In praise of Maple Leafs’ roster demolition crew

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Toronto Maple Leafs President Brendan Shanahan, left, and Lou Lamoriello smile at a news conference to announce Lamoriello has been named the new general manager of the Maple Leafs NHL hockey team in Toronto, Thursday, July 23, 2015. (Galit Rodan/The Canadian Press via AP)
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When Brian Burke was hired as Toronto Maple Leafs general manager in 2008, he stood before two distinct paths. 

One led to a burning city. Total destruction. An inhabitable place in the short term, but one that could be rebuilt from the embers into something glorious.

The other led to a rickety, termite-infested ranch-style home that smelled of sewage and had squatters that wouldn’t leave. He looked at it and said, 'Yes, this might do." He liked the foundation. Maybe he could figure out the squatter thing. Fresh coat of paint, some new sod on the lawn – no need to knock it down and rebuild. Flip this franchise!

And we know which path he took.

"I'm not interested ... in a five-year rebuild like some of these teams have done," said Burke in April 2010. "Maybe because of my age, maybe just because I know it doesn't have to be five years because it wasn't in Anaheim. I like the group that finished the year, I think just on internal improvement we will be better. I think we will be good enough with this group and a couple additions to say in training camp that the playoffs are a reasonable goal."

Of the many miscalculations of the Burke regime, two of the most prominent are displayed here. The first was assuming his experience with the Ducks was indicative of anything. Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry were already in the system when he was hired; ditto Joffrey Lupul, and Bobby Ryan arrived that summer at No. 2 overall. He lucked out on Scott Niedermayer’s desire to play with his brother. He lucked out with Chris Pronger being one-and-done in Edmonton. Toronto was not, nor would ever be, Anaheim.

The second is that while he wasn’t interested in a five-year rebuild, Toronto Maple Leafs fans were. Sure, there can be some debate as to whether MLSE would have been down for this, and hence that’s why Burke opted for quicker fixes. But it’s hard to believe with the cache he had at the time, that wasn’t on the table. For [expletive] sake, they hired a coach for Burke before Burke was hired to hire a coach. That’s respect!

But Burke wasn’t interested in the long game, and the results spoke to that. The Phil Kessel gamble. The Dion Phaneuf acquisition, and subsequent miscasting. The flailing about, trying to slap as much paint on the house as he could instead of calling in the wrecking ball.

He did this while complaining about being handcuffed by toxic contracts with no-move clauses, and by refusing to use all means necessary to fix his cap because of his confusing set of ethics. (“Hey, will take this toxic contract off your hands, Brian?” “SORRY CAN’T IT’S CHRISTMAS WEEK.”)

It’s painful, then, to think about that era and it’s “a little bit pregnant”-style rebuild in contrast to what we’ve seen from Brendan Shanahan and his merry band of scorched-earthers. And it's an indication that some guys talk an impressive game and other guys shock the hockey world with a Dion Phaneuf trade no one saw coming before a few hours prior to the trigger being pulled. 

The Shanahan wrecking crew: Phil Kessel, with $8 million against the cap and at his end in Toronto? Traded. Phaneuf, with $7 million against the cap and miscast on the team since Day 1? Traded. David Clarkson, a mind-numbingly dumb contract ($5.25 million against the cap) and ineffective in Toronto? (Traded, for a guy who will never play again.)

They have nine unrestricted free agents and six restricted ones. We’re still waiting to see how and if they make Joffrey Lupul and recently acquired Milan Michalek disappear.

This is what needed to happen. The idea that Leafs Nation wouldn’t be cool with it is unfounded. They’re in. And even if they don’t totally believe it’s going to work, pessimism being their native tongue, they’re willing to see if it can work.

Shanahan, Lou Lamoriello, Mike Babcock and the brain trust have earned the chance, not only in what they’ve accomplished in the past but with the little signs that they have this thing pointed in the right direction for the future.

Would Burke have made the Phaneuf deal? Of course not. He’s the guy who was on the other side of that kind of deal. A guy who thinks he can win now trades for Phaneuf. A guy with a five-year plan trades Phaneuf. And holds onto lottery picks. And clears out all the cap space he can for Steven Stamkos next season, if the lure of geography, family and fame outweigh the gamble of being the boldest brushstroke on an blank canvas.

Shanahan and his crew had no interest in flipping the house. They wanted to burn it all down and rebuild. While Burke was the embodiment of impatience, they preached patience from the start. And based on what this team could look like for the next three years, everyone involved will need it. Including that kid in Tampa, should he choose to join the fray. 

But it was the only path to take.

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Greg Wyshynski is a writer for Yahoo Sports. Contact him at puckdaddyblog@yahoo.com or find him on Twitter. His book, TAKE YOUR EYE OFF THE PUCK, is available on Amazon and wherever books are sold.