The Maple Leafs went out and hired Burke in 2008 for his proven skills as a GM, of course. But more so, for his cache. For his ability to attract superior people and lead them somewhere. (Photo: CP/Chris Young)
By Mark Spector July 2, 2012
We always knew Brian Burke was going to be controversial, when the most brash general manager in the game intersected with its highest profile team, the Toronto Maple Leafs.
The bright lights aren't too hot for Burke. He knew what he was getting into when he signed on, and to his credit he hasn't changed a bit.
So when he chooses on July 1 to march in Toronto's Gay Pride Parade in memory of his departed son Brendan, he knows that it's not just a father honouring a son. It's the Leafs GM spending July 1 away from the office, in the eyes of his critics.
Or if, as he did on UFA Day a year ago, he decides to be in Afghanistan with our troops, Burke's no dummy. He knows what people will say, that he's being delinquent in his paying job as the general manager of the Toronto Maple Leafs.
What we've always like about Burke is this: He doesn't give a crap what you, me, or anyone else thinks.
But being outside the Maple Leafs war room on these two all-important days isn't the issue for me. I don't require Burke to be in a certain place, as long as his cell phone is charged and the homework has been done.
Burke's problem isn't his whereabouts. It's his production.
If, a year ago, he came away from free agency with more than the anemic Tim Connolly, his military visit wouldn't have been mentioned. Connolly had 36 points and the Leafs were brutal last season.
That's Burke's issue. Not Afghanistan.
This year Burke swung and missed on Justin Schultz. Sure, lots of teams missed out on Schultz, but Toronto isn't lots of teams. They needed him more than everyone else, perhaps even Edmonton.
The Maple Leafs rebuild has, since Day 1 of Burke's tenure in Toronto, run parallel to the rebuild in Edmonton. If you've been reading this space that's not news to you.
Burke promised his rebuild would be faster than the traditional style rebuild, like Edmonton's. It has not been.
He said the Leafs would be big, and truculent. They are neither.
He had a reputation as a deal maker, and was going to become the kind of leader that would be able to draw free agents to Toronto. As a horse trader Burke's work has been average at best, and annually the big free agents go elsewhere.
Then, this past weekend, the most telling blow of all.
On Saturday, a nearly 22-year-old kid who has never played an NHL game gave his impression of how the two rebuilds stack up from a purely objective standpoint. Justin Schultz even had a friend and college teammate -- Jake Gardiner -- on Burke's Maple Leafs. A pal he could live with, play alongside, and take that magical run towards the top of the standings with if he so chose.
But Schultz stood back, took a long look at Burke's rebuild, and took a pass.
"I know (Gardiner) wanted to play with me again, but it wasn't about that. (Edmonton) is the best fit for me," said Schultz.
It was about how he assessed his chances of winning, on a team that he could also play a big role on immediately. Schultz held Burke's team up next to a franchise that has finished 30th, 30th and 29th in the past three seasons, and said, "I'll take Edmonton, thanks."
The Maple Leafs went out and hired Burke in 2008 for his proven skills as a GM, of course. But more so, for his cache. For his ability to attract superior people and lead them somewhere.
But when this year's top college free agent had finished speaking with the many recruiters across the National Hockey League, he was left taking about how someone other than Burke had made the biggest impression.
That someone who scooped Burke was the kind of man that MLSE was sure wouldn't stand a chance against Burke - Oilers new head coach Ralph Krueger. A nobody, really, among NHL hockey execs.
"When he was talking I was getting chills," Schultz said of Krueger. "The way he loves the game, it's a cool thing to be a part of."
They were supposed to be saying that about Burke. They are not.
Burke did not land Ilya Kovalchuk, did not land Brad Richards, and he won't have a shot at Parise or Suter. He couldn't even get Schultz.
Those are Brian Burke's issues. Not the Gay Pride Parade.
On Sunday, Burke's Leafs signed Jay McClement, a 10-goal depth centre with some size.
"We're not done," Burke promised at the end of the business day Sunday, before repeating a mantra we've heard many times. "I believe our group (the NHL's collective GMs) makes more mistakes on July 1 than we do all the rest of the year combined.
"Unrealistic values and unreal terms. In a hard cap system it bites you right in the butt at some point."
The two biggest splashes left for Burke to make are Roberto Luongo and Rick Nash. However, it sounds as if neither has Toronto on their initial list of destinations.
Toronto was supposed to be a place that everyone wanted to go. It has become, more or less, the opposite.
Spend July 1 wherever you please, Brian. Just get more good players so you can win more games.
That's all your fans are asking for.
Mark Spector is the senior columnist on sportsnet.ca