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Burke's blueprint failed to see Leafs into playoffs

by Adam Kimelman

Brian Burke was brought to Toronto with the belief that he had the blueprint to build the Maple Leafs into a long-term, successful franchise. He leaves after four seasons that saw the Leafs fail to make the Stanley Cup Playoffs in any of them.

Burke was hired Nov. 29, 2008, just 17 months after he helped the Anaheim Ducks win the franchise's first Stanley Cup. At the time, the Leafs had missed the playoffs in the previous three seasons. But Burke was viewed as the man with the plan, and someone who knew exactly what was needed to turn the Leafs around.

He didn't do much in his first season as the Leafs finished 12th in the Eastern Conference. He opted to retain coach Ron Wilson and selected Nazem Kadri with the seventh pick of the 2009 NHL Draft.


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Burke also spent the season evaluating all levels of the franchise, and made the summer of 2009 a busy one. He attempted to upgrade on defense by signing expensive free agents Mike Komisarek and Francois Beauchemin, and won a battle for the rights to Swedish goalie Jonas "The Monster" Gustavsson.

Burke made an even bigger splash on Sept. 18, 2009, acquiring 30-goal scorer Phil Kessel from the Boston Bruins. The cost was high -- the Leafs had to send Boston first-round picks in 2010 and 2011, as well as a third-round pick in 2010. The Leafs also gave Kessel, a restricted free agent, a new five-year, $27 million contract.

Burke had one more big move in him, and that came on Jan. 31, 2010, when he acquired defenseman Dion Phaneuf from the Calgary Flames as part of a seven-player trade.

While Kessel had a solid 30-goal season and Phaneuf contributed on and off the ice after his arrival, Komisarek, Beauchemin and Gustavsson failed to meet expectations. The Leafs tumbled to 15th in the Eastern Conference and watched as the Bruins selected Tyler Seguin with the second pick of the 2010 draft -- one of the picks the Leafs surrendered in the Kessel deal.

Things were no better at the start of the 2010-11 season -- the Leafs were 11th in the conference at the start of February. Burke again opted to retain Wilson and dealt Beauchemin and longtime Leafs defenseman Tomas Kaberle at the trade deadline. Those moves netted Joffrey Lupul and young players Jake Gardiner and Joe Colborne, whom Burke envisioned as part of the club's future.

The present didn't look bad, either -- the Leafs went 17-9-6 after Feb. 1 to finish 10th in the conference and raise expectations for the 2011-12 season.

Among those helping lift hopes was James Reimer, who emerged from obscurity to win the starting goaltender job and earn a three-year contract extension.

Over the summer, Burke signed free agent center Tim Connolly to a two-year contract and traded for Matthew Lombardi in the hope of bolstering the team's center position, but neither they nor Kadri played like top-line skaters.

Despite frequently playing with different centers, Lupul and Kessel had All-Star seasons playing on the same line and the Leafs exploded out of the gate. On Dec. 1, 2011, they were fourth in the conference, one point behind Boston for the Northeast Division lead.

Hired by the Maple Leafs less than two years after he led the Ducks to their first Stanley Cup, general manager Brian Burke was unable to achieve a playoff berth over four seasons. (Photo: Getty Images)

With a two-game win streak going into the holiday break, Burke gave Wilson a contract extension that was announced Christmas morning.

The Leafs slipped a bit after the extension, though they climbed as high as sixth in the conference as late as Feb. 6. But a four-game losing streak followed, and on March 2, just over two months after giving Wilson an extension, Burke fired him and hired Randy Carlyle as the team's new coach.

The move didn't help -- the Leafs went 6-9-3 after the coaching change, won seven times in their final 29 games (7-18-4) and finished 13th in the conference.

After the season, Burke's wish list included upgrading in goal and finding a top-line center. He attempted to find the center in June when he acquired James van Riemsdyk from the Philadelphia Flyers for defenseman Luke Schenn. Van Riemsdyk had played left wing during his three seasons in Philadelphia, but Burke said he wanted to see van Riemsdyk start the season in the middle -- a position he played only for two seasons in college.

Burke had no interest in retaining Gustavsson and traded his rights to the Winnipeg Jets, and with Reimer playing below expectations last season, Burke said he would investigate other options. Those included a rumored interest in Vancouver Canucks goaltender Roberto Luongo.

Whether that deal happens now, Burke won't have any say. For all his moves and all the hopes he arrived with, Burke leaves the Leafs after a four-season record of 129-135-42 and zero playoff appearances.


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