Thursday, January 10, 2013

On Brian Burke: Autonomy doesn't mean No Accountability

Brian Burke didn't have to make excuses. Explaining himself would've been enough.

According to James Mirtle's excellent Globe and Mail write-up this morning on the Burke firing, MLSE's new bosses found Burke "difficult to work with" as soon as they met him. They wanted to know about the team's direction; they wanted to know why they should trust him after the Leafs had done nothing but lose during his tenure.

Burke could have explained that. A lot of people could. The cupboard was bare when he arrived: from 2003 to 2007, the Leafs had two first-round picks; the other three were traded away. The two picks that were kept were used to get Tuukka Rask and Jiri Tlusty; Burke's predecessor, John Ferguson Jr., let Rask go in a trade to get Andrew Raycroft, who had been a pretty mediocre OHL and AHL goalie before having a great rookie year in Boston.

Yet Burke did himself in by refusing to account to the MLSE board. I had the chance to hear Burke speak this time last year while the Leafs were visiting Vancouver. Burke talked about the importance of autonomy. He needed to be the one driving the bus - no meddling from above. He had seen the problems the Leafs had had before his arrival and didn't want the higher-ups meddling with hockey decisions.

In this conviction, Burke was right. He knew team-building better than an executive board. Happily for him, the bosses agreed. Burke would have final authority on all hockey decisions. It was the right way to run the team, given his wealth of experience.

Yet Burke forgot that autonomy doesn't mean that there is no accountability. He reacted brusquely when questioned by media on his decisions; he refused to explain himself but was more than happy to explain how hard his job was. According to the accounts coming out the last few days, he had a similar approach to the MLSE board. Despite the fact that he could have explained his decisions, he saw the questions from above as intrusive.

Burke had insisted that the team was capable of making the playoffs in the near term, despite the fact that its core players were past their prime and the youngsters were nothing to write home about. Burke stuck to his guns.

Burke made moves to add pieces to the team; in need of first-line scoring, he traded two first-round picks and a second-rounder for Phil Kessel, who delivered as promised, scoring 30 goals every year since his arrival. Last season, he scored 37 goals and 82 points overall, sixth-best in the NHL. Yet despite Kessel's success, the trade has been seen as a failure for Burke: the Bruins used the picks to get future stars Tyler Seguin and Dougie Hamilton.

Yet at the time the trade was made, it seemed more like an acceptable risk. The picks weren't expected to be high in the first round; the Leafs expected to make the playoffs and so the pick used to get Seguin wasn't going to be a second-overall; it was going to be a 20th overall. The Hamilton pick was supposed to be similarly late. A surprise collapse by the Leafs in 2009-10 caused the trade to go bad, not bad judgment by Burke.

Analysis of the Kessel trade at the time was favourable to Burke - it seemed like a reasonable risk to take. We shouldn't confuse the outcome with the decision: at the time, no one foresaw how valuable the picks would turn out to be. It's not fair to blame Burke with revisionist history.

And then there were injuries. Burke continued to build rosters that, on paper, had a shot at the playoffs. He started the 2011-12 season counting on James Reimer to backstop a winning team, but then Reimer got concussed. The team again missed the playoffs, though perhaps Burke could have done more to replace his goaltender and make a playoff push, or could have cleared the lineup for the first-round picks that were supposedly on offer via trade. Instead, Burke chose the middle route: stay the course, and build around the current group.

Burke could have explained all these things to his MLSE overlords. The Kessel trade, the Reimer injury - most people understand these events as containing a lot more luck than they do bad judgment on Burke's part. Yet Burke felt no need to account to anyone, because he needed to be autonomous.

I find it hard to blame Burke: he has had a lot of success as a GM in his career and shouldn't have to take a lot of the abuse he gets. He might've done well to insulate himself with someone in the 'Team President' role - the role Paul Godfrey played for a long time with the Blue Jays. The man who is best at making the hockey decisions might not be the best person to answer the questions from the corporate guys. Godfrey took on the role of translator and mediator in his role; Burke and the Leafs needed someone to do the same. Perhaps this whole mess could have been avoided if they had the foresight to do that, to have someone to stick up for Burke without disenchanting the Board.

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