Why Brian Burke had to go, and how his Toronto Maple Leafs legacy can be salvaged

Brian Burke was an outsized personality. A showman. A guy who could open his mouth and fill a thousand notebooks with his candor. He seemed like the perfect star for an entertainment product owned by two massive media companies. But he wasn’t.

In their first major move as owners of the Toronto Maple Leafs, the Rogers and Bell consortium fired Burke after four seasons as general manager. The timing will be criticized, as it happens days before a brief training camp opens and just over a week before the NHL season.

But to not do it now would be to delay the inevitable: Clearly, Brian Burke was not the guy they felt represented what they wanted out of the Leafs, and not the guy they trusted to bring this sorry franchise back into contention.

The Leafs said it wasn’t the product of one incident. “Once you get to a decision like this, it’s only fair to act on it.”

The decision feels both personal and professional.

Burke had become a target of innuendo for the last year, including talk about his marital status that the Toronto Sun felt the need to address. The Toronto media echo chamber bellowed with gossip about his behavior away from the rink. Whether that was character assassination or idle chatter, it was becoming toxic.

As was, one imagines, the relationship between Burke and his new corporate masters. Greg Brady of Sportsnet 590 makes the excellent point that Burke went from carte blanche under the previous owners to facing owners that weren’t in awe of his reputation or ego. Perhaps they saw him as a rumpled relic with a big mouth that didn’t fit in with the polished, controlled corporate culture they envisioned for the team. Maybe they saw him as uncontrollable.

Whether it was a Roberto Luongo deal that was a “hill to die on” or other philosophical differences, the buck no longer stopped with Burke – and certainty not when his contract was nearing the end of its term.

Burke’s moves as general manager can be judged in the short term and, more favorably, in the long term.

The bottom line is that Toronto is the only NHL franchise not to make the playoffs since the last lockout, and Burke had the helm for four seasons. He succeeded in clearing out some dead wood from the previous regime; he stockpiled the Marlies with prospects, some overhyped and some legitimate tentpoles for the future; as new GM Dave Nonis said about the foundation he and Burke’s remaining staff were given: “Years down the road, we’ll see the mark that he’s made.”

He made two trades that will cement his legacy.

The Dion Phaneuf Trade will go down as a steal because the players the Leafs sent to the Calgary Flames aren’t Calgary Flames anymore (save for Stajan) and because Toronto acquired an all-star for what amounted to expendable assets. Yet Phaneuf’s inconsistent play was glaring, and his teams never made the postseason.

The Phil Kessel Trade will be etched on Burke’s tombstone. Sorry, but claiming hindsight shouldn’t apply in evaluating a trade is an excuse. He dealt two number one picks for a B-level star, and those number one picks for the Boston Bruins are Tyler Seguin and Dougie Hamilton. This isn’t to say Kessel isn’t a very good player. But he’ll never be good enough for that freight.

Both of these trades were made on the promise of Burke building a contender. He overpromised. He came in preaching truculence, and his teams lacked it. He came in preaching standards of excellence, and then kept his friend Ron Wilson in a job he should have been out of years earlier than he was.

The trades were bold moves to counterbalance a more meticulous construction. But it was too meticulous. The rules Burke established as to when and why to trade his assets were convoluted, as were his moral stands against certain contracts and free agent statues.

Which is to say that Burke put himself before the team as general manager. Which is one reason he’s no longer general manager.

Brian Burke is a good man. A man who’s honest to a fault. A man whose work for social change has been beyond admirable. A man who soldiered on as the general manager in a pressure-filled market despite losing a child to tragedy. Can any of us fathom that?

Dave Nonis looked as grim as imaginable during the Wednesday presser. Like he lost a mentor, a friend, a father. It’s on him and Randy Carlyle and the rest of Burke’s cabinet to realize the potential Burke claimed the team had. It’s on them to give Brian Burke a legacy beyond four disappointing seasons, countless soundbytes and a job that feels incomplete.

It’s on them to prove that Brian Burke built a winning team.