There aren’t a ton of words that can be used to describe former Maple Leaf GM Brian Burke’s time in Toronto. Damaging, disastrous, disappointing and discouraging are a few that come to mind.
When Burke took over the role of General Manager on November 29th, 2008, the Leafs were coming off of three consecutive years out of the playoffs after the lockout of 2004-05, and found themselves out of a playoff spot 23 games into the 08-09 campaign with just 8 wins.
With the hiring of Burke came hope. Their previous full-time GM, John Ferguson Jr. (Cliff Fletcher served as the interim briefly) made some good moves for the team, but was remembered for his blunders. Some of those included signing Jason Blake, trading a package of draft picks for Vesa Toskala, and no one could forget his 1-for-1 deal of Tuukka Rask for Andrew Raycroft. Burke had found a ton of success as the Vancouver GM from 1998-2004, and then won a Stanley Cup with the Anaheim Ducks in 2007. He had the reputation of a no nonsense, take charge type of guy who would get what he wanted.
Looking back on his time in Leaf-land now, Burke made a ton of good moves. A few of those include acquiring Dion Phaneuf from Calgary, James van Riemsdyk from Philadelphia, and Jake Gardiner from Anaheim. However, the bad outweighed the good, and the results showed on the ice. His idea that his team needed to play with “proper levels of pugnacity, testosterone, truculence and belligerence” was more suitable for the big physical teams of the 2000s, and not for where the game was trending with speed and skill.
With that, here are Burke’s 20 worst moves as GM of the Leafs.
20 The Brandon Saad Draft Pick
When a deal that involved nothing but draft picks looks bad after-the-fact, it’s usually more indicative of poor drafting from a team’s staff as a whole rather than a bad deal made by the GM. However, in September of 2009, the Leafs acquired a 2010 2nd rounder from Chicago in exchange for a 2011 2nd and 3rd, and one of those picks ended up being a prominent player.
The pick acquired by Toronto was ultimately sent elsewhere in a trade to be discussed later, but Chicago’s 2nd rounder ended up being used on Brandon Saad, who played a critical role in the Blackhawks’ 2013 and 2015 Stanley Cup titles.
While the Leafs couldn’t have known they could’ve landed a player like Saad with the pick they traded, it ended up not working out in their favor.
19 Re-signing John-Michael Liles
When Burke traded a 2nd round pick for mobile defenceman John-Michael Liles, it was looked at as a good trade for Toronto, though many didn’t like the fact that Burke continued to empty the Leafs’ draft cupboard. The 2nd rounder Colorado drafted with the pick never materialized, but some of the players taken shortly after (and thus the Leafs could have had) include Colton Parayko, Shayne Gostisbehere and Matt Murray.
Liles was solid in his first year in Toronto, 3rd among Leaf defenders with 27 points, and was rewarded with a 4-year, $15.5 million extension.
This contract ended up being a burden, as Liles quickly fell out of favor with the Leafs, being waived in 2013 and subsequently sent down to the AHL.
Ultimately, after Burke left, Liles was traded for Tim Gleason, who ended up being bought out and hampered Toronto’s salary cap.
18 Trading Away Nik Antropov
Despite right winger Nikolai Antropov being on an expiring contract and the trade not looking bad at the time, the return for the native of Kazakhstan ended up being next to nothing.
With his two-year deal with the Leafs coming to an end, and Burke and co. not wanting to let one of their top scoring assets walk for nothing, he was dealt to the New York Rangers in exchange for a 2nd round pick in the upcoming 2009 draft and a conditional pick in 2010 (that wasn't used). Though it doesn't seem like a bad return, Antropov was coming off a career-high 26-goal, 56-point season, and had 46 in 63 games so far that year (60-point pace). That's probably worth a 1st rounder.
The 2nd round pick ended up being used on Kenny Ryan, who never broke into the league, and the Leafs ultimately got nothing out of the trade.
17 Signing Mike Komisarek
Mike Komisarek was the type of player Brian Burke loved. Big, physical, in-your-face. So it was no surprise that he signed him the first chance he got on July 1st, 2009, inking him to a massive 5-year deal worth $4.3 million annually. The Leafs were expected to be a factor in Komisarek’s first year, but they were awful.
