November 29th marked the two-year anniversary of the day Brian Burke was named President and General Manager of the Toronto Maple Leafs. Being the 13th GM in franchise history, and the first to be American-born, Burke had a steep climb to bringing the organization back to respectability. With such a storied franchise in his hand, all eyes were on the Harvard graduate.
Littered with long-term contracts and very little cap space, Burke went to work by clearing the team for draft picks in his first season. His first trade deadline saw Dominic Moore and Nikolai Antropov get shipped out of town for second-round picks each.
With what some would call a barren cupboard of prospects, Burke began to supplant the lack of draft picks of previous years by signing Tyler Bozak, Christian Hanson and Swedish phenom Jonas Gustavsson – all under the age of 24.
As he hit the Montreal draft floor that June, Burke continued to stock his team by drafting the likes of Nazem Kadri and Jesse Blacker. He continued into July by signing top defensive UFA’s, Francois Beauchemin and Mike Komisarek, to help a team considered one of the worst defensively in the NHL.
Leaf fans were pleased. Burke, their knight in shining armour, seemed to be doing things the right way – building through the draft and accumulating talent through free agency. As Leafs Nation had witnessed firsthand when the Pittsburgh Penguins won the Stanley Cup, it took long stretches of being bad before a team could climb the NHL ladder.
Sep. 18, 2009 marked a day that hockey fans most won't forget. In a controversial move, Burke moved two first round picks and a second round pick for 21-year-old sniper Phil Kessel. A 36-goal-scorer in his last season with Boston, the Bruins were having a tough time fitting Kessel under the salary cap.
Since that time, the trade seems to have lingered over the heads of those supporting the Blue and White. For the next 10-15 years, Phil Kessel will continue to be compared to Tyler Seguin (2010 2nd overall pick) and whomever the B’s select with Toronto’s draft pick in 2011.
As the Leafs continue to dwell in the NHL basement, without a first round pick in their possession, Burke must continue to wave magic and take chances on players who have lost favor in their respective organizations, like he did with Dion Phaneuf.
Though Burke continues to emphasize a 'win-now' mentality, the Leafs have dropped from 23rd overall (when he was given the reigns), to 27th overall as they presently sit. Their prospect depth can be considered middle of the pack, and they lack blue-chip talent outside of Kadri and towering blueliner Keith Aulie.
Having signed a six-year deal with MLSE, Burke will be afforded all the time and space needed to turn the ship around. Patience is the key for fans of the Buds, who have been calling for Coach Ron Wilson’s firing in recent weeks.
Burke's legacy will hinge on his ability to find elite talent in the upcoming year or two, doing so without a first round pick next summer.
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