Did reluctance for Luongo trade cost Burke?

January, 9, 2013
1/09/13
3:02
PM ET

The conspiracy theories will abound about Brian Burke’s GM firing Wednesday, but I believe there were a number of factors involved, not just one crystal-clear reason.

And despite the denial from Toronto Maple Leafs COO and president Tom Anselmi, I believe the last straw was Burke’s reluctance to trade for star Canucks goalie Roberto Luongo.

That’s a sentiment shared by several NHL team execs we talked to Wednesday, who believe the rest of the Leafs' front office is pro-Luongo, but Burke wasn’t sold on him.

(On a side note, expect trade talks between the Leafs and Canucks to heat up big time now that Dave Nonis is GM. Nonis acquired Luongo during his days as Vancouver's GM and has always been high on him.)

There might not have been one singular reason for his firing, but a source close to the situation told ESPN.com that the relationship between Burke and the new owners -- Bell and Rogers -- was not warm and fuzzy, and that some board members didn't appreciate Burke's bombastic style.

The decision by the MLSE board of directors to make a change was in the works before Wednesday -- perhaps in the works going back weeks.

After all, as everyone tries to uncover the conspiracy, sometimes one can’t see the forest for the trees.

Fact is, this is a team that’s been mediocre in the four-plus years Burke has been at the helm, failing to make the playoffs once, although it showed promising signs last season in holding a playoff spot until crumbling late.

Since Burke’s hiring as GM on Nov. 29, 2008, Toronto went 129-135-42, tied for 26th among the 30 NHL teams during that stretch. Also during that stretch, the Leafs ranked 30th in goals-against per game and 30th on the penalty kill.

But if there’s a signature moment that Burke was never able to distance himself from, it’s the Phil Kessel trade. The September 2009 blockbuster that sent two future first-round picks plus a second-round pick to Boston for Kessel simply has backfired to no end.

The Bruins used those picks to draft Tyler Seguin, Dougie Hamilton and Jared Knight. We already know what Seguin’s soft hands can do in the NHL, and Hamilton will be a stud on defense.

It wasn’t all bad, not at all. Burke’s acquisition of Joffrey Lupul and Jake Gardiner in February 2011 from Anaheim for Francois Beauchemin was an absolute steal for the Leafs. Burke deserves to get more credit for that deal.

Another positive from Burke's tenure was how he rebuilt the reserve list for the organization. The team has more depth from top to bottom, especially at the minor-league and junior level, than when he took over, in November 2008. No one can argue otherwise. So perhaps in three years when some of those youngsters blossom, people will look back and give Burke more credit.

Still, his inability to get Toronto over the hump -- the Leafs haven’t been in a playoff game since April 2004 -- cost him in the long run.

And as too many GMs who have taken office in Toronto have found, the incredible allure of wanting to win overnight and end the Cup drought that dates to 1967 hindered Burke’s decision-making. He wanted to win now. He didn’t want to rebuild as the Edmonton Oilers have done. He made a point of saying that publicly, that he didn’t believe in the bottoming-out, traditional rebuild.

Guess which of those two teams has a brighter future.

Still, I have a lot of time for Brian Burke. He’s an honest man. He cares about the game. He’s passionate about selling the NHL brand and, unlike some GMs, is able to think big-picture while trying to improve the game on and off the ice, and not just think about his own needs.

He’s also a Stanley Cup champion from his days as GM in Anaheim, so although Toronto will have been a major disappointment on his resume, you can’t ignore his success with the Ducks.

In the end, what I find unfair in the firing is not the fact he lost his job, but rather the timing of it.

MLSE should have either fired Burke in September if it knew this would be the outcome or -- and this is what I would have liked to have seen -- given Burke at least half of the shortened season to see if his team was finally turning the corner.

I believe Burke deserved that chance.

In the end, though, I’m not sure the result would have been any different.

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