Cox on NHL trade deadline: Leafs GM Brian Burke feels squeeze as pressure builds
By Damien CoxSports Columnist
Brian Burke is being squeezed.He knows it, and the teams doing the squeezing know it.
That puts Burke and the Maple Leafs, a team nosediving at the worst possible time for a club hoping to add meaningful reinforcements at reasonable prices, in a terrible bind.
Pay up? Give Columbus Jake Gardiner, two other good prospects and a first for Rick Nash?
Or say screw it, refuse to bend under the demands of other GMs salivating at the thought of being able to fleece Burke, and do nothing of importance before the trade deadline.
Save the gunpowder for another, more profitable day.
The complication there, of course, is that untouched and unimproved, this Leaf team is headed for a non-playoff finish.
After saying his team was tired in Vancouver last week after two days off, head coach Ron Wilson seemed to suggest again on Thursday after a loss to San Jose that the hockey club is running on fumes, that players must give “whatever you’ve got left in the tank.”
How can that be after only 61 games for a team that as of now is essentially 100 per cent injury-free?
There is growing public sentiment, clearly, that what Burke has built in Toronto isn’t a good, young team on the rise, but rather a fatally flawed team destined to spin its wheels in the middle of the pack for years.
Three weeks ago it was the former. Today, after seven losses in eight games, it looks like the latter, and even a win over limping Washington on Saturday night won’t change that, at least not before Monday’s trade deadline.
This is creating quite the pressure cooker around the Leafs, and don’t think other GMs don’t notice.
So they’re squeezing Burke, who suddenly is finding his record questioned in his third full season in Toronto.
Columbus is squeezing him on Nash, anybody with a spare goalie is asking for more than market value and the L.A. Kings, apparently intent on turning their roster upside down to save the season, has set some significant parameters on a deal for captain Dustin Brown.
Burke has worked so hard to accumulate depth in the organization with unproven or inexperienced players like Gardiner, Matt Frattin, Joe Colborne, Keith Aulie, Nazem Kadri and Jesse Blacker, among others, that he is now loath to parcel them off to land a big-name, expensive player.
So what’s the right move for a team that even if it makes the playoffs, isn’t going to be winning the Stanley Cup this season?
Does now suddenly matter more than later? Or is the risk of making a big play seem greater than it actually is?
Look back to the Owen Nolan almost exactly nine years ago. To get Nolan from San Jose, then GM Pat Quinn parcelled centre Alyn McCauley, prospect Brad Boyes and a first-round pick to the Sharks. That seemed to bolster a Leaf team that believed it was close to taking a run at a Cup.
Well, that didn’t happen, and Nolan did little before moving on.
But was the price paid, looking back, really that fearsome? The Sharks took Steve Bernier with the first-round pick, and he hasn’t panned out into becoming a significant NHLer. McCauley was never able to make an impact outside of Toronto. Boyes has scored goals everywhere but isn’t a front-line player.
The hockey world, and the hockey public, has become conditioned to attach enormous value to prospects and draft picks that may, in reality, far outstrip the actual value of those commodities.
That’s not to say prospects and picks don’t have value. They are assets, and the key part of hockey management is figuring out real value, not imagined and/or emotional value, when assessing trade options.
Burke is being pulled in two directions. Some, knowing the Leaf record of tossing away young players for short-term solutions, want him to avoid that old pattern at all costs.
Others want solutions now. They want Nash now. They want Brown now. They’re tired of waiting through 46 years of rebuilds and are starting to suspect this latest rebuild isn’t going anywhere either.
These are two solitudes within Leaf Nation — actually there’s a third, a delusional set that believes you could trade Kadri and a second-rounder to land Steve Stamkos — and Burke has surely learned by now he can’t make Leaf fans happy, at least not for very long.
So he’s being squeezed by all of these forces, those of his losing team, enemy GMs who know his predicament and local fans, many of whom are already complaining that the team has too many Americans and will never win built on the leadership of Dion Phaneuf and Phil Kessel.
Nice spot for a GM, huh? But this is what Burke signed on for, and it’s why he gets the big bucks.
The truth is this: When it comes to making a splashy but sensible deal before the deadline, if it’s not there, it’s not there for the Leafs.
The worst-case scenario for Burke if he does nothing is that the Leafs miss the playoffs, he fires Wilson, the team drafts in the top 10 in June, he chases down useful free agents in the summer, tries to fix the goaltending and returns next fall with all his young assets still in place and a young hockey club with potential to grow.
This is only a nightmare scenario for the Leafs if they get caught up believing it has to happen now.
It doesn’t. Getting Nash or Brown has to have a compelling logic to it beyond just making a big trade and shaking things up.
Burke’s not the type to play to his audience, to try to mollify the naysayers, and now’s not the time for that.
It doesn’t matter any longer what he said at his opening press conference or what Leaf fans believed was going to happen over the course of the past three seasons.
All that matters is what the actual situation is now. Like Bud Fox says to Gordon Gecko in Wall Street as he’s starting to turn the tables, “You once told me ‘Don’t get emotional about stock. Don’t.’”
Maybe the smartest decision is to look coldly at reality, make internal adjustments and dump players. Maybe dump Wilson now. Move Mikhail Grabovski. Sell off Clarke MacArthur. Keep all the kids and regroup.
Could be that the right move is caution, as hard as that may be for some followers of the team to take.
Prudence over action? Certainly not what Burke would prefer, either, but better that than aggression that turns into error.