On Wednesday afternoon, in 29 NHL markets, ownership likely paused and asked itself this question: How much do we like or trust our management team to lead us forward?
If that question was answered truthfully, the answer was probably no in at least 10 markets.
Assuming those owners are honest with themselves -- and that is a big assumption given what we know of some of them -- they should be on the phone the moment Anaheim Ducks CEO Michael Schulman sends the letter to NHL commissioner Gary Bettman announcing that GM Brian Burke is free to seek employment elsewhere, likely within the next week or two.
We are not suggesting Burke can necessarily raise the dead or walk on unfrozen ice or feed the masses. But as soon as the transition between new GM Bob Murray (Burke's longtime associate and friend) and Burke is complete, Burke will become a rare, hot property, a free-agent executive whose most recent successes include raising the near-dead Ducks to NHL prominence. He is a smart hockey man with a significant personality that would be attractive in any number of locations.
Schulman was highly complimentary of Burke's impact since coming to Anaheim in 2005: a Western Conference finals appearance in 2006, a Stanley Cup win in 2007, a trip to the playoffs this past spring, a season-ticket base through the ceiling in a market that was once considered one of the NHL's great mistakes.
"Burke developed a team our community could be proud of," Schulman said Wednesday in announcing Burke's departure and Murray's hiring.
Burke was more than a little emotional.
"I'm a little relieved," he told ESPN.com late Wednesday afternoon. "They're special people. Telling those people I didn't want to come back was hard."
Most GMs who are looking for work are doing so because something went off the rails, meaning they come with at least a modicum of baggage or failed on some levels at their previous job. Burke leaves behind mostly good feelings in Anaheim and an immediate legacy of success.
There are cap issues and a passel of potential unrestricted free agents, but Murray takes over a team with a decent farm system, a formidable defensive unit, and two of the top young players in the game in Corey Perry and Ryan Getzlaf.
One of the reasons Burke is no longer with the Ducks is his desire to be closer to his four children from his first marriage, who live in the Boston area. He also would like to help his current wife, Jennifer, further her television career. He has two small children (ages 2½ and 4½) with Jennifer. Those factors will be key in determining where Burke lands next, so you can rule out anything west of the Central time zone.
But know this, Burke will land and land as quickly as he wants. He said he'd like to be working in his next role, whatever that might be, by Thanksgiving. "Certainly in the next 30 days," he said.
At Wednesday's news conference in Anaheim, Burke declined to discuss where he might end up, saying this was Murray's day. He acknowledged that someone had suggested he would be a highly sought-after commodity.
"But I don't know. I don't know what's out there. I don't know what's next," he said.
Burke recalled being a rookie GM in Vancouver when Glen Sather became available. He likened it to being on the beach and knowing there was a great white shark in the water. He said he hopes his decision to leave Anaheim won't adversely affect another GM, but it frankly is almost certain that is exactly what will happen.
Here's a primer on where that might be:
New York Rangers
A source familiar with the principals told ESPN.com on Wednesday that he thinks longtime manager Sather might be looking to step aside as GM of the Rangers. Sather and Burke are close friends and just returned from a hunting trip before the Hockey Hall of Fame induction ceremonies they attended Monday night in Toronto.
"They spend a lot of time together," the source said.
Sather has done it all, from winning Stanley Cups to winning Canada Cups. "His legacy is cemented," the source said.
Although many point to Toronto as the mecca of hockey markets, the Rangers and New York represent a distinct destination for a person such as Burke. The Rangers are a competitive team that should make the playoffs for the fourth straight season since the lockout. Yet they have been missing something that makes them a legitimate Stanley Cup threat. Could Burke find the missing pieces the way he did in Anaheim?
Toronto Maple Leafs
Sure, everyone knows the Leafs have been interested in Burke for months now, and in many ways, it's the perfect fit given all the things Burke would like to accomplish with this move -- being close to his family and seeing his wife find suitable employment. But rumblings out of Toronto suggest that ship might have sailed.
Cliff Fletcher, no longer tabbed as the "interim" GM, has brought in Al Coates, who worked with Burke in Anaheim, and former player Joe Nieuwendyk. Doug Gilmour is also part of the organization now. Is there room for Burke, too? Richard Peddie, the team's president and CEO, will have his contract end next summer, and there is a strong belief Peddie will not be returned to that post. If that's the case, will Peddie, who is part of the team's search committee, be allowed by ownership to make such an important hire?
