We all know that Hindsight is 20/20. And while it is totally unfair, we still like to look back at GM's old decisions and say to ourselves "What were they thinking? What a terrible move!". As a sports fan, it's easy to fall into this trap. Sometimes the future is clear, like Sidney Crosby becoming one of the NHL's best players. Other times, it isn't so clear (read: Alexandre Daigle). In light of the recent firing of Brian Burke, me and the rest of Leafs Nation have been looking back on his regime, and how there isn't much to show for it. Now while many were always critics of Burke, from the day he came to the day he left (I was always a big fan), not everything he did was bad, and more importantly, not every bad move he made was bad.
I want to start by saying that I don't blame last year's epic collapse on Brian Burke. I think the blame falls half on Ron Wilson, and the other half on the players. We all know that the Leafs were looking pretty good after the All-Star break, holding on to a playoff position. Then the wheels (along with every other part) completely fell off, and now we have Morgan Rielly. But I blame the initial collapse on Wilson's awful, AWFUL management of our goalies. Wilson had a "win and you're in" philosophy, which works great if you have 2 equal quys playing very well. But Reimer was struggling a lot, and should have been sheltered more. Gustavsson was playing much better (not amazing mind you, but a lot better than Reimer), and should have seen more ice time. When Carlyle came in, he recognized that immediately and almost exclusively started Gustavsson. The "win and you're in" philosophy bankrupted Gustavsson of all confidence. I remember the Leafs losing to Calgary 5-1 (or was it 5-0?), and Gustavsson still making 30 saves. None of the goals were his fault, and he played an amazing game, yet he didn't start the next game. This shatters a goalie's confidence, knowing that the only way you'll keep playing is if the team in front of you plays well. I feel that if Wilson rode Gustavsson, the Leafs would have had a much better season. And for the players? They just stopped caring. They were lazy, weaker than normal defensively, and just didn't look motivated at all. The same players who were feeling great and scoring a lot just dropped off. I can't tell you why, but Burke seemed to be the only person in the organization with emotion during the second half of the season.
That last paragraph was just my opinion on last season, and while it's true Burke hasn't stacked the cupboards as much as we would have liked, and the team isn't that tough, it was still a good team. But now I'm going to talk about the good moves that didn't work out, and why Burke shouldn't feel bad about them. It starts with someone I was really excited about, and now I don't know how I feel about him. I'm talking about Tim Connolly.
When Burke signed Connolly, I remember people were really excited about it. Sure, we didn't land Richards, but hey, Connolly (while fragile as glass) was smart defensively, great on the PK, and had excellent vision. He seemed like the perfect fit for Kessel. But he was injured in the preseason, and lost his spot on the top line to Bozak. By the time he came back, the top line was so hot that Wilson would have been crazy to split them, so he didn't. But when they cooled down, Wilson started to juggle, and put Connolly on the top line. That didn't click immediately, and so Connolly was then pushed down the depth chart. And while it's true he hasn't made it out of the bottom 6, think about how many less goals you're going to score when playing with Joey Crabb instead of Phil Kessel.
But the thing that bothers me most about this is how much people liked the deal. It was a short term, so in case Connolly didn't work out, we wouldn't be on the hook for that long (he'll most likely walk after this season). It was a great move by Burke, but it didn't work out, so now Burke is the fool. And now we rant like we were right all along.
Then there's the big one. January 30th, 2010. I couldn't believe it until I read it myself. Burke aquired Phaneuf and Giguere on the same day, filling the No. 1 defence and starting Goalie positions in one swift motion. Leafs Nation were singing his praises. Now even then Phaneuf wasn't seen as a legitimate No. 1 D-man, but he was a Norris candidate, and had the potential to be that guy in Toronto (there were also issues in the Calgary dressing room apparently). The only real piece that Burke gave up was Ian White, a player I really like (the rest of the players were scrap parts that have done nothing of note since). And with Giguere? He gave up Toskala and Blake. Words cannot even describe how amazingly one sided that trade is. Blake played well with Selanne, but then again who wouldn't (I can barely skate and I'd put up great numbers if I played with Selanne). Toskala is statistically the worst goalie since the full lockout. This was poised to be one of the best trades in Leafs history.
Then it didn't really work out. Phaneuf is great, and I like him as captain (something that the Leafs didn't have, and still don't have anyone who can even come close to Dion in that role). While no Ryan Suter, you cannot deny that Phaneuf is a great defenceman, probably the best the Leafs have (I love Gunnarsson, but he's not better than Phaneuf). Giguere hurt his groin, and couldn't really regain his Conn Smythe form (which he did do in Colorado for some reason).
Colby Armstrong was overpaid, but he was a great presence in the locker room, and no one saw his injury and ineffectiveness coming.
My point here is that while the moves didn't work out for the Leafs, they were seen as amazing moves, and Burke was seen as our saviour. The fact that they didn't work out doesn't mean they were bad moves, it just means they didn't work out. No one expected to see Connolly on our fourth line. No one expected Giguere to begin to suck, get hurt, then move on to another team and regain his form. While a lot didn't expect the world from Phaneuf, he's still pretty damn good. So before you denounce Brian Burke for all his mistakes, try and remember how you saw them as solutions first. There's a lot you can't predict, and a lot you can. But moves we initially champion, we should at least recognized they seemed like a great idea at the time.
However, there is no excuse for Lebda.