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New era indeed under way in Toronto

by Phil Coffey /
When change takes place in sports, it always is fashionable to describe it as "the dawn of a new era."

In the case of Brian Burke taking over as president and general manager of the Toronto Maple Leafs, however, this is no cliché. Burke comes to Toronto with a mandate to make the Leafs into Stanley Cup contenders, and he has the hockey acumen to accomplish what has been fallen into the realm of "lofty goal" in recent years. Know that Burke isn't looking for the Leafs to be contenders. His sights are set on becoming Stanley Cup champs, a title last seen in Toronto in 1967.

Being realistic, the Leafs are not contenders this season, nor will they be for the immediate future. But Burke is a man with a plan and has the results to prove there is plenty of method behind his often blustery ways.

So, what can Leafs fans expect now that the most important piece of the team's rebuilding efforts -- Burke -- is in place? At first glance, probably not a lot. Burke will need time to assess what is in place already and decide what needs to be done next. Roaring in willy-nilly and trading players is not likely the first move since Burke is well aware that his compatriots in the NHL GMs club will be more than willing to offer an anchor rather than a lifeline at this point.

During John Ferguson Jr.'s tenure as Leafs GM, there was prevalent perception that he encountered plenty of interference and opposition on assorted moves within the boardrooms of Maple Leafs Sports and Entertainment. Rest assured, Burke will not operate under those kinds of shackles, either real or perceived. This is his show and it will play out as he mandates. He is no shrinking violet, to be sure.

"Yeah, he's brash and in your face," Anaheim defenseman Chris Pronger said. "He has a temper and he loves an argument. But he practices what he preaches. He's a great guy to play for. He always has your back and is always looking out for the best interest of the team. You are going to know where he stands. If you're on the trade block, he will tell you. If he tried to trade you and there were no takers, he'll tell you."

Burke is as tuned in as an NHL general manager, but there is no better way to assess a situation than having boots on the ground. So any long-distance plan Burke may have envisioned will be confirmed or changed by what he sees up close and personal in the coming days.

Cliff Fletcher, the interim GM for the Leafs, already did a lot of the heavy lifting, dealing away veterans like Bryan McCabe and Darcy Tucker and the salary-cap eating contracts they hold.

“Even having the courage to move some of the players out of here, only Cliff really would have been able to do. I think he has done a masterful job,” Wilson told The National Post. “And he is a joy to be around, and hopefully he still has a big involvement with the team.”

Burke may well decide there are more players to follow out the door, but for the short term, he will rely on his own eyes and the advice of Wilson, his former college teammate, who already has had his boots on the ground since the summer and surely has come up with an opinion or two on the matter.

"I know Brian a lot better than anyone else probably except for his wives to be honest with you," Wilson told reporters. "(We) go back 35 years. I know that's how Brian is - very open to discussion, and that's what I'm looking forward to."

There has been speculation that David Nonis, his former assistant with the Vancouver Canucks, will soon join the Leafs' front office. Still that type of additions don't necessarily mean that Fletcher will not play a role or that other front office figures like Joe Nieuwendyk and Jeff Jackson will be pushed aside. Burke values opinions and discussion.

"Brian will bring a lot of jump into the building," said David McNab, who was in place in Anaheim when Burke joined the Ducks and remained an important voice under Burke. "He brings his personality to the team. He puts his stamp on the team. He's such a confident person, who takes control of every situation. There will no disputing who is in charge. He knows what he wants to do and he knows how he wants to do it. And he listens. He wants to hear what you have to say. He wants to surround himself with good people."

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