It’s not every day that you are reminded how firmly Brian Burke is in charge of the Toronto Maple Leafs.
But then come days like Monday.
In a press-conference remarkable, even for Burke, for its candor the Leafs GM announced the replacement of two assistant coaches to spur an improving lineup. He has put coach Ron Wilson on the clock by declining to re-up him in the final year of his contract but stressed a good start will bring more talks.
“I don’t think anyone can question my loyalty to Ron. Last fall when we had a tough start, people clamoured for a change and I didn’t make one but I don’t believe that extends to an extension. I told him if we had a good start that would be something we would address very early on.”
The two new coaches, Greg Cronin and former Islanders’ boss Scott Gordon have connections to Burke and Wilson through Team USA. Both were interviewed and chosen by Wilson after Burke informed him he wanted two new men.
Burke compared the move to the turnover among NFL assistants.
“Management thinks the head coach still has the room but they change coaches. They believe let’s change the voices in the room, change the approach. Let’s freshen it up. That’s what we are doing today.”
Certainly, there can be doubt of heightened expectations as the Maple Leafs go into Friday’s draft a deal or two from a roster that should see their streak of seasons without a playoff end at six.
The message to the players is Ron Wilson is coaching this team and as a group we have to do better. If it doesn’t impart some urgency to the players I would be surprised.
Burke was careful to reinforce that while the move was a shot across the bow for the hockey operations, there were no signals that Wilson had lost the confidence of his players.
“There are signs when a coach loses his team. The first thing are the snipers, unnamed players who take shots at the coach. That hasn’t happened.
“The second one is the agents. They complain bitterly. If they think a coaching change is in order, you hear it hourly. There hasn’t been one phone call since I’ve been there. None of the symptoms that usually appear are there. Ron Wilson has proven that he deserves to coach this team in the fall.”
Burke enters Friday’s first day of the entry draft without a clear idea on whether his efforts to land a top six centre or depth defenceman will take root. He said he has spoken with GMs not only with an eye of moving the 25th, 30th and 39th pick to move up but of possibly involving a pick in a deal for immediate help.
“My phone bill could feed a small country but I have no idea if I can pull anything off before the draft. I don’t know what’s going to happen. I could go back upstairs and make a trade and I could have nothing until after the draft.”
Burke, who engineered three separate deals to land the Sedins a decade ago said there are a baffling array of complications in front of him.
“There are more moving parts. Usually when I am working for a trade at the draft I am working on one deal. I have good sense whether it’s going to happen and I stay on that deal whether it happens or not. This one we have several lines in the water. It’s not unusual but it’s not my modus aperendi."
The most coveted free agent is centre Brad Richards but at 31, Richards is thought to be seeking a long-term contract. Burke, who has never signed a player for longer than five years is opposed to lengthy front-loaded deals .
“It’s the contracts where the compensation paid late in the contract is a fraction of what is paid early. I don’t believe those players are going to complete those contracts and if that’s the case then it’s cap circumvention.”
Burke was more flexible when asked about trading for a player who had that kind of contract.
“I still object in principle. I guess at the end of the day and the league said the contract was ok, I guess I would think about it.”
Burke said he expects salary arbitration for winger Clarke MacArthur
but held out the caveat that if the arbitration award was too high, the club would look at walking away.
The Leafs, Burke said, had enough cap space to repel an opposing team seeking to poach restricted free agent Luke Schenn
. As for making an offer for a restricted free agent, Burke was, as usual, unequivocal: “I don’t think we will be making any offer sheets,” he said.
Finally, Burke dismissed the notion of signing former Leaf Tomas Kaberle as a free agent.
“I think we’ve seen that movie. I’m glad Tomas got his name on the Cup and that his play improved in the final. Good for him. “