Peddie confirmed to ESPN.com's Pierre LeBrun on Wednesday that Fletcher isn't in the mix long term, and the search for a full-time GM was expected to resume next spring, presumably when candidates might be available after the end of the regular season.
"When I get back to Toronto, I'll chat with some of my board members and decide our next steps," Peddie told LeBrun.
The problem in Toronto is that almost all the franchise's plans end up falling to pieces because there is next to no consensus, from the top of the organization down, on which direction the Original Six franchise should take. Even if Burke is the best candidate for the job, getting from here to there is a veritable minefield and shouldn't be considered a foregone conclusion.
The Blackhawks are on the crest of a significant renaissance in Chicago, suddenly relevant after years of being a joke. Multiple sources have said there is an unease between new president John McDonough and GM Dale Tallon. The Blackhawks already have made a number of dramatic personnel moves in recent months, bringing in legendary coach Scotty Bowman as an adviser, then firing coach Denis Savard four games into this season. The team is playing well and has the potential to do more than simply qualify for the postseason. Yet, it is not beyond the realm of possibility that the chance to bring in a top manager such as Burke would be attractive to ownership. It might not be fair to Tallon, who has assembled an enviable cast of young players, but sometimes the game is anything but fair.
Ownership remains in a state of dysfunction in Atlanta, but if anything rouses the powers that be from said dysfunction, it might be the appearance of Burke on the marketplace. When the Thrashers came into existence, Burke was a finalist for the GM job that ultimately was given to Don Waddell (Burke then took the GM post in Vancouver).
The Thrashers face a series of significant decisions moving forward, not least of which is what to do with star Ilya Kovalchuk, who can become an unrestricted free agent after the 2009-10 season, and No. 1 netminder Kari Lehtonen, who will become a restricted free agent next summer and is injured once again. The team has played well of late under rookie coach John Anderson, but its problems are many and deep-seated, including that the Thrashers have never won a playoff game and that the season-ticket base has dwindled to a few thousand.
At one point this past spring, it looked as though Waddell would be moved to a front-office position away from hockey operations. This might be the perfect time to revisit such a plan if ownership wants to pay what would be significant freight to help move the organization forward.
Speaking of franchises with myriad problems, is there a worse team from top to bottom in the NHL? We suggest not. But if owner Alan Cohen ever wanted to turn this tub around, he should be on the phone to Burke at the earliest opportunity. With all due respect to GM Jacques Martin, he is ill-qualified to do the job, and the team's moribund performance so far this season (14th in the Eastern Conference as of Wednesday) suggests yet another year without playoffs in a market where the team already has laid off staff because of the economy.
The Panthers must decide what to do with top defenseman Jay Bouwmeester, who will become an unrestricted free agent at the end of this season; and, after the team botched the June 2006 trade of franchise netminder Roberto Luongo, this stands as a seminal moment in the team's history. Which would you rather have pulling the trigger on such a deal: Martin, who was forced to become a GM after failing as a coach, or Burke? Asked and answered.
Tampa Bay Lightning
Burke said Wednesday that he would rather be involved in personnel decisions, suggesting he wants to remain a GM somewhere as opposed to being an adviser or team president. But if we were the owners of the Lightning and wanted to bring some instant stability to a franchise that has struggled to maintain just that since its ownership change, maybe Burke would be a welcome presence -- if only for a finite period of time. Burke, of course, is GM of the U.S. Olympic hockey team for the 2010 Games in Vancouver. Maybe a role as an adviser with the Lightning, a team that has a lot of moving parts but has yet to find much in the way of cohesion, would dovetail nicely with Burke's work as the molder of the U.S. Olympic squad.
How would that be for irony? Burke's Ducks beat the Bryan Murray-coached Ottawa Senators in the 2007 Stanley Cup finals, a series that cost then-Ottawa GM John Muckler his job. Murray, who succeeded Muckler as GM in Ottawa and preceded Burke as GM in Anaheim, has his hands full in Ottawa with cap issues and depth of talent. Owner Eugene Melnyk is a mercurial sort, and Burke might be right up his alley. Again, not necessarily fair, but eminently possible for a team that looks to be life and death to make the playoffs.
Scott Burnside covers the NHL for ESPN.com.