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Is This How Burke Envisions The Leafs?

July 5, 2011
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Out of all the GMs in the NHL – hell, maybe even of all the four major sports – the one that I respect the most might be the Toronto Maple Leafs’ Brian Burke, who isn’t afraid to speak his mind or make a move to drastically shake up his team. Lately, though, I’m beginning to question his decisions, especially regarding what he has done in free agency.

The Leafs haven’t made the playoffs since 2004, and that of course includes Burke’s reign from ’08 to now. Granted, he inherited a mess from former GM Cliff Fletcher (who inherited a bigger mess from John Ferguson Jr.), but the Leafs have still spent both freely and poorly under Burke. For instance, in 2009, Burke signed hardnosed defenseman Mike Komisarek to a five-year deal worth roughly $4.5 million per season year. Komisarek has been a bust in two seasons in Toronto, and he has already been mentioned in trade speculation.   Accompanying Komisarek as a defensive acquisition in ’09 was Francois Beauchemin, who signed a three-year deal exceeding $10 million. Beauchemin didn’t live up to the hype in Toronto and was dealt back to his former team, the Ducks, last season.

Now, Burke has has signed two former Buffalo castoffs for big money.  After falling out of the running for center Brad Richards, Burke signed Tim Connolly to a two-year, $9.5 million contract; he also re-signed winger Clarke Macarthur to a two-year, $6.5 million pact. As someone who has seen these two players close up the last few years, I have to wonder why either was signed. Both are indeed serviceable NHL players, but not front-line talent. Macarthur did have a breakout year for the Leafs, but is he worth that money? He was wildly incosistent in Buffalo, where he was in and out of the lineup consistently, and when MacArthur was a restricted free agent last summer, the Atlanta Thrashers didn’t even bother to tender him a deal. As for Connolly, his role in the league has changed. He was known for his crisp passes, highlight-reel dekes, and huge potential as a younger player, but injuries and, in some minds, a lack of passion have derailed those plans.

In Buffalo, after the departures of Chris Drury and Daniel Briere in 2007, Connolly was asked to step up and emerge as a legit top six option; unfortunately, he was never able to become the consistent high-end center the team needed. Connolly’s career high in games played in a season is 73, and – despite signing multiple lucrative NHL contracts – he has never produced enough points to merit huge money. Connolly is a solid special teamer, but he’s probably a third-line center because of his inability to produce consistently at even strength. The Leafs do need a center for Kessel, but Connolly isn’t the answer.

Connolly and MacArthur now join the list of overpaid Leafs forwards like Kessel, Colby Armstrong, Joffrey Lupul, and newly acquired Mathew Lombardi.

Burke just has to go back to what has made him a success – namely good drafting and savvy trades. He may have just made a smart deal in acquiring Lombardi and defenseman Cody Franson from Nashville for Brett Lebda and Robert Slaney, though Lombardi is dealing with concussion issues. Burke rolled the dice in 2009 by acquiring Kessel from Boston for two first-round picks – one of which turned into Bruins forward Tyler Seguin.

The Leafs do have some young talent, but not the caliber of players Burke drafted in Vanouver or Anaheim (the Sedins, Ryan Kesler and Bobby Ryan come to mind). Entering 2011, it looks as if Burke’s Leafs are primed to miss the playoffs for the eighth straight year.

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