Burke gets Coyotes off to strong start, dampens trade rumors
Posted: Friday October 17, 2003 3:19PM; Updated: Friday October 17, 2003 3:19PM
Phoenix's best player was 35,000 feet above Texas when the puck dropped at the start of its 5-1 loss to Tampa Bay on Thursday.
And as a result, there probably aren't any remaining questions as to who the most valuable member of the Coyotes is.
As backup Brian Boucher was getting worked over by Tampa, Sean Burke was headed back to the Valley of the Sun for a little rest before Saturday's start against the Flyers.
The 36-year-old Burke is off to a spectacular 3-0 start this season with a 0.65 goals-against average and a .976 save percentage. Boucher, meanwhile, is 0-1 with a 5.00 GAA and a .839 save percentage after the four-goal loss to Tampa Bay. Burke's value to the Coyotes is evident by the team's 92-50-25-11 record when he starts, as opposed to their 44-65-23-7 mark when he doesn't.
Burke's three wins to open the year helped the franchise start 3-0 for the first time since 1987-88 (when they were still the Winnipeg Jets), but the loss to Tampa Bay denied them their first 4-0 beginning since joining the NHL in 1979.
"As well as we're playing, Burkey has been our best player every night," Coyotes captain Shane Doan said after Wednesday's 2-1 victory against the Panthers. "The blue line is making smart decisions, but Burkey has been there to make the big save."
With Zac Bierk also on the active roster, the Coyotes have an uncommon three-goalie situation. It results from the fact that all three players are out of options and can't be sent down to the minor leagues without being subjected to waivers. Bierk and his $550,000 salary would be quickly snapped up if he was put on the waiver wire. Phoenix left Boucher unprotected in the Waiver Draft at the beginning of October, but his $2 million salary apparently scared off any takers.
Not that Phoenix really wants to send any of them down, because gifted prospects Jean-Marc Pelletier and David LeNeveu are playing at AHL Springfield and need to get work to develop. So that means a trade is likely in the works.
"It's just unfortunate that you have the potential to lose one [or our three goalies] if you want to get them some minutes by sending them to the American League," general manager Mike Barnett said. "So we are just going to continue to work through it and get better each night and let the goaltending situation resolve itself however it may. At this point in time, we're not being proactive in terms of trying to make any adjustments to our roster. We're enjoying watching it come together."
Trades are something that Burke is much too familiar with. He was dealt from New Jersey to Hartford on Aug. 28, 1992. He then moved south from Hartford, Conn., to Raleigh, N.C., for the 1997 season when the Whalers relocated and became the Hurricanes. But he spent just 25 games in Carolina before being dealt to Vancouver on Jan. 2, 1998.
But Burke spent just two months with the Canucks, getting shipped out to the Flyers for Garth Snow on March 2. His tenure in the City of Brotherly Love was a short one, too, playing just 11 regular-season games and five playoff games for Philadelphia before signing with Florida as a free agent on Sept. 12, 1998. The Coyotes got quite a steal when they sent Mikhail Shtalenkov and a 2000 fourth-round pick to the Panthers for Burke and a fifth-rounder.
"No more this year than they have the last four," Burke chuckled when asked if the continuing trade rumors have bothered him at all. "It's the same every year. I don't really put a lot of stock in it right now. Whatever is going to happen is a day-to-day thing in an organization like ours. We're a young team and if we are winning, things will be good. But if we're not, changes will probably be made. It's all part of the business."
The fact that the Coyotes are a building, young organization will make for a difficult decision for Barnett at some point this season. If Phoenix is hanging around the playoff race come March, it would be foolish to deal Burke. But if they are out of it as the deadline approaches, Burke is clearly their most marketable asset and could bring a lot in return. That was evident when Barnett tried to pry Calder Trophy winner Barret Jackman and multiple No. 1 picks from the Blues in exchange for Burke last season.
Despite being a vagabond and making seven stops in his 15-year career, Burke has been fortunate enough to include three stints of more than 160 games among his travels, having spent reasonably long stretches in New Jersey (162 games), Hartford (256) and now Phoenix (182).
"I like being settled," Burke said. "I'm not a guy that wants to get moved around, but it is the reality of the game right now."
Since the beginning of the 1999-2000 season (when he joined Phoenix after seven games with Florida to begin the year), Burke's .921 save percentage is the best in the NHL, ahead of Patrick Roy (.918), Jean-Sebastien Giguere (.918), Roberto Luongo (.917) and Jose Theodore (.917). And Burke's 2.30 GAA in that span is third behind Roy's 2.15 and Martin Brodeur's 2.18.
