Changing of the Guard

In an unexpected turn of events, Maple Leafs Sports and Entertainment relieved Brian Burke, the acting president and general manager of the Toronto Maple Leafs, of his duties early Tuesday afternoon. The announcement came as a surprise to the NHL world due to the timing—training camps are about to open on January 19—and because Burke still has two more years and $6 million remaining on a six-year contract.

Burke, 57, was hired in Toronto following a successful tenure with the Anaheim Ducks, who won the Stanley Cup in 2007 under his guidance. The expectation was that Burke would repeat that success in Toronto and transform the much-maligned Leafs into a playoffs-contending hockey team. Unfortunately, the results never matched the hype, Burke oversaw four consecutive missed playoff seasons, including a disastrous 29th-place finish in 2010.

Aside from being known for his colourful personality and outreach to the community, Burke will perhaps be best remembered for his trade with the Boston Bruins. At the time, Burke forfeited two first-round draft picks and a second-round pick to procure Phil Kessel from the Bruins, and as fate would have it, those draft picks materialized in the promising young star Tyler Seguin and prospects Dougie Hamilton and Jared Knight. The trade was criticized by fans and media alike, making the strongest impression of Burke’s tenure as manager of the Toronto Maple Leafs in the eyes of many.

When approached for comment, some fans expressed mixed emotions about Burke’s firing.

“Brian Burke was not great by any means, but he deserved at least five years to finish what he started,” says Saif El-Aboudi, a third-year economics student. “Realistically, no general manager could have fixed the Leafs’ mess in under five  years. Brian Burke is no exception.”

Afnan Azam, a first-year accounting student, expressed the opposite view. “Brian Burke did a terrible job with the Leafs,” says Azam. “They are no better off today than when he was hired. The only injustice is that he wasn’t fired sooner. The Kessel trade alone set this franchise back a couple of years.”

MLSE named former assistant general manager Dave Nonis as acting general manager in Burke’s place. Nonis has several years of experience as an understudy to the very same Burke with the Vancouver Canucks, the Anaheim Ducks, and the Maple Leafs, as well as two seasons of managerial experience for the Canucks.

The task will be challenging for Nonis, as the Leafs have missed the post-season in each of the past seven seasons (the only club with that distinction since the last NHL lockout), and are coming from a 26th-place finish from the 2011/12 season. The challenge for Nonis will be to acquire a top-line centre, shore up the goaltending position, and improve a defence that surrendered 3.16 goals per game last season.

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