one at a price that makes sense. I can overpay and get a center. Would I like to have one? Yes. That's different than do I regret not getting one."
The real issue, he says, has been negotiating power.
"What did we have to give up before this spring? We had no firsts. We had no Joe Colborne, no Jake Gardiner. What did we have to offer teams? I could have traded Kulemin for a center. But then we lose a Top 6 forward."
We move to the draft. The Leafs now have two firsts (Boston and Philadelphia) and one second round pick.
"We want to pick at least twice," says Burke. "So if we can package two of those picks to move up, we would do it. But we're not going to package three of them to move up. We want to pick twice."
Burke has engineered some high-profile deals on trade days past, including in 1993 when he moved up to snag Chris Pronger and 1999, when he landed the Sedin twins.
But as he notes ruefully: "Those were six years apart and I haven't got close since."
What about early scouting reports that suggest this isn't a strong draft year?
"It's not a marquee draft year," corrects Burke. "There's no Ovechkin. The year we drafted Pronger, there were like five big name guys. It's not that kind of draft. We like the players that are right where we are picking, right down to 40. We're happy with the grouping. We think there is quality in this draft."
As for possible free agents, he says, it's still premature to speculate about names: "The list of guys who are free agents now is not the list that will be there on July 1."
What he's not looking for this summer is a starting goalie: That job already belongs to James Reimer.
"The kid took the net away from the other two goalies," says Burke. "Every goalie, at some point in his career, has to grab the net. And the other goalies always fight when you try to grab the net. We had three goalies that were in the hunt and one kid grabbed the net this year.
"The issue is going to be who else is here and how else do we surround him and support him. But, yes, I think he's demonstrated the right to come back as the starter."
Where does this leave Jonas Gustavsson?
"We still haven't given up on the Monster at all. We signed him for a reason. We still believe in him. We have to see how things sort themselves out."
Despite not making the playoffs, despite using the F-word, Burke is quick to praise his team's run in 2011.
"It's a strong finish and it's not a phantom finish. It's not a meaningless last dozen games. It's been a six-week marathon. These guys have put together solid efforts, night in and night out, for basically six, seven weeks now. I like that."
"I like the work ethic of this group. I like the leadership of this group. I like our reserve list now, as far as the assets we've added with the first round picks and Colborne and Gardiner. I really feel like we have some real assets in the pipeline."
So are you satisfied with the progress?
"I'm never where I'd like to be at any point,” he says, just as the Eagles' "Peaceful Easy Feeling" strums to life in the speakers above our heads. "I'm not trying to give you an obscure, Zen answer. I'm never happy. We're in a non-playoff spot, I'm not happy. Do I see the progress? Yes. Am I happy with where we are? No. I was born impatient and I'm going to die impatient."
Let's try this again. Are you less unhappy than you were during our December interview?
There is another pause.
"Yes," Burke says, sipping a Diet Coke. "This isn't spin, you know. The general manager can try and spin things when you miss the playoffs. This isn't spin. The first thing I said is, 'It's a failure.' That's the last thing I will say.
"But in between, do I see massive change and improvement? Yes. Do I see cause for optimism? Yes. Do I feel we'll have a lot less work to do this summer than we've had in the past? Yes. Those are all important things."
And so with the last game unfolding Saturday, his message to Leaf fans is simple: "I hope they see the progress like I do. We're going to get there."
PHOTO: VINAY MENON/TORONTO STAR