Brian Burke confidently taking heat
Toronto media decry the Maple Leafs' inability to make a big free agent signing
GM Brian Burke is now under pressure to tender an offer sheet to Steven Stamkos
After no playoffs in six years, he deserves credit for restraint in a thin FA market
Growing up, Brian Burke and his nine siblings had to come to the dinner table not just with their appetites but a new word. It had to be defined and used in a sentence before everyone could break bread.
"A different kid every night had to bring one," says the Toronto Maple Leafs GM, who took a time out from his summer vacation for a brief chat with SI.com.
What word would Burke bring to a table full of critics who want him to explain why he has been too quiet for their liking on the trade and free agent markets this summer?
"One word: Dion," he replies.
Further defined, Dion is Dion Phaneuf, the Leafs' captain and defenseman, who was acquired late in 2009-10 by Burke from Calgary.
"We're 45-36-11 since the trade in games he has dressed," Burke says.
Granted, Phaneuf has yet to help the Maple Leafs reach the playoffs. Toronto has missed the postseason for six straight years, in fact. But here's a word:
Burke showed smart restraint this summer by not caving in to the desires of rabid Leafs fans and demanding media for a big, knee-jerk trade or signing. Not that the blustery GM has ever been shy about making moves, but this year's free-agent crop was nothing to get too excited about.
Center Brad Richards was the biggest name available, and the Leafs reportedly did make him an offer, said to be six years at $42 million. (Richards accepted nine years and $60 million from the New York Rangers.) Leafs emissaries made a pilgrimage to Newport Sports, home of Richards' representatives, but Burke was in Afghanistan on July 1 paying homage to troops instead (and was called out for it by one Toronto columnist. Where were his priorities?) But everybody knew that Richards wanted to play in New York and get back with the only coach he's won a Stanley Cup with: John Tortorella. Offers from Toronto and other teams were symbolic at best.
Otherwise, there were a lot of, well...let's just call them questionable signings. Tomas Fleischmann for four years and $18 million with Florida -- really? James Wisniewski, six years and $33 million with Columbus -- seriously? Three years and $12.75 million for Tomas Kaberle in Carolina -- well, OK then, whatever works for ya.
Now the hockey 24/7 crowd in Hogtown wants Burke to tender some ridiculous offer sheet to Steven Stamkos or pull some desperate trade with Colorado for Paul Stastny. Neither will happen, and -- breathe now, Toronto, breathe -- that's OK for the Leafs.
Toronto had the fourth-best record in the Eastern Conference after the All-Star break (18-9-6) and has seen no significant departures from the roster. In fact, Burke made a nice pickup in defenseman John-Michael Liles from Colorado, signed a reliable double-digit goal-scorer in Tim Connolly, and drafted big, rugged forward Tyler Biggs, who will be a good player at some point soon.
The same critics who wanted Burke to do something big are the same ones who -- and reasonably so, perhaps -- jumped all over him for dealing what turned out to be two top-10 picks to Boston for Phil Kessel. True, that deal deserves some tough scrutiny, but let's not forget that Kessel has scored at least 30 goals in each of his two seasons in Toronto and has started to look more comfortable in a Leafs uniform as time has gone along. And he's still only 23.
With James Reimer signed to a nice new three-year contract worth $5.4 million after his promising rookie season (20-10-5, 2.60 GAA, .921 save pct.), Toronto looks good again in what has been its biggest problem area in recent years -- goaltending.
Yes, the Leafs could use another marquee-type scorer, but who couldn't? Otherwise, this is a younger team that is gradually getting there. Shortcuts via free agency rarely work in hockey. There are many more examples of big signings that have blown up in GMs' faces (Bobby Holik, anyone?).
GALLERY: Free agent busts
Burke is a man who loves action, but as he relaxed on a summer day in early July, he sounded perfectly content with his team's relative inaction.
"We believe in this group," he said.
In a word, Brian Burke's attitude can be summed up as confident.
SI Now Live Friday December 20, 2013
SI Now: Olympians on Liberty Mutual, gearing up for Sochi