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Was Maple Leafs GM Brian Burke’s inaction at the NHL Trade Deadline admirable?

Greg Wyshynski
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My father has played the lottery every week for the last three decades. He wins a little here and a little there, not nearly enough to justify the investment. But he has an unwavering mantra about his habit, borrowed from the New Jersey Lottery's tagline:

"Ya gotta be in it to win it."

That's often how I feel about the NHL Trade Deadline. If you're close to a playoff berth and clearly need a few pieces to solidify that, then ante up, right? Become one of the Final 16, see where it all leads.

The Leafs begin play on Tuesday three points out of the No. 8 seed in the Eastern Conference, although a 2-7-1 streak and systemic problems in goal make the hole seem deeper. The goaltending wasn't addressed at the NHL Trade Deadline; neither was any other part of the lineup.

Said GM Brian Burke in his post-deadline debriefing of the media:

"Panic can't be part of your vocabulary if you're a general manager," he said. "If you want to win a championship, that can't be part of it. Setbacks for 10 days or 12 days, that can't be how you guide the ship. You can't change your course because you have 10 bad days out of 180 or 190 days in the season.

"You can't. And I don't. I still believe that this group can get it back on the rails."

GM Brian Burke, historically the Trade Deadline's most vehement detractor, bristled even harder at this year's extraordinary price tags for players. (And by that we mean a first-round pick for Paul Gaustad.) Yet despite that, Burke also didn't want to be a seller, despite overtures for players ranging from Mikail Grabovski to Luke Schenn.

"Ya gotta be in it to win it," goes the saying. But in Burke's case, there are reasons why not pushing for deadline talent acquisitions was admirable.

Here's JP Nikota of Pension Plan Puppets:

I think I'm in good company when I say that Brian Burke being relatively quiet at the deadline is a good thing for the Leafs. It does, of course, mean that Ron Wilson's head is going to roll if/when this team doesn't make the playoffs. Burke believes in this group, and if Wilson can't take them to at least a first-round exit, I think we all know what's going to happen.

Of course, if they don't make the playoffs … here's Marcus Hondro of Digital Journal:

If they fail to get into the Stanley Cup playoffs, not making a deal at this trade deadline may be the swan song for Brian Burke. Those are the stakes. Burke knows that and could have dealt away the future for a veteran or two. But he has too much integrity, and too much hockey sense. Given the market, the fact he handed the reigns to his players will cause criticism with every loss from hereon in. But he knew that before he took his hand off the trigger.

"It is different here. And I'm not blaming the media or being critical," Burke said Monday. "That's life. It's part of why people love this team. It's the coverage. It's part of the reason why it's so special to play here. But there are times in the year where it's a big millstone."

Dave Feschuk of the Toronto Star on Burke vs. the Milestone:

Call his theory addition by subtraction of distraction. The GM likened the incessant trade rumours that surrounded his club for most of the past couple of months to "a millstone" around his players' necks. He called Toronto "the hardest market to play in from that perspective." He said he and his staff had even talked of instituting a 10-day trade freeze in the lead-up to the deadline to relieve the Leafs of the stresses of TradeCentre. (And as he spoke you could almost see the lightbulb ignite above the heads of the all-sports TV executives who have turned trade talk, or lack thereof, into a mini-industry: Why not have two deadline days every February? Burkie's day followed by everyone else's — ratings gold!)

… If he was essentially absolving his employees of the skid that had seen them fall to 10th place in the East heading into Monday night's action, he was also sending along an implied message to the denizens of the dressing room: Specifically, that the time for excuses has passed. Leaf fans can only hope the head coach will also take the hint.

If the skaters play better unburdened and if Reimer finds some semblance of consistency, the Leafs can make the playoffs. And of they do, then Burke deserves credit for not selling off assets or overpaying for others.

But here's the thing: Even if they don't, Burke has insulated himself from criticism in some ways. It's admirable that he put the responsibility back on the players. It's admirable that he isn't going to move an asset for the future to scrape and claw into the postseason just to save his or Ron Wilson's jobs — despite that being the logical thing to do for the team and its fans.

Above all else, there's the notion that the Leafs could do something dramatic this summer, as the Rick Nash Derby extends to the NHL Draft. That even if this season yet again falls short of a playoff berth, there's still hope on the horizon.

From Jeff Blair of the Globe & Mail:

Burke couched his notions with the caveat that he wanted to make sure his hands weren't tied by imposing his own deadline — in effect, taking his ball and going home, to hell with the rest of you. For that, Leafs Nation ought to take comfort, because Burke's homemade rules too often mitigate the financial clout this organization ought to wield. Really, isn't the point to try and screw over the other guy, not be your brother's keeper?

So, too, is there comfort that Rick Nash is still with the Columbus Blue Jackets because Burke's chances of acquiring the power forward are much greater in the summer than at the deadline. It's going to take three or four high-quality assets to get Nash, who is tailor-made for the Leafs, and putting a package together that addresses all of Columbus's needs is easier in the summer when Burke has time to fill in any gaps that might be created. Besides, if the Leafs continue their slide, Toronto's first-round draft pick this year becomes an even more valuable asset to the Blue Jackets.

The last time the Toronto Maple Leafs appeared in an NHL playoff game was May 4, 2004. Bryan McCabe led the team in ice time. Brian Leetch was a minus-2. Joe Nieuwendyk was at center, seven years before he was named GM of the Dallas Stars. Ed Belfour was in goal, seven years before he was elected to the Hockey Hall of Fame.

The last time the Leafs were in the playoffs, Rick Nash was an NHL sophomore with a career-high 41 goals.

Right now, Burke's inaction is admirable. But it can't last if Nash is available in the summer, and would be willing to become a Leaf. Which, based on his previous decisions to remain anonymous in Columbus, may not be a guarantee.

But we know Burke will be in on it. To win it.

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