With Canada Day having passed us by, I was considering allowing the long weekend to go by without commenting on the lack of activity in Leafland. While I am a huge fan of what Brian Burke and the Leafs did not do this weekend, my frustration and anger were awakened by an absolutely ridiculous article published by Mark Spector over on Sportsnet.ca. I suggest you save yourself some time and completely avoid reading this trash. However for the sake of this post I will highlight some of the most absurd areas of this piece.
The first thing that caught my attention from Spector was this
Burke’s problem isn’t his whereabouts. It’s his production.
If, a year ago, he came away from free agency with more than the anemic Tim Connolly, his military visit wouldn’t have been mentioned. Connolly had 36 points and the Leafs were brutal last season.
Yes, Tim Connolly did have a bad season, but who would Spector have wanted Burke to acquire last season instead? Connolly was signed to a team friendly two year $9.5 million dollar deal. Who was the alternative, Ville Leino (6 years $27 million)? Joel Ward (4 years $12 million)? Erik Cole (4 years $18 million)? Scottie Upshall (4 years $16 million)? It’s simple to accuse Burke of striking out on Brad Richards, but so did the Calgary Flames, Tampa Bay Lightning and Philadelphia Flyers. There was one big fish last season and truth be told Burke didn’t feel confident offering a 31 year old centre with a concussion history a 9 year $60 million dollar contract. Can anyone really blame him for that? Spector points out that Burke failed to land Richards. What Spec doesn’t mention though is that Burke is adamant in not front loading a deal the way the Rangers did for Richards ($24 million in the first two seasons). This refusal to front load is also a strong belief shared by Ray Shero and the Pittsburgh Penguins, yet I hardly hear any criticism of that management team. It’s easy for Spector to attack Burke’s inability to acquire the ‘big fish’ but if your top misses are Richards and Ilya Kovalchuk I for one am happy that the Leafs decided to search elsewhere. Burke cannot create a market, and the fact is that most UFA’s are re-signed by their organization before they hit the market. Connolly was the next best centre available after Richards and the Leafs made the right move in landing him. What annoys me about Spector’s article isn’t the fact that he criticizes Burke, but that he does so by providing selective information.
The Heart of Stupidity
The main point of Spector’s feature though hinged on College free agent prospect Justin Schultz selecting the Edmonton Oilers over the Toronto Maple Leafs:
This year Burke swung and missed on Justin Schultz. Sure, lots of teams missed out on Schultz, but Toronto isn’t lots of teams. They needed him more than everyone else, perhaps even Edmonton.
Once again I disagree with Spector on this point. I really came away confused actually. Why do the Leafs need Schultz more than the Oilers? Let’s look at the depth charts of the two teams:
Dion Phaneuf Ryan Whitney
Carl Gunnarsson Nick Schultz
Jake Gardiner Cam Barker
John-Michael Liles Ladislav Smid
Cody Franson Andy Sutton
Mike Komisarek Theo Peckham
Schultz was attractive because he was free and a no risk move. However signing him was never the top priority for Burke and the Leafs. Unless Schultz is a proven, elite goaltender then he wasn’t a must for the blue and white. To claim that the Leafs needed him more than Edmonton is absolutely confusing to me.
According to Spector when making his final decision:
Schultz stood back, took a long look at Burke’s rebuild, and took a pass.
Is it not more likely that the veteran of zero NHL games glanced at the two depth charts listed above and came to the conclusion that he had a far more likely opportunity to play big minutes for the Oilers than the Leafs? Think what you want about the Leafs blueline there is no disputing that it is better than Edmonton’s. Of course the Leafs also have a plethora of blueline prospects – Korbinian Holzer, Jesse Blacker, Stuart Percy, Morgan Rielly and Matt Finn – waiting in the wings with which Schultz would have had to compete with both this fall and for the foreseeable future for ice time in Toronto.
I’d actually argue that Schultz’s decision to go to Edmonton over Toronto works against Spectors argument. According to Schultz:
“I know (Gardiner) wanted to play with me again, but it wasn’t about that. (Edmonton) is the best fit for me,” said Schultz.
Yes, the best fit for the prospect was to go to a team that didn’t have as much competition on the backend. There were no guarantees that Schultz would have outplayed some of the Leafs veterans and other prospects whereas in Edmonton – considering the poor depth on the blueline – Schultz will be the main guy to carry the mail.
Spector then goes on to say that:
It was about how he assessed his chances of winning, on a team that he could also play a big role on immediately. Schultz held Burke’s team up next to a franchise that has finished 30th, 30th and 29th in the past three seasons, and said, “I’ll take Edmonton, thanks.”
For Spector to honestly make assumptions that Schultz actually believed Edmonton was closer to winning this season than the Leafs is the opposite of journalistic integrity. So, a college free agent who has never played a single game in the NHL believes that he can play a big role on turning a terrible hockey team into a winning organization quickly? Is Spector high? Did he write this while drunkenly watching Canada Day fireworks? Perhaps the Oilers with elite young pieces in Taylor Hall, Ryan Nugent Hopkins, Jordan Eberle can become a dynasty in time, but none of them have outproduced Phil Kessel. If Schultz was so strict in his beliefs of winning quickly wouldn’t a more developed Leafs roster that plays in an easier conference than Edmonton make more sense?
Throughout his tenure with the Leafs Burke has acquired College and European free agents ad nauseum – Tyler Bozak, Christian Hanson, Brayden Irwin, Symon Gysbers, Jonas Gustavsson, Ben Scrivens, Jussi Rynnas and Spencor Abbot – to little or no fanfare. In fact Burke has been critiqued and laughed at by many members of the main stream media for these signings. And yet, Burke fails to sign one of these individuals and there are articles written about him losing his edge? Criticize the current Leafs GM for his faults, we all know there are many. There is no need for Spector to conjure fictional faults for the fiery Irishman.
The truth is that the climate for free agency has altered dramatically during Burke’s tenure with the blue and white. While he may have misread the market in this regard, Burke has certainly and undisputedly restocked an absolutely bare Leafs organization to the point that free agents assess the depth and competition and decide to sign elsewhere. Are the Oilers ahead of the Leafs in terms of a rebuild? Perhaps, but who said it was a race? It’s easy to look at the high draft picks the Oilers have made and envision them being a force for years to come. I can ensure one thing, the Oilers will not be a Stanley Cup threat for at least two years, and by that point they will have had to re-sign most of their elite RFA’s. The Oilers window to win a championship is similar to the proposed impact of Schultz in the NHL, they’re both dreams not reality.