Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Why Did The Toronto Maple Leafs Fire Brian Burke?

The hockey world was shocked today by the news that Toronto Maple Leafs General Manager Brian Burke had been fired, on the same day the owners ratified the new Collective Bargaining Agreement, 10 days before the shortened season is set to start. The fact that he was let go was less shocking than the timing, as there were rumblings at the end of last season that his job was in jeopardy after missing the playoffs for all 4 years of his tenure. The team came under new ownership in August, being purchased by the tandem of Rogers Communication and Bell Media (the companies that own Sportsnet and TSN).

So why did Brian Burke get fired? There has been all sorts of speculation today about what exactly happened, one popular conspiracy theory being that Burke was unwilling to acquire goaltender Roberto Luongo, though this theory is entirely speculative with no basis in fact. It is entirely plausible and possible that ownership wants Lou, who won a gold medal for Canada in the 2010 Olympics; and if Burke had decided and declared that he did not want to pull the trigger on that trade, it very well could have cost him his job.

Burkie made some mistakes since taking over the Leafs GM job. The most often talked about is the trade of 2 first round draft picks for Phil Kessel, a deal compounded by the fact that the picks turned out to be Tyler Seguin and Doug Hamilton, two future superstars. Kessel has scored 99 goals in 3 seasons in blue and white, but is also one of the NHL's worst defensive players. Burke also signed defenseman Mike Komisarek to a 5 year contract for $22M, a move that has proved to be an albatross. But while he's made some bad moves, he has also made some great moves (like acquiring Phaneuf and trading Beauchemin for Lupul and Gardiner).

Besides, if it was poor decision making that got Burke fired, why would they promote Dave Nonis to replace him? Considering that Dave Nonis was his right hand man when all those moves were made, his fingerprints are all over this roster which has repeatedly failed to make the playoffs. Nonis deserves considerable blame for the team's poor performance, so if it was that performance that led to Burke's termination, you'd think his best friend Nonis would be out the door behind him, not taking over the steering wheel.

Personally I don't think that it was bad trades, bad signings, or a Luongo conspiracy theory that cost Burke his job, I think it was his personality. This is a man whose relationship with the media can be described as cantankerous at the best of times. Burkie has what my dad would call "rabbit ears", in that he seems to read or hear everything that is written or spoken about him or his team and he has a wickedly short fuse. He is quick to get pissed off at media members, and once you've crossed Burkie, he is unlikely to forgive or forget. There's probably half a dozen guys in the Rogers Sportsnet family who are on Burkie's shit list. It's not a good thing to be rough with the media when two of the largest media conglomerates in Canada just bought your team.

Many of us believed that Brian Burke would have one more year to prove himself, to make the playoffs and ultimately achieve some level of success before getting axed. Toronto has a decent crop of prospects coming into the league, chips to move, and a chance of being good. If Burke were fired for purely performance of the product on the ice, it would likely come at the end of the season when General Managers are most often cut loose; rather than days before a compressed season. As one gentleman put it today on television (sorry I didn't recognize his face or catch his name), they might have wanted to fire him before he had a chance to save himself. If the Leafs made the playoffs or even won a playoff round this spring, it would have been more difficult to justify terminating the boss.

The most likely reason that Burke lost his job is that he frequently feuds with the hockey media and now his team is owned by the same companies who employ a substantial chunk of that media. If they fired him because they don't like his personality, now was the best time to do it. Had it been solely a matter of product performance, he would have likely received one last chance and his right hand man would not have his job right now. Nobody believes that firing Burke will make the team better this season, unless of course he had decided against the Luongo deal and TSN/Sportsnet wanted Lou at the center of the hockey universe. The Luongo conspiracy theory becomes more likely if Nonis trades for him in the next few weeks. 

It really looks like Burke got fired because he's a dick. At the press conference Dave Nonis appeared to be partially in shock, like at several moments he was fighting back tears. At times he looked pissed off. Clearly he had no idea until this morning that this move was coming.

1 comment:

  1. Completely agree about timing and reasons were for off-ice not on-ice issues. Consider this, Burkie had a reputation around the league for being a boy scout when it came to CBA stuff. No 20 year contracts, no circumvention, extra days at Christmas for trade freezes etc... Some would argue he put Toronto at a disadvantage. Regardless, the CBA comes out and low and behold - it is exactly what Brian has been complaining about for years. No more long-term contracts, no more circumvention (at least not the same old stuff). Everyone now has to play by Burke's standards. And it is at that exact moment, the exact same day, MLSE cuts him.

    I agree, it wasn't about performance, it wasn't about losing revenues, it was all about personalities. Maybe the new owners wanted to put their stamp on the team. Most likely they just think he rubs people the wrong way.

    Sad part is, in this new CBA era, Burke is the best positioned GM to work within it. Good luck to the next time to snaps him up.