In the three years Komisarek played for the team, he contributed 17 points, about 1.32 points per-million dollars he was paid, and was a combined minus-30.
In his fourth season, he played four games before being placed on waivers, and was subsequently sent to the minors and then released on a compliance buy-out. Yikes.
16 Ron Wilson Contract Extension
Since being hired to coach the Leafs in the summer of 2008, Ron Wilson hadn’t had much success. The team was pretty bad in 08-09, horrible in 09-10, and slightly improved but still not playoff caliber in 10-11.
With Wilson being a close friend of Burke it’s no surprise he hadn’t been fired yet, and after a successful first few months of the 11-12 season, Burke hands Wilson a contract at Christmas.
With no real, tangible success in his first three years in Toronto, an extension based solely off of a good couple months was a suspect move at best.
Not long after, the ’18-wheeler’, as Burke famously put it, went off a cliff, the Leafs went on a 1-9-1 stretch, and their surefire spot in the post-season evaporated. Wilson was fired, and while the extension didn’t hurt the Leafs long-term, it was a terrible move by Burke.
15 The Lee Stempniak Trade
This one looks much worse than it actually was due to a move made prior to Burke joining the Leafs. Not long before he joined the team, with Cliff Fletcher acting as interim GM, Toronto moved out Alex Steen and Carlo Colaiacovo to St. Louis in exchange for Lee Stempniak.
This was a terrible trade for Toronto, as Steen has developed into a reliable top-6 forward, Colaiacovo had numerous solid seasons in the league, and too much stock was put in one 27-goal season by Stempniak.
So when Burke moved Stempniak to Arizona for Matt Jones and a pair of low draft picks, the move looked much worse when it was taken into account that overall, Toronto sent Steen and Colaiacovo away for nothing.
14 Alexei Ponikarovsky Dealt Away For Scrubs
Like Antropov, Alexei Ponikarovsky's 3-year contract was coming to an end during the 2009-10 season, and to avoid letting him walk for nothing, the Leafs made a deal to get some value.
Coming off a career-high 23-goal, 61-point season, Ponikarovsky should've fetched a fair price, but all they received was prospect Luca Caputi and veteran defenceman Martin Skoula from Pittsburgh for the native of Kiev, Ukraine.
There was some hope that Caputi could be a top-9 forward, scoring 92 points in 120 career AHL games and having a solid physical presence, but he never panned out. Skoula was at the tail end of his career and was traded the next day for a pick (which turned out to be Sam Carrick, who currently plays in the AHL).
13 Trading Pavel Kubina
One of Burke’s trades that often flies under the radar due to the magnitude some of his others moves had on the team’s future is the move that sent defenseman Pavel Kubina to Atlanta. While the deal didn’t have repercussions that would haunt the Leafs years down the line, it was a really terrible move at the time.
After back-to-back 40-point seasons, establishing himself as a legit top-4 D-man, Burke dealt Kubina and journeyman Tim Stapleton to the Thrashers in exchange for bruising defenseman Garnet Exelby and forward Colin Stuart.
Essentially, Burke opted to deal their top scoring d-man for two guys who would play minor roles on the team, but would bring some physicality. Stuart never ended up played for Toronto, while Exelby only appeared in 51 games and scored 4 points with the the Leafs.
12 Giving Jimmy Hayes Away For A 2nd Rounder
Before ever playing a game for the Leafs, 2008 2nd round pick Jimmy Hayes was traded to Chicago in exchange for a 2nd rounder in the 2010 draft. Though Hayes had shown promise at Boston College, scoring 35 points in 42 games during the previous season, Burke clearly wanted someone specifically during that 2010 draft and figured he would turn out better than Hayes.
That ended up being Brad Ross, taken 43rd, who was a prolific junior scorer who was also known as an agitator (averaging 73 points and 179 PIM over his last three years of junior). However, Ross never worked out, spending three years split between the Marlies and ECHL before heading overseas.
Hayes isn't a premier NHL player by any stretch of the imagination, but he has proved he can play at that level, unlike Ross. He even scored 19 goals with Florida in 2014-15.