Burke's career record is still 10 games under .500 at 291-301-94, but he played on some awful teams early in his career. He is 90-63-24 since coming to Phoenix and he is now fourth in active wins at 291, putting him one good month away from becoming the 20th netminder to reach 300 victories, mark that both Dominik Hasek (291) and Chris Osgood (275) are likely to reach this season as well. Burke's 720 NHL games also rank him third behind Ed Belfour (800) and Curtis Joseph (767).
"There isn't a better goaltender in the game right now," Barnett said. "Period. And from my perspective, there hasn't been for the past two years. He's just very, very comfortable with his game and now he's getting the help from our blue line to cut down on the traffic and to let him see the puck as often as possible."
Burke played very well last season when healthy, but he only managed to appear in 22 games due to a high ankle sprain and groin pull. He posted a 12-6-2 record with a 2.12 GAA and a .930 save percentage. Boucher struggled to a 15-20-8 record and a 3.02 GAA, while Bierk was excellent with a 2.17 GAA and .932 save percentage in 16 appearances. Bierk's 4-9-1 record was ordinary, but his secondary numbers were nearly the equal of Burke's and were significantly better than Boucher's.
Yet Burke stands alone among the trio of netminders as a dominant force. The Coyotes could get by with Boucher and Bierk, but trading Burke's $4.5 million salary would purely be a move for the future and a signal that the team is giving up on this season.
"I think Sean Burke in the last three or four years is a top five guy," Coyotes goaltending coach Benoit Allaire said. "When you watch his save percentage in the last four years, it's at the top of the NHL. His game is so good. He is such a good pure stopper of the puck. There is no doubt he is one of the top in the NHL right now."
Working with goaltending guru Allaire has improved Burke's footwork, something that is crucial for a 6-foot-4, 209-pound netminder. Burke's massive frame takes up so much of the net that a lot of pucks find his body, but Allaire has helped improve Burke's positioning and quickness so that he can better go get pucks that are headed toward the net, too.
"Sean is a now guy whose technical part and mental part is so good," Allaire said. "He gives us a chance to win every day. That's why he has been so good for the last four of five years. Sean brought a lot of experience with him here and he doesn't need too much information. But it doesn't take him too long for him to take that little bit of information I give him and do it right away on the ice."
Allaire's work has helped give Burke the confidence needed to be among the league's dominant netminders, but he still realizes that Phoenix needs to buy into head coach Bobby Francis' new committment to defense as a team if it wants to continue its surprising start. To that end, the Coyotes are trying to play a lot more like the Mighty Ducks and Wild than the formerly wide-open style previously favored in Phoenix.
"Those are teams that on paper aren't stronger than most teams in their conference, or any stronger than we are," Burke said. "But they found ways to win and they play with a lot of enthusiasm and confidence. It's always a blueprint for the less talented teams. And I think we have more talent that people give us credit for, but it's young talent, so it's not respected yet. But I think our blueprint has to be Minnesota and Anaheim, those type of teams."
One of the biggest factors to Burke's dominant start has been the improved play of the Coyotes' defensemen in their own zone. Burke is impressed with the team's commitment to defense, and he lauds the efforts of young blueliners Brad Ference, Paul Mara, Radoslav Suchy, David Tanabe and Ossi Vaananen. Burke realizes that the Coyotes can draw from the impressive postseason runs by the Mighty Ducks and Wild, both in terms of overachieving and from their trapping defensive style.
"It's been a total team effort," Burke said. "In the three games I've had to make some saves at key times, but overall we've played very solid. It's actually fun to sit back there and watch our team. We've played with a lot of enthusiasm and speed, and we've played pretty sound all over the ice. It hasn't been a case of us hanging on, we've played pretty strong."
Fans in Phoenix are hoping that they can hang on to their elite level goaltender, because without him, the Coyotes are an ordinary team. But Burke is an expert at packing at this point, and could be ready to move on to another destination at a moment's notice.
But with the Coyotes off to a good start and Burke clearly excited about the direction of the franchise -- as well as being comfortable living in Phoenix -- who is to say that the Coyotes can't keep up their high quality of play they exhibited in the first 10 days of the new season.
Jon A. Dolezar covers the NHL for SI.com.