The Surprise Firing of Brian Burke

In one last injustice before Brian Burke’s firing, he was never able to witness the 2013 Winter Classic. Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

The dismissal of Brian Burke by the Toronto Maple Leafs is surprising, and more details need to come to light because the circumstances seem odd, but actually it may not be the most shocking move ever made by Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment.

Burke was first brought on board in 2008 as the team’s 13th permanent general manager and the first one of American heritage. But in attempts to help strengthen the lineup of his team, he may have inadvertently boosted a fellow Northeast Division rival instead.

Consider: when Phil Kessel said he wanted out of the Boston Bruins so he could go play in what he termed a real hockey town, Burke took him under his wing, moving him from one Original Six team to another. But it cost him big time: he gave up Toronto’s first- and second-round selections at the 2010 draft and their first-round pick for 2011. These plush picks turned into Tyler Seguin, Jared Knight and Dougie Hamilton, three players who have already shown their talent at various levels.

Seguin has already won a Stanley Cup and he won’t turn 21 until the end of this month. Knight is with the very successful OHL London Knights and took a trip to the Memorial Cup tournament last year. Hamilton has won awards for his offensive prowess and is most likely going to leave his junior team behind to join the Bruins.

Sure, Kessel has done reasonably well in Toronto. He has improved his production from 55 points in 2009-10 to 82 points in 2011-12. But he doesn’t have a Stanley Cup ring, which is honestly what every general manager ever wants.

This could very well be an attempt to right the Maple Leafs ship coming out of the 2012-13 lockout. Consider the fact that the Maple Leafs actually haven’t made the playoffs at all since 2003–before the last lockout. In the post-2005 era, literally every other team in the NHL has made the playoffs at least once. Yes, even the Columbus Blue Jackets. But not the Maple Leafs, whose last sip from the Stanley Cup came in 1967, when Lester Pearson was prime minister of Canada.

Prior to the 2004-05 dark days, the Leafs were on a roll, having gone to the postseason from 1999 to 2003. But after that: nothing. This may be an attempt to clean house and try to make the best of a condensed season. With games now having more weight than ever–teams can’t afford a slump when there aren’t as many games to play at all–if the Leafs are hungry enough, they could very well try to make a run for the Cup. I remember they had a strong start last season, so strong that Maple Leafs faithful were already planning the parade in October.

Perhaps Burke was seen as a roadblock to this kind of success. Still, it is strange because he was just seen at an AHL Toronto Marlies game, traveled to Russia for the World Junior Championship and, from all accounts, it sounds like he genuinely had no idea this was coming.

Who knows what Toronto is playing at here with this move? Dave Nonis has succeeded Burke as general manager, though it is unclear whether that’s an interim or permanent appointment. Only time will tell if this works out for the Leafs.

The good news is, though, that Burke’s son Patrick has no plans to slow down or stop his advocacy efforts with the You Can Play Project. Perhaps papa Burke can be brought on in a new role.

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