You’ve got to hand it to that Brian Burke – he sure knows how to assemble a playoff team.

The Toronto Maple Leafs clinched their first playoff berth in seven seasons Saturday night with a 4-1 win over the Ottawa Senators. And while fans in bars along Yonge Street were celebrating players like James Reimer, Nazem Kadri or Joffrey Lupul, few likely raised a glass to acknowledge the man who made it all happen, the architect behind it all: Brian Burke.

Burke was the Leafs’ GM from 2008 until just three days after the NHL lockout ended in January when the Leafs fired him.

Every player but one in the Leafs’ lineup Saturday night was there because Burke put him there. He signed Reimer back in 2008. He drafted Kadri in 2009. And he traded for Lupul in 2011. This team doesn’t just have Burke’s fingerprints all over it, this team is unquestionably all his.

Since taking over from Burke as GM, Dave Nonis has been idle beyond acquiring defenceman Ryan O’Byrne at the trade deadline. Maybe that’s out of respect for Burke’s team-building skills – he can also be credited with the successful blueprint of the Anaheim Ducks and Vancouver Canucks – but most likely, it’s because the framework that Burke put in place didn’t need much beyond time and patience, something Maple Leafs Sports and Entertainment clearly ran out of when giving Burke his walking papers.

Rebuilding a franchise takes time, and when Burke arrived in Toronto in 2008, the Leafs were a mess. Mats Sundin had just abandoned them, Vesa Toskala was their starting goalie, Jason Blake was their top scorer and their minor league cupboard was bare. This wasn’t a just rebuild, it was an overhaul. Five years later and the Leafs have an enviable stockpile of young talent, ample salary cap room and are playoff bound.

Now, this is not to say that everything Burke did was right. It’s no secret that he overpaid for sniper Phil Kessel in his first major transaction as GM, robbing the team of Tyler Seguin’s talents for years to come. His indignant refusal to sign long-term deals left the team to depend on reclamation projects and college signings to fill critical roster spots. And his unwillingness to take things right down to the wood extended the rebuild process by putting the team in perpetual no man’s land – not good enough to make the playoffs but not bad enough to get a top draft pick.

But it was Burke’s refusal to fire his longtime friend, coach Ron Wilson, that was probably his biggest mistake. The fact is, much of Leafs’ success this season is thanks to coach Randy Carlyle who implemented a tough, grinding system that turned a threadbare roster into a top-10 team. Burke hired Carlyle late last year, after the team had fallen out of playoff contention.

And just because the Leafs are in the postseason for the first time in nine years doesn’t mean it’s time to breathe a sigh of relief. A single playoff berth in a lockout-shortened season is a long way from winning the Stanley Cup, and Toronto still has the NHL’s longest streak of championship futility. Tyler Bozak and Clarke MacArthur are unrestricted free agents this summer, and Nonis has to decide what to do with Mikhail Grabovski, Nikolai Kulemin and John-Michael Liles, who have been overpaid passengers on the team bus this season.

So there’s still a lot of work to be done.

But the Leafs are playoff bound for the first time since forever, and credit goes where credit is due: To the guy who was fired because he couldn’t assemble a playoff team.

3 Comments | Add a Comment
It came down to coaching....with the right coach the tools Burke collected over his time proved that he built a playoff contender......his downfall was Wilson (friend) who didn't have what it took to drive this team the way it moved this season.....hats off to you Brian
How much credit should be given to Brian Burke in assembling this playoff squad? Little to none. I get you: This roster has BB's name written all over it, be it Phaneuf, Kadri, Kessel, McClement, etc. But how long was he at the helm for? Five years! You give anyone, even me, five years to rebuild a crappy team into a playoff contender and it gets done. Of course, within those five years BB accumulated players, which now are ripening, but this was bound to happen at some point. It would be like, say the Raptors made the playoffs next year and GM Colangelo gets fired in the off-season. Do you credit him? No- he was given more than enough time to make a competitive team, and now suddenly that their in, you can't give him much credit. Heck, you give anyone a crappy team and tell them they have five years to make the playoffs and even if that team is crap for all those five years, they'll draft enough top five picks to succeed another five years down the road, ie: Edmonton Oilers. Five years of General Managing means five years of transactions as GM. Throughout five years of time, you or I could damn well construct a contender. Now that BB's fruits are finally ripening doesn't mean he deserves credit. This was bound to happen. BB was sent in here to make the playoffs within two to three years. He overstayed his tenure and still failed glamorously. The real credit goes to Randy Carlyle for making this team the tenacious bugger it is today.
MLSE should get down on their collective knees and beg Burke to come back! This was the dumbest firing in Leaf history since Punch Imlach back in 68-69, dumb, stupid and ANAL are not strong enough words-shame on you Tom Anselmi and MLSE--I have 0= NONE respect for you !--and NEVER will no matter what if any success the Leafs may have !--SHAME ON ALL OF YOU!
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