11 Signing Tim Connolly
In the summer of 2011, Burke signed former Buffalo center Tim Connolly to a 2-year contract worth $4.75 million per season. Connolly was without a doubt a skilled player, scoring 65 points in 09-10, but was prone to injuries and looked to be on the decline with a dip down to 42 points in 10-11.
In his first year with the team he continued to slowly drop in production, scoring 36 points in 70 games, and was placed on waivers prior to the lockout shortened campaign the next year. He ended up playing 28 games with the Marlies in the AHL that year before calling it a career.
While this signing didn’t give the Leafs issues down the road, Connolly was nowhere near worth what he made for those two seasons.
10 Trading Viktor Stalberg
A few days after the draft in 2010, Burke made another deal with Chicago, trading away three players in exchange for speedy winger Kris Versteeg and prospect Bill Sweatt.
Versteeg was a proven scorer in the league, with 97 combined points over the two previous seasons, but he never really panned out in Toronto. He had a bit of success playing with Phil Kessel, but ended up being traded away during his only year with the Leafs for a pair of draft picks.
The only significant piece that went the other way to Chicago was Viktor Stalberg, who had size, speed and some skill. He ended up being a solid player for the Blackhawks, including a 43-point season in 2011-12, and won the Stanley Cup with them in 2013. He stuck around in the NHL up until 2017-18, and could've been a useful player in Toronto's bottom six for the last number of years.
9 Trading Jiri Tlusty
A 1st round pick of the Leafs in 2006, Czech winger Jiri Tlusty hadn’t established himself as a legitimate NHL player through two seasons in the organization, but had shown promise. He only had 20 points in 72 games, but was a point-per-game player in the AHL.
Burke ending up giving up on him just over a year after being hired, dealing him to Carolina for Philippe Paradis in 2009, who the Canes picked 27th overall a few months prior. Projected to be a defensive center with some offensive upside, Paradis played 4 games with the Marlies before he was traded elsewhere eight months later.
Tlusty, on the other hand, ended up being a competent scorer in the league for a few seasons, including scoring at a 39-goal pace (23 in 48 games) during the lockout shortened 2012-13 campaign.
8 Claiming Martin Gerber
One of the more puzzling and out of the blue moves by Burke, he claimed goaltender Martin Gerber off waivers from Ottawa on March 4, 2009. Already safely out of the playoff race and in contention for a top-5 pick in the draft, the Leafs shouldn’t have been making any moves to improve their results for the remainder of the season.
But that’s just what Burke did, and Gerber played solid with a 6-5 record. Had he left the roster as it was, the Leafs would have likely lost an additional game or two, and would have been able to select 5th instead of 7th.
While getting Nazem Kadri at 7th was a steal, had they lost another game they could’ve gotten Oliver Ekman-Larsson, who is one of the top defenseman in the game today.
7 Anaheim Trades/Poor Drafting
Burke got the better of his former team in Anaheim multiple times, including scooping Jake Gardiner from them and getting rid of Vesa Toskala and Jason Blake, but they burned him in the draft.
During the 2011 draft, Burke picked up the 22nd overall pick from the Ducks in exchange for the 30th and 39th picks, in order to ensure he got 6’2, 220-pound winger Tyler Biggs. Biggs fit the Burke mold, being big and physical, but never played a single game in the league. With the two picks from the Leafs, Anaheim got Rickard Rakell (13th most goals in the league over the past two years) and John Gibson, their starting goalie.
The next day, the Leafs traded their 6th rounder for Anaheim’s 6th rounder the next season. Though it seemed harmless, the Ducks got Josh Manson with that pick, their top scoring defenseman last year.
6 Hiring Randy Carlyle
As the Maple Leafs collapsed towards the end of the 2011-12 season, Burke fired coach Ron Wilson and hired former Duck coach Randy Carlyle.
With the game trending towards speed and skill, Burke went with an old-school coach who relied more on physicality and a defense-first approach. Carlyle had a history of being unable to coach teams to strong possession numbers, and that continued with the Leafs. They were all-around pretty horrendous, and other than their success in the lockout shortened 12-13 season (due in part to luck), never performed well under Carlyle.
While Burke and Carlyle had similar mentalities in terms of how a team should play, the Leafs never iced a lineup capable of performing that way and the results were real bad.
5 Signing Brett Lebda
Another disastrous signing, Burke inked defenseman Brett Lebda to a two-year, $2.9 million dollar deal in the summer of 2010. While this signing was very questionable at the time, it was rationalized that Lebda would act as a stop-gap on the blueline as the team tried to get rid of Tomas Kaberle and Jeff Finger while still allowing their prospects time to develop.
The one game that summed up his performance in Toronto came on January 7th, 2011, when the Leafs beat Atlanta 9-3. Lebda somehow went -3, worse than any of the Thrashers, in only 10:54 of even-strength ice time.
After 4 points in 41 games, he was traded to Nashville in the summer in a trade that was actually good for the Leafs, so that was about all of the value he brought to the team.
4 Signing Francois Beauchemin
In the summer of 2009, Burke made two significant free agent signings, one of them being defenseman Francois Beauchemin.
Thought of as a stable, veteran presence on the back-end, along with being a proven winner, the signing of Beauchemin got Leaf fans very excited. His deal was 3-years at $3.8 million per-season, but he never ended up living up to the billing.
This big signing put the Leafs, a team 12 points out of the playoffs the previous season, into win-now mode, giving Burke more confidence to go out and spend draft picks for short-term fixes. This didn’t work out well, as the Leafs went winless in their first eight games and ultimately finished 29th in the league.
After a season and a half of sub-par play (for his ability), Beauchemin was traded back to Anaheim in a deal that landed the Leafs Jake Gardiner, which was the biggest positive from signing Beauchemin.
3 Signing Colby Armstrong
In the off-season after their tumultuous 2009-10 season, Burke continued to press forward with the intent of building the Leafs into a contender, rather than rebuilding, signing winger Colby Armstrong to a 3-year, $9 million dollar deal.
This is a great example of one of the times Burke vastly overpaid for a guy on the free agent market, as Armstrong had proven to be a solid top-9 forward but not one worth that kind of money. After scoring 22 and 15 goals in the previous two seasons, Armstrong continued to regress with 8 in his first year with the Leafs and then just one in 29 games the next.
He was bought out that summer, and was a burden on the Leafs salary cap for a few extra seasons.
2 Trading Anton Stralman
A trade often forgotten about, Burke continued his string of poor moves in the summer of 2009 with the trade of Anton Stralman to Calgary. Granted, Stralman had spent half of the previous season in the AHL, but he had shown some promise with 13 points in 38 games with the big club.
Burke ended up dealing him, along with Colin Stuart and a 7th rounder, for Wayne Primeau and a 2nd rounder (that they traded away and ended up being Brandon Saad). Primeau was a 33-year-old veteran, who was a bottom-six player at best. He scored eight points for Toronto that year in what was his final NHL season.
Stralman took some time to develop, spending time with Columbus and the Rangers before signing with Tampa Bay in 2014. Since heading south he’s been a reliable two-way defender for the Lightning, combining for 113 points and a +68 rating in four years.
1 Trading For Phil Kessel
One of the most controversial trades in recent memory, Burke aggressively pulled the trigger in acquiring winger Phil Kessel from the Boston Bruins in September of 2009. This was kind of the cherry on top of his 2009 off-season.
There’s no debating the ability of Kessel. He’s continually proven to be one of the top offensive players in the NHL for years. It’s what Burke gave up for him that’s the issue. He traded the Leafs’ 2010 1st and 2nd round picks, along with their 2011 1st round pick. Things got much worse when the Leafs were very bad the next two years and Boston picked Tyler Seguin (2nd) and Dougie Hamilton (9th) in the 1st round of the next two drafts.
Boston ended up making a few bad moves themselves, and neither player is on the Leafs’ divisional rival anymore which takes out the sting a little, but the long-term effect was rough. Kessel was dealt to Pittsburgh, and Toronto essentially has Kasperi Kapanen to show for what could’ve been Seguin and Hamilton (along with a pick used to acquire Freddy Andersen